Thursday, 30 January 2014

Tunisia: Opposition prepares for 'Week of Rage'

Catching up my articles from August. Originally published in Green Left Weekly.

In a move aimed at demobilising and splitting the opposition, the leaders of Tunisia's governing party, Ennahda, reached out to Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the secular ex-regime party Nidaa Tounes. It was part of a bid to resolve the political crisis that has crippled the north African nation for weeks.

In a meeting in Paris on August 15, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi offered Essebsi the presidency and four ministries in a new government if his party supported resuming the suspended National Constituent Assembly (NCA), reported Tunisia Live.

“Leaders of Ennahdha are seeking alliances with Nidaa Tounes and are discrediting the Popular Front,” Ammar Amrousia, a leader of the Popular Front coalition of left parties, said in response.

Business News Tunisia said the Popular Front and General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) were potentially being excluded from the deal ― and that Ennahda was under pressure from the European Union and United States to strike such a compromise.

Secular parties
Since the assassination of Popular Front figure Mohammed Brahmi on July 25, some of the non-government secular parties have been united in the streets with the Popular Front and other left groups, demanding the NCA be dissolved and a non-partisan government to oversee immediate elections.

The move by Ennahda, the senior government partner after the NCA elections in October 2011, could weaken the support base of the protests and divide the broader masses who have mobilised in recent weeks against the government.

Nidaa is the largest party in the Union for Tunisia alliance of secular democratic parties, which brings together social democratic party al-Massar, the al-Joumhouri (Republican) Party and ex-regime figures such as Essebsi.

Although Nidaa has not thrown its full weight behind the protests in the Tunis suburb of Bardo, al-Massar and al-Joumhouri have both done so.

Essebsi, who acted as prime minister in the interim government after the overthrow of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, pressure the Union for Tunisia to withdraw from street protests if such a deal is struck.

Mohsen Marzouk, a member of the Nidaa Tounes executive committee, told Al Jazeera that the party would “not accept any one-on-one deal with Ennahdha and that discussions must continue between all parties, including civil society as represented by the UGTT”. However, another high-level meeting between the parties will reportedly take place this week.

Seeking a more direct route to end the crisis, a group of NCA members opposing the body's suspension began circulating a petition of no confidence in the speaker, Mustafa Ben Jafaar, reported Tunisia Live on August 21. Ben Jafaar, from “troika” government partner Ettakatol, suspended the NCA on August 6 in the face of huge protests.

On August 22 Tunisia Live said Ennahda had accepted a UGTT proposal for “national dialogue”. However, Ennahda statements reaffirmed the party wouldn't accept the demand for the NCA's dissolution, and that the Troika government would continue working until “national consensus” was reached.

Bardo sit-in
While these movers were taking place, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh told state news agency TAP that “there will be no hesitation or retreat against those who, by terrorism, anarchy or rebellion, jeopardize the state institutions,” after the opposition declared another week of protests, dubbed the “Week of Rage”, would begin on August 24.

In response, Hamma Hammami, Worker's Party and Popular Front leader, told AFP that “we have not called for violence... just for peaceful sit-ins to get rid of the coalition in power and of officials appointed for their political affiliations and not their competence”.

The ongoing “sit-in of departure” (rahil in Arabic) at the NCA's chambers in Bardo has continued; after the police removed tents from the site at August 9, the camp was rebuilt on August 16. An outdoor cinema was set up at the site on August 21.

Since Brahmi's murder, the Popular Front and Nidaa Tounes have both joined a “National Salvation Front” demanding a technocratic government to oversee fresh elections and both have supported the "rahil" sit-in and major protests against the regime.

But friction between the two groups before the most recent maneuvers by Ennahda has been notable; the Front declared both the Troika and Nidaa Tounes “extreme” and declared it would seek to break their duopoly in the political sphere when it first formed in October last year.

Nonetheless, in June journalist Yosr Dridi accused the Popular Front of “anti-revolutionary conversion” by seeking a closer alliance with Nidaa Tounes against Ennahda.

Debate over law
A key point separating the Popular Front and Nidaa is the draft Law for the Protection of the Revolution, being drawn up by the government to put to the NCA.

The draft law would ban figures from Ben Ali's regime from holding public office for a period of time. But Ennahda quickly signalled it would be willing to compromise on the law once the current crisis began.

“Canceling or delaying it is possible as long as it comes through dialogue with all blocs in the Constituent Assembly, because there are some that back the law,” Ghannouchi told Reuters on August 5.

“Another possibility is to tighten it so that fewer people are included, or so the time period is shorter,” he said.

It is widely believed that Nidaa, which includes many ex-regime figures, is opposed to the law. In response to the negotiations between Ennahda and Nidaa, Ammar Amrousia said: “If Nidaa Tounes is exempted from the law for the protection of the revolution, they will reach an agreement with Ennahdha."

The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution ― pro-Ennahda militias ― have announced they will turn on the party at election time if the law is not passed. “If Ennahdha decides to cancel the law, we will wage a war against it,” LPR press attache Nasreddine Wazfa told Tunisia Live on August 6.

Although more attention by the government has been focused on Salafists ― the suspect identified in the murder of Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, Aboubaker al-Hakim, belongs to Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia ― the Leagues for Protection of the Revolution also has a track record of using violence.

Many suspect the Leagues killed Belaid. The Leagues also led an assault on the headquarters of the UGTT in December.

Popular Front leader Mongi Rahoui (who succeeded Chokri Belaid as head of the Democratic Patriots' Movement) told Al Jazeera that he and other Front leaders were still being intimidated in a campaign by Ennahda supporters to silence dissent.

“When a party manoeuvres to position itself to control the administration, and to create an atmosphere of violence so that opposition politicians will be afraid, we cannot remain inactive,” he told AJE on August 20.

Both Rahoui and Besma Khalfaoui have reported threatening vehicles frequently approaching their homes, forcing them to relocate daily.

Perhaps aimed at addressing criticism of the security situation, the military has launched an offensive against radical Islamist groups centred on Chaambi Mountain, on the border with Algeria. Eight soldiers were killed at the site just days after Brahmi's assassination, on July 29.

And in the hours before Brahmi's funeral, a bomb was planted beneath a police car in the La Goulette suburb of Tunis. After several hours, police arrested two suspects, reportedly linked to a “radical religious group”.

Worsening economic situation
The assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi, and the climate of political crisis following, have only partly impacted on broader social struggles.

The number of strikes has declined significantly from last year. Ministry of Social Affairs figures indicate 9% of Tunisian workers took part in strikes during the first half of 2013, compared to 41% last year. But the number of days lost rose by 37%, increased by the general strikes called in response to Belaid's murder.

Other strikes have also taken up political issues as well as basic wages and conditions. A week-long strike in the port of Rades by employees of the Tunisian Company for Stevedoring and Handling erupted over comments by the company's CEO that privatisation of the port was on the agenda in early July.

The strike was called off after reassurances from the ministry of transport that was not the case ― as well as the resignation of the CEO.

Recent strikes have also been waged by shopkeepers in the Medina of Tunis against monopolisation. Earlier in the year, taxi drivers struck to protest fuel price rises.

The economic and political issues that drove Tunisians to revolt under Ben Ali's rule remain challenges for the Troika. A recent Gallup poll showing approval of national leadership fell dramatically from 60% in May to 23% by March 2013.

The poll also found that levels of anxiety over economic issues remain high, with 71% reporting it is a bad time to find work and 41% reporting it is difficult to get by on their household income.

So long as Tunisians remain under these economic pressures, then the demands of the January 14 revolution ― work, dignity and freedom ― remain unfulfilled.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Tunisia: Daily Protests as Assembly Crisis Grows

Catching up from August. Originally published in Green Left Weekly.

Daily protests are demanding the dissolution of Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in the wake the assassination of Popular Front leader Mohamed Brahmi.

In the face of the protests, leader of the Ettakatol party and speaker of the NCA Mustafa Ben Jafaar announced the suspension of the body on August 6.

However, the main party of government, Islamist group Ennahda, has refused to concede the dissolution of the NCA, in which it holds the largest number of seats. Ennahda now looks to have negotiated the NCA's resumption.

In response to the weeks of protests, as well as the recent ouster of President Mohamad Morsi in Egypt, thousands of Ennahda supporters rallied on August 2 at Kasbah square. They demanded, "no to coups, yes to elections".

Reuters reported Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi told the demonstration: "Tunisia is a candle whose revolution lit up the world but now they (the opposition) want to put it out by trying to set off a coup."

Estimates of attendance vary wildly. Ennahda officials said 150,000 attended, while media website Al-Monitor reported 12,000–15,000.

On the other hand, independant analysis by a variety of sources suggests at least 95,000 joined the anti-government demonstration on August 6. the day marked the six-month anniversary of the asssassination of antoher Popular Front leader, Chokri Belaid.

The widows of Belaid and Brahmi, Basma Khalfaoui and Mbarka Brahmi, took part in the march from Bab Saadoun to Bardo, where the NCA building is located. The Popular Front began planning for the anniversary march to demand justice for Belaid before Brahmi was assassinated on July 25.

After the major rally, the "sit-in of dissolution" at Bardo continued, joined by opposition delegates from the NCA who have resigned in protest. The protest has continued nightly since Brahmi's funeral.

On August 9, police removed tents set up at the site, prompting activists involved in the Tunisian "Tamarod" movement taking part in the sit-in to declare a hunger strike on August 10.

A few days later, rival pro- and anti-government rallies marked National Women's Day, commemmorating the passage of landmark laws affirming the rights of women in 1956 under Habib Bourguiba, dictator before Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

And on this occasion, numbers reported at the anti-government protest at Bardo — up to 150,000, according to Al-Monitor — hugely outweighed the few thousand joining the pro-government protest at Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

The opposition rally heard from feminist activists, Popular Front leader Hamma Hammami, and Khalfaoui and Brahmi — who both accused Ennahda of responsibility for their husband's deaths.

Mbarka Brahmi quoted from Sahbi Attig, Ennahda member of parliament, who in early July called for "trampling in the streets those who rebelled against legitimacy".

The suspension of the NCA, which is well overdue to deliver a draft constitution, was announced as a way to sidestep the pressure of the protests — but the mass turn-out on National Women's Day indicates frustration with the Islamists in government has coalesced.

In response to the situation, Ghannounchi told La Presse on August 8: "There are excessive demands at protests for the dissolution of the elected government ... In democratic regimes, protests don't change governments."

Ennahda has described Ben Jaffar's unilateral decision to suspend the NCA as a coup, which has been echoed by the network of pro-Ennahda militias known as the "Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution", who called their members to protest it.

However, after only a week, delegates from the governing "troika" of Ennahda, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (CPR), as well as the Wafa movement, announced they had agreed to resume their work in the NCA from August 19.

Whether or not the National Salvation Front, which brings together the radical Popular Front along with centrist democratic forces and the secular ex-regime party, Nidaa Tounes, will hold together in the face of the resumption of the NCA remains to be seen.

The left is taking risks in uniting with such forces in order to galvanise broad opposition to Ennahda.
Yet the sit-in continues to gain momentum. Blogger Lina Ben Mhenni reported that those taking part began rebuilding tents on August 16 as a new contingent from Sousse joined the demonstration, signalling intent to hold strong in the demands for justice.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Tunisia: Assassination throws government into chaos

Reposted from July. Originally published in Green Left Weekly.

For the second time in six months, Tunisia's government has been thrown into chaos after the killing of a left-wing leader. Mohamed Brahmi, a leader of Tunisia's Popular Front, was assassinated on July 25.

Brahmi was attacked by two men on motorbike outside his home in Ariana, a suburb of Tunis, and was shot 11 times. He was taken to Mahmoud Matri Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

His widow M'barka told radio station Mosaique FM: “He died as a martyr to his opinion and position”, Tunisia Live said. She added that “he was killed by a terrorist gang”.

Brahmi was an activist for many years under Ben Ali's dictatorship. He was born in the impoverished interior town of Sidi Bouzid, where the uprising that overthrew Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 began. After the 2011 uprising, he founded the Popular Movement.

On April 9, the Popular Movement joined with the Popular Front, which is made up of a large variety of radical left groups involved in the trade union and other social movements.

On July 7, Brahmi resigned from the Popular Movement after it rescinded the decision to join the front.

In the aftermath of the killing, interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou announced that the same gun used to kill Brahmi had been used to assassinate Chokri Belaid six months earlier.

Belaid, also a Popular Front leader was killed in similar circumstances, gunned down by assailants on motorbikes outside his home on February 6.

Ben Jeddou named a suspect, Islamic fundamnetalist Boubacar Hakim, also wanted on suspicion of smuggling weapons from Libya. He has been connected with the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia.

However, the group denied responsibility in a Facebook statement, calling Brahmi's killing "a political assassination, part of attempts to push the country toward chaos".

Brahmi's murder "only profits remnants of the former regime and lackeys of the Zionists and Crusaders", it said.

The response to the killing was swift, with protests breaking out across the country. A general strike on July 26 shut down banks, shops and flights, as thousands rallied in Tunis to join Brahmi's funeral procession.

Demonstrations took place around the country, with a police station and offices of the ruling Ennahda party set on fire in Siliana.

Popular Front activist Mohamed Mofti was killed in the southern mining town of Gafsa after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister. Tear gas was also used to disperse protests demanding the dissolution of the government in Tunis, Sidi Bouzid, Siliana, Montastir and Sfax.

Protesters in Tunis converged on the Bardo square, location of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) that is overdue to release a new draft constitution. The Islamist Ennahda party, in a "troika" alliance with two secular parties, holds a majority in the NCA, and the interim government.

Protesters converged on the Bardo on July 26 to demand the dissolution of the Ennahda-led government and the NCA.

They were met by a smaller number of government supporters who rallied across the square, chanting "there's no room for Sisi" — comparing the calls to dissolve the government to the recent ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by the military.

Despite their similar positions as post-dictatorship democracies with Islamist governments, comparisons between the current events to those in Egypt, where large liberal secular protests preceded the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government by the military, are weak at best.

A "Tunisian Tamarod" movement, demanding a constitution which would represent all Tunisians and not only Islamists, gained 200,000 signatures in June, but was unable to make a big impact or mobilise strong support on the streets.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the ex-regime Tunisia Call Party, used the opportunity to demand the dissolution of the NCA. He also criticised a proposed law that would extend a ban on ex-regime figures taking office.

This demand has also been raised by the Popular Front. In an interview with International Viewpoint, leader of the socialist Workers' Left League Alhelm Belhadj said: "The government has failed ... it was put in place to manage a transitional period of one year. Eighteen months have gone by and the essential tasks for which it was there, those of the Constitution, have not been fulfilled."

The Popular Front had proposed to launch a big national protest movement for justice for Chokri Belaid on August 6, before Brahmi's murder.

The anti-government sit-in at the Bardo was dispersed on July 27. The police claimed they were intervening to prevent violence between the two camps in the square after a spate of "stone throwing".

Thousands of anti-government protesters resumed their "Sit-in of Departure" on July 28, where they remained until August 2.

Sixty-five members of the NCA have withdrawn from the body in protest; several have been taking part in the sit-in.

Ennahda spokespeople have announced they are willing to discuss forming a government of national unity, but refuse to discuss dissolving the NCA.

Friday, 17 January 2014


I haven't posted anything since September, for which I apologise. After taking a step back from activism and the Socialist Alliance last year and spending a while dealing with depression and re-centring my life, I've certainly been writing less articles. But truth be told, after getting excited by Amanda Fucking Palmer reading my blog post about why she should boycott Israel, the fact that she went ahead and broke the boycott made me question putting my personal opinions out into the world to be crushed, or worse, ignored. And that feeling made me feel foolish; the issues I write about and care about are so much bigger than me and my ego. But there you go.

I have picked up some of my creative writing again in the last few months, but I'll save that for elsewhere. I do have a couple of old Green Left articles which haven't been put up yet, which I'll catch up on shortly; I've also got a couple more ideas which will be coming out soon. So look forward to that ;)

Also, we made 12,000 pageviews since then. Much slower than if I'd been posting, but it's nice to know people are still reading this :)