Maite Mola and Claudia Haydt
Maite Mola and Claudia Haydt took part in a European Left delegation to Tunisia from February 10th to 13th and tell how the political and social situation is being dealt after the fall of Ben Ali.
Was it a revolution or an uprising which occurred in December and January in Tunisia? The people of Tunisia talk of revolt or revolution and if they give it a name at all, then they call it the ‘Sidi Bouzid revolt’ in reference to the city where it all began. ‘The revolution gives us the opportunity to dream,’ – the words of the Tunisian writer and former dissident, Taoufik Ben Brik. Whether the revolution is over and the priority should now be a transition to normality, or whether the Revolution – still far from complete – is a process, are questions which divide the various left-wing groups in Tunis.
Unity rather than division
In Tunisia in mid February, 24 political parties were officially registered; many of them are new and virtually unknown. It is still quite difficult to reliably forecast which one will play central role in the new Tunisia. If you ask people on the road about left parties, usually the PCOT (Communist Workers’ Party) is among the first they mention. Its leader Hamma Hammami has spent long years in prison and in hiding and is therefore respected by people from different political backgrounds for his consistent commitment to freedom and democracy. In contrast to other left-wing opposition parties PCOT was never officially recognised. The PCOT remained an active political force under Ben Ali’s regime and in spite of massive repression, imprisonment and torture, many members still remain active. As a result, they constituted an important force during the Tunisian Revolution. PCOT consciously worked together with various opposition forces, whether centre-left, liberal or Islamic. Only through this co-operation, was it possible to get rid of Ben Ali, who for years set the various opposition groups against one another. By unduly exaggerating the ‘fear of Islamists,’ Ben Ali convinced not only Western countries that his regime would be the lesser evil, but he also managed to paralyse parts of the Tunisian opposition. The ‘ruling minority’ could only stay in power by fragmenting and inciting them against each other, according to Hammami’s analysis.
The PCOT like other parties also started immediately after the fall of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to build new party structures. Everyone expects moderate success for the PCOT at the next parliamentary elections. The question of power in Tunisia however will be decided within a centre-left political spectrum.
Social issues play a central role
Besides the Islamic Ennahda there are also liberal and conservative parties, with the latter currently playing a minor role in the restoration of the political landscape. The revolution was sparked primarily by social issues, therefore those who have put social justice at the centre of their programmes, have the best chance of succeeding. Therefore many parties from the extreme left to centre left (including Ennahda) have reached a broad consensus. The fight against unemployment is a top priority, the same goes for regional development, the end of privatisation – especially in the area of public services – and reducing the cost of living. Also on the agenda is the dismissal of the presidential system and the formation of a parliamentary democracy.
There is disagreement on the issue of co-operation with the transitional government. Some hold that there is a risk of losing everything, if some amount of normality and stability isn’t established very rapidly and they see it as the responsibility of left-wing parties and organisations to join the interim government and thus participate in the control of the political system. This position is represented by the reform communist Party Ettajdid that belonged to the ‘legal opposition’ under the rule of Ben Ali and is currently represented by two members in the Tunisian Parliament. Tunisia’s Minister for Education and Research Ahmed Brahim is a member of Ettajdid.
Betrayal of the revolution?
The former dissident, Ben Brik sees the participation of government as collaboration, even betrayal of the revolution. He fears that by allowing left ‘constructive cooperation’ (Democratic Progressive Party / PDP) or by ‘assuming responsibility’ (Ettajdid) they facilitate the survival of the old system. However the situation and the signals from the population are not so clear and therefore other parties from the centre-left, which also have been marginalised under Ben Ali, like the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), also see the need for involvement in the interim government. The PDP is the first Tunisian party with a female chairperson, Maya Jribi. The éminence grise of the party is their former chairman and lawyer Ahmed Chebbi Néjib. He is named among the possible presidential candidates. The PDP is one of the most popular centre-left parties. Chebbi is the Minister for Regional Development, a post which is very important for the under-developed parts of Tunisia. Among the first projects in this area include the restoration and expansion of the rail network in rural areas. Opposition parties, even the ones which had been officially recognised, had a tough time in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. They could hardly advertise their positions; leaflets were usually confiscated or could not even be printed. Besides Ettajdid and PDP, an activist of the Pirate Party is involved in the interim government as State Secretary for Youth and Sports. But even if the Internet and social media played a central role in the Tunisian revolution, the Pirate Party – at least until now – has no discernable mass basis.
The Trade Unions in Tunisia
The Trade Union UGTT was founded in 1946; its first secretary general was killed in 1952. There are about 500,000 members. They are not communists, but also not anti-communist. It is a mass organisation that got its current structure at the time of Ben Ali’s rule.
In the days before the revolution, the shift of power within the UGTT, regional organisations and the unions, the rank and file of this union demanded the resignation of the current leadership, accusing them of compromise with the government and corruption.
Although the UGTT is not part of the government they support the interim government and accept the reform committees formed by the government, but they believe they must be political, not technical. They demand that the government move more quickly on negotiations to end the social tensions that have shaken the country. Tunisia needs a radical reform of labour laws and initiatives to support the unemployed.
The UGTT launched a campaign in Dakar in the WSF for cancellation of Tunisia’s international debt. They criticise the head of the Bank of Tunisia, who has announced that Tunisia will meet half of its public debt by April. These funds are needed to push priority projects, like creating jobs and reducing unemployment among young people. They propose a model of society based on decent work, without neo-liberal economics, without corruption and further privatisation and the restoration of the rule of law.
The Power of the Street
The ‘Forum for Labour and Freedom’ (FDTL), also a party from the centre-left, has Mustapha Ben Jaafar as its leader. He’s a renowned physician that initially declared as willing to take over the Ministry of Health on January 17th. When he realised, however, how many RCD officials held key positions in that government, he resigned immediately – along with most of the representatives of the trade union UGTT, which also briefly held several ministerial posts. Massive protests on the streets of Tunisia, urged many former RCD members to leave government. As a consequence no more representatives of the RCD are currently in the front row of the Government. However, many officials and experts from the second row of the old system are holding important administrative positions, their loyalties are not always clear. PDP and Ettajdid accuse Ben Chaafar, of having left the government to have a better basis for the presidential elections. In fact, Ben Chaafar is a promising candidate.
Which one of the different power strategies is going to be successful, will be shown by the elections that will probably take place in the middle of July. Tunisia currently has a ‘government on probation’. Every political action is observed very closely by the population. They welcome that finally the anti-torture convention is ratified, that freedom of the press rules and that there are small improvements in social security. The real political power in Tunisia is – thankfully – still with the people, and the people have lost their fear. It is especially this power of the street, which ensures that at least the general policy direction is as the people would like it to be. The transitional government knows very well that everything that is perceived as a ‘betrayal of the revolution’ will lead to massive protests.
1 March 2011