Tunisia: Big manoeuvres at the top are met with profound distrust among the masses

Popular Front’s alliance with ‘Nidaa Tounes’ provokes big turmoil on the left

Serge Jordan, CWI

In the aftermath of the cold murder of the left Nasserite leader Mohamed Brahmi on 25 July, a cascade of mass protests shook every corner of Tunisia. A mass general strike rocked the country on Friday 26, and a ‘sit-in’ has been taking place since then in front of the Constituent Assembly building, at the Bardo square in Tunis. It has been joined subsequently by many protesters from the interior regions marching on the capital, determined to have a decisive showdown with the powers-that-be.

On the 6 August, the biggest anti-government demo since Brahmi’s murder took place, with estimates putting the number of protestors as high as 450,000. The movement “Tamarrod” (“Rebellion”) claims to have collected more than 1.7 million signatures (roughly 10% of the population) for the ousting of the Islamist Ennahda-led government of the ‘Troika’. And in the poverty-stricken areas of the interior of the country, mobilisations have been accompanied with the development of various local revolutionary power structures: in some areas, protestors have occupied town halls and set up self-run committees as a direct challenge to Ennahda’s rule.

Secularists versus Islamists?

Contrary to what has been claimed by many media commentators, the main contenders of the battle have not been simply “Islamists” versus “secularists”. Presenting things exclusively in that way tends to feed the manoeuvring of the elite, an elite for whose interests are to try and conceal the burning class issues from the political map.

Of course, it would be wrong to deny the mass anger connected to the religious bigotry of those in power and the growing reactionary attacks and threats being perpetrated under the name of political Islam. The encouragement of religious fundamentalism and the porous borders between Ennahda and some violent Salafist groups has undoubtedly fuelled the rage of many Tunisian people against the present regime.

As each day passing brings new stories of attacks at the borders, bomb threats and assassination plots, an important preoccupation has become the security situation of the country and the threat of terrorist violence.

The recent governmental declarations officially characterising the hardline Salafist movement ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ as a “terrorist organisation” must be understood in this context: it is an attempt by Ennahda’s leadership to push blame away from itself, by displaying a certain dose of political pragmatism towards the opposition movement and the mood in the street, in a desperate move to try and restore credibility, even if it is by alienating some of its potential allies and part of its own ultra-conservative base.

Socialists have opposed consistently the growing trend of religious fundamentalism, used as a divide-and-rule instrument by those in power, which represent a serious threat to freedom of speech and to basic democratic rights, especially women’s rights.

The protest to defend women’s rights called by the UGTT trade union on the 13 August was attended by a huge crowd of tens of thousands of people demanding the fall of the government, showing that many protesters correctly integrate the struggle to defend women rights into the broader fightback against the present Islamist-led government.

But if these issues have indisputably played a role, the core of the present struggle goes straight back to the initial aspirations of the 2010-2011 revolution, which have simply not been met.

A survey conducted in early 2011 said that 78% of Tunisian youth thought that the economic situation would improve over the next few years, which is a far cry from the current reality. For a big part of the population indeed, the growing difficulties of daily life, the constant rise of food prices, the dire absence of jobs for the youth, the devastating state of public infrastructure, the low wages and horrendous working conditions in the factories, the continuing marginalisation of the poor Western and Southern regions, etc, are the underlying ‘fuel’ of the present rage against the government.

In the Northern town of Menzel Bourguiba, 4,000 workers were recently sacked overnight after the closure of their shoe factory. This is the type of concern that those in power have been absolutely incapable of solving.

The issues involved here relate to who holds economic power in society, and whose class interests are being served. In that sense, any government functioning within the framework of the profit-driven system of capitalism (whether it is Ennahda, ‘secular’ parties, a so-called ‘technocratic cabinet’, a government of ‘national unity’, of ‘national competences or any other formula) would deliver nothing else than just ‘more of the same’, and even worse, for the masses of the people.

The supposedly ‘secular’ character of Ben Ali’s regime, for instance, did not prevent it destroying people’s lives or crushing any opposition to its rule, or smashing living standards of working people. It was eventually overthrown by an unprecedented revolutionary movement.

Are ‘the enemies of our enemies’ our friends?

Despite having initially suffered serious blows by the revolution, the old regime remnants, the ex-RCD milieus and networks, as well as the bourgeois families who filled their pockets during Ben Ali’s days, have not disappeared. They are still represented inside the state apparatus, in many sectors of the economy, in the media, in many parties, organisations and associations. They have also connections, among others, within the Algerian regime, and links with imperialist powers.

The clearest political heritage of the old regime is the party ‘Nidda Tounes’ (‘Call for Tunisia’), backbone of the coalition ‘Union for Tunisia’.

Nidaa Tounes, led by the 87-year-old political dinosaur Beji Caied Essebsi (a leading figure during the dictatorship of Habib Bourguiba, who led the country from 1957 to 1987) is essentially a political shelter for the dictatorship’s old guard: elements linked to the bureaucracy that constituted the backbone of the former ruling party the RCD, groups with connections inside the ‘deep state’, rich capitalists whose business interests conflict with Ennahdha’s strategy, coupled with all sorts of nostalgic ex-regime parasites who used to exploit power under the old regime through a wide system of patronage.

However, it is precisely this party and its political partners (all adamantly pro-market), that the leadership of the Tunisian Left has decided to broker a political deal, as if the popular momentum against Ennahda, which had reached a near-to boiling point over the last few weeks, was making these forces suddenly more acceptable or friendly to the people’s revolution.

Indeed, after the killing of Mohamed Brahmi, a political alliance was set up by the leadership of the left-wing ‘Popular Front’ coalition with the ‘Union for Tunisia’ coalition, as well as with other right-wing forces (including the main bosses’ federation, the UTICA).

This agreement gave birth to the creation of the ‘National Salvation Front’, whose proclaimed common goal is to campaign for the formation of a government of “national salvation”, led by a so-called “independent national figure”.

This alliance has poured cold water on the revolutionary desires of many, at the basis of the Popular Front and among many Tunisian youth and workers. This agreement came as no real surprise to the CWI. We have warned for a long time, by analysing the character and the evolution of the Popular Front’s orientation, of the mistaken ‘two-stages’ strategy of its leaders: ie the idea of firstly consolidating ‘democracy’ and the achievement of a ‘civilian state’, while postponing the socialist tasks of the revolution to an indeterminate future.

The recent agreement is the culmination point of such a wrong approach. Uniting against the common Islamist enemy, seen as a threat to ‘democracy’, has become the line of justification for merging with a completely reactionary force, armed with a neoliberal and anti-working class agenda no different from its Islamist opponents.

This agreement, de facto, subordinates the interests of the working class and the poor – who constitute the majority of the militant forces of the Popular Front – to forces motivated by a resolutely pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist agenda.

Arguing that a deal of that character is “necessary” for the movement to be “sufficiently strong” if one wants to bring down the present government, as some have argued, does not hold true.

The magnificent movement following Brahmi’s death has seen since a significant decline; the strike wave has essentially run out, and the class composition of the street protests has also changed, as they have been partially taken over by pro-bourgeois forces, disguised for the occasion by the leaders of the Left, as on the side of the people.

A certain nostalgia for the regime of Bourguiba has also made a comeback, with a layer of essentially middle class protesters, encouraged by Nidaa Tounes and the likes, displaying portraits of the former autocrat in the streets.

This does not mean for that matter that the movement is dead. The situation remains extremely volatile, and the angry mood which exists among wide layers of Tunisian people against the general state of affairs, both socially and politically, could quickly erupt again in mass outbursts.

But there is no doubt that the alliance between the Left and Nidaa Tounes and Co has, for the time being, undermined the mass movement and the confidence of workers and youth in what they were actually fighting for.

The “Erhal” (“Get lost”) campaign was launched by the National Salvation Front about two weeks ago with the aim of removing from office regional and local governors, administrators, and heads of public institutions appointed under the Ennahdha-led government. Essebsi at end of August argued against this campaign, saying that he instead “supports the notion of the state”.

This shows once again that Essebsi and his forces are pursuing an opposite agenda to the revolutionary movement, using their position to try and break across the movement’s dynamic, which had seen several examples of dual power structures being built in various localities, and local Ennahda-appointed officials chased out by ordinary people.

The ironic side of the story is that recently it has been revealed that secret talks have taken place in Paris between Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, and Essebsi himself, in an attempt to find a common agreement between the two parties. In all likelihood, they have been pushed by imperialist countries to defuse the present crisis and avoid a prolonged political stalemate that could exacerbate the tensions, and potentially give rise to new revolutionary upsurges from the masses themselves.

The hundreds of thousands of young people, workers and poor who have flooded the streets to show their rage at the ruling power in the last month realise now that all this energy could be used for the purpose of concocting a rotten deal between the two main forces of the counter-revolution, sharing the dividends between themselves on the back of the movement, and all this, incredibly, with the tacit agreement of the leadership of the Left parties.

Turmoil on the Left

It is only around the demands of the working class and the oppressed, those who have made the revolution and share a common interest in seeing it to a conclusion, that a viable political alternative can be built.

It is for this reason that rank-and-file activists, trade unionists, and other supporters of the left had enthusiastically welcomed the initial objectives of the setting up of the Popular Front: bringing together all those expressing the need for a strong, independent revolutionary pole of attraction, explicitly distinctive in its goals from both Ennahda’s rule and from the various neo-liberal and old regime-forces in the opposition.

For the same reason, the embracement, by the Popular Front’s leaders, of the ‘National Salvation Front’ is now being met with sharp criticism and increasing turmoil in the ranks of the Popular Front and in virtually all of its constituent parties.

A state of semi-revolt is brewing up in some of these parties. According to an activist from the youth wing of the ‘Parti des Travailleurs’ (Workers’ Party, ex-PCOT), quoted in an article published on the activist website nawaat.org: “Within our party, the bulk of the youth is against this alliance.”

In the same article a member of the UGET student union, and sympathiser of the Popular Front, also argues against an alliance “with liberals, who have a project opposed to ours and who are led by people who occupied important posts under Bourguiba and Ben Ali.”

Another Popular Front supporter explains: “This alliance is a mistake on a strategic plane and a betrayal of the principles of the left. Nidaa Tounes is a right-wing party on economic and social issues, as is Ennahda, and it is a recycling place for previous RCD people.”

The LGO, the party in which the CWI supporters have been active for a while, has not been immunised by these developments. Part of the leadership of the LGO has been leaning to the orientation pursued by the Popular Front’s main leaders, dropping their previous demand for a “workers and popular government around the UGTT”, and arguing instead in the framework of the “national salvation government” proposal put forward by the Popular Front’s leadership.

On the 3 August, the LGO produced a statement, published on the USFI ‘International Viewpoint’ website without the slightest criticism, arguing that: “In order to address the present economic and social conditions, it is necessary to combat the factors causing the financial haemorrhage of the state and to increase state resources, in order to make it possible for a government of national salvation to implement its programme, basing itself essentially on our own national capacities…”

Incredibly, it goes as far as demanding to: “Submit state officials and the way the state works to a strict austerity plan” and “A voluntary solidarity contribution from workers, representing one day’s pay, for six months”!

From the first day anti-governmental demonstrations erupted following Brahmi’s murder, CWI supporters were the first to come out with leaflets challenging this orientation, refusing any political deal with forces defending capitalism; demanding an open-ended general strike, and arguing for the struggle to structure itself into mass and democratically-elected action committees all over the country, to build the basis for a “revolutionary government of workers, youth, the unemployed and the poor, supported by the UGTT and activists in the Popular Front, the Unemployed Union (UDC) and social movements”.

In collaboration with others, the CWI supporters in Tunisia are now engaged in a process of a re-composition on the left, standing for a new left opposition platform, open to all, that can organise dissident activists, workers and young people, around a programme in line with the genuine aspirations of the majority of Tunisian people.

The mass movement needs urgently to build its own independent political organisation. This can only be done by uncompromisingly rejecting any deal with alien class forces such as the coalition around Nidaa Tounes.

Acting in line with such forces can only lead to defeat. Appeals to ‘sacrifices’ for the supposed common good, under the banner of “national salvation” or of any similar facade, will actually pave the way for new savage attacks on the rights and living conditions of the Tunisian workers and poor masses, and roll back the revolution for the benefit of the capitalist class.

Everything indicates that a ‘hot autumn’ of strikes and social protests is looming in Tunisia. Even if struggles between political clans may, in certain circumstances, take the upper hand over social struggles and disguise them to an extent, the latter cannot be suppressed.

The working classes who have come out to demand the fall of the government are full of bitterness, and will come back onto the scene to demand their share, whatever it costs, and whatever the face of a new, post-Ennahda government.

The left must be prepared to give a decisive lead to those layers who will turn back to struggle in the coming weeks and months, and provide them will a clear strategy on how they can achieve their own government.

Otherwise, reactionary forces will step into the vacuum, and be provided with opportunities to present themselves as being either the best defenders of faith, or of the so-called ‘national interest’, making use of classless rhetoric of one sort or another in order to divert the original aims of the revolution and to impose their counter-revolutionary agenda.

The unfolding events in Egypt serve as a warning: the unprecedented revolutionary explosion of 30 June against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood was diverted by the military, due to the lack of a political alternative in the workers’ movement. The ex-President of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), Kamal Abu Eita, accepted a post as Minister for Manpower and Immigration in the new post-Morsi regime.

Once appointed, he proclaimed: “Workers who were champions of the strike under the previous regime should now become champions of production”!

The mistakes of some on the left in Egypt to give credence to the military takeover have been used to politically disarm the workers and to attack their struggles. Meanwhile, Mubarak’s ‘deep state’, key former regime remnants, the old internal security services and the ex-ruling party NDP’s entrenched patronage network, are clearly resurgent.

Leadership and programme

Neither Ennahda and its partners of the Troika, nor the ‘Union for Tunisia’, nor any of the Islamist variations of a Salafist or Jihadist type, has any serious programme of economic transformation to offer the masses. All are using different ideological cards to sanctify a society based on considerable material privileges being granted to a handful of people at the top, while the majority has to accept a downward spiral towards the bottom.

The Marxist left must offer a path to cut across the ‘religious/non-religious’ divisions, through the building of a common struggle of all working and poor people, aimed at overthrowing capitalism. Such a struggle should integrate the defence of equal political rights, including the right of everybody to practice one’s religion, or none, without interference from the state.

The two historic anti-governmental mass general strikes which have already taken place in Tunisia this year, among many other examples, have shown that there is an undisputable determination by the mass of the working class, the youth and the poor, to fight for revolutionary change – and, to start with, to bring down the present government – if ever they were given a proper lead. But that is precisely where the problem lies.

As an article from Reuters has correctly said: “The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) has neither tanks nor military ambitions, but it does boast an army of a million members that dwarfs the political parties now at loggerheads in Tunis.”

But the graphic image of Tunisians chanting “the people want the fall of the National Constituent Assembly”, while the UGTT was officially arguing for it to be maintained, has highlighted the evident contrast between the ‘solutions’ offered by the national leadership of the UGTT and the mood prevailing in the streets.

Rather than playing the embarrassing and futile role of ‘conciliators’ between the ruling party and the opposition in order to re-establish ‘national dialogue’, as the UGTT main leaders have attempted to do in the last few weeks, they could have used, and still could use, the massive influential strength of their union to paralyse the country overnight and brush aside the hated government and Constituent Assembly alike. This is what the CWI supporters in Tunisia have been arguing for.

Such a bold move, displaying the full power of the organised working class, coupled with the setting up of democratically-elected committees of action throughout the country, could provide the basis for challenging and overthrowing the existing power, and to replace it with a revolutionary Constituent Assembly – a real Parliament of the downtrodden masses, based on the power and organisation of the revolutionary movement everywhere in society.

A revolutionary government of the workers, the youth and the poor could then crown this process, starting the transformation of society according to the desires of the majority, taking over the commanding heights of the economy from the hands of big business and elaborating a rationally organised, socialist plan of production, responding to the social needs of all.

Rebuilding a united front, on the basis of an independent working class perspective and armed with a genuine socialist and internationalist programme, is the only way towards revolutionary victory.