Two Tunisian socialists based in the UK, Nadim Mahjoub and Shawky Arif, spoke to Solidarity.
Nadim: On 23 January, about 300 people set off in a “Caravan of Liberty” from rural areas, to join demonstrators in Tunis. They quickly grew to 1,000. People from other towns tried to do the same, though some were blocked by the police.
When the protesters arrived in the capital, some of them sat down in front of the Prime Minister’s office. They changed slogans, calling for the overthrow of the government, and the dissolution of the RCD ruling party. Tents have been put up. The organisation that exists there is a combination of grassroots community organisation and left-wing trade unionists.
When general Ben Ammar tried to convince the sit-in to disperse, bottles were apparently thrown at him.
One of the slogans raised widely in the capital is for a constituent assembly. People fear a vacuum, and the possibility that the army will intervene. There are also committees in the neighbourhoods, which began on 14 January to organise self-defence against police terror.
Developments in the workplaces are slower, because the unions are split. Some people want to continue the strikes, others to go back. In Sfax, the second biggest city, the union bureaucracy has been forced by pressure from below to call a regional general strike for 26 January. A few other areas are going to follow, but we don’t know what will happen in the capital.
On 24 January there was a successful strike in primary education. The government wanted to reopen the schools and universities bit by bit, but in Sfax they were completely closed, and in Tunis the strike was also a success. I thought the movement would die out, but it seems that it is continuing. It’s not as big as 14 or 15 January, but there are still many thousands on the streets demanding the overthrow of the government.
No, no one is raising the slogan of a workers’ government. Even the leftist groups around the January 14 Front are not raising that, but focusing on the dissolution of the regime and a constituent assembly. From there they will draw up a programme. The economic and social demands which the movement began with have not been so prominent in recent days — the focus is on the regime itself. The January 14 people talk about a coalition of all democrats or “progressive people”, a real democracy in Tunisia.
The Communist Workers’ Party of Tunisia is Stalinist and influenced by two-stage theory, sure; but they are also influenced by the fact that people are not really at the level of calling for a workers’ government. The January 14 Front is to the left of the movement, certainly to the left of prominent human rights activists of the type who want to be candidates for president but don’t have any economic programme at all.
The Islamists have not participated in any serious way — perhaps a few individuals, but that’s it. In the 1990s they claimed they had majority support, but they have not been visible in this movement. Now, if you read an interview in the Financial Times with Rached Ghannouchi, the “spiritual leader” in exile of Ennahda, the largest Islamist party, he says they are for the revolution and a democratic Tunisia. Some on the left advocate an alliance on the basis that these people are different from other Islamists, and don’t advocate a caliphate. They may not raise it now, but if they take power it will be a different matter — otherwise they would not be Islamists.
There are two levels of support the Tunisian movement needs. The first is to see and hear of people on the streets in other countries, so there is an internationalisation and not just an Arabisation of the movement. The other level is direct support for the unions in Tunisia. If people are worried about giving money to the union bureaucracy, there are channels for getting money directly to the rank-and-file.
• Nadim is a supporter of the Tunisia Solidarity campaign: tunisiasolidarity.wordpress.com
Shawky: Some of Ben Ali’s former ministers have resigned from the ex-ruling party, to give people the impression they are clean, but it has not stopped the protests. People want a clean break with the old regime, including its personnel.
The interim government, under the pressure of strikes, is reshuffling its cabinet again. Perhaps they will get rid of three or four ministers, but the protests will continue.
On 23 January a Liberation Caravan left from Sibi Bouzid began their march to Tunis. They planned to walk all the way, but were given lifts by the bus drivers. When they arrived they sat in at the prime minister’s office, with slogans like “We won’t go home till you get out of our lives”.
To give you a picture of Mohamed Ghannouchi [the prime minister, who happens to share the name of the Islamist leader mentioned above] — workers know him as the former head of the government’s privatisation committee. Since 1987, when Ben Ali came to power, 219 firms have been either totally or partially privatised — with job cuts, more pressure, more exploitation and so on. Workers resisted, too, sometimes with strikes.
The protesters feel that the current “unity government” is not expressing their revolutionary ambitions. It is just a change of personnel.
One interesting development is the creation of the January 14 Front, which unites various leftist and Arab nationalist groups to call for the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution, the abolition of the political police, investigations into corruption, torture and looting of the country’s wealth, and general democratic rights.
It also demands nationalisation measures, including the seizure of the assets of the oligarchy, privatised companies and strategic economic sectors. Lastly, it opposes normalisation with the Zionist enemy, and supports the liberation movements in Palestine and around the world.