Strikes, fatwas and repression

Submitted by Matthew on 16 February, 2011 - 12:03

The Tunisian Ministry of Defence has asked all reservists to report to barracks from 16 February. That may indicate a crackdown against the bubbling workers’ movement is being prepared by the transitional government.

In Tunisia, class struggle is continuing. Strikes and protests are breaking out in many different sectors of the economy as groups of workers take advantage of the relative political freedoms.

On 13 February, the new Tunisian foreign minister, Ahmed Ounaies, resigned following strikes by workers in the ministry. The strikes were sparked by Ounais’ complimentary remarks about the French foreign minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. It was Alliot-Marie who suggested that French specially-trained riot police should be sent to prop up the old regime.

Workers in Tunisian bakeries are due to start a strike to demand better pay, pensions and rights at work. Bakery workers played an important role in the revolution, maintaining food distribution, often working unpaid, under extremely dangerous circumstances.

In the headquarters of the Gafsa Phosphate Company in Tunis, 50 young workers are staging an indefinite sit-in to demand measures to alleviate unemployment in the Gafsa mining basin. There are 17,000 unemployed in Gafsa, a traditionally industrially militant area where recent protests forced its corrupt governor to leave office in an armoured car. The 50 occupiers allege high-level corruption in the Gafsa Phosphate Company and in the relevant ministry.

While this wave of strikes is taking place, it is unclear how or whether workers’ organisations are developing to co-ordinate these fights and elaborate a political programme for the their movement.

A new trade union federation has been set up to rival the long-established UGTT, a real union movement, though a bureaucratic and conservative one. This new union, the CGTT, describes itself as being in favour of “social dialogue” and promises to “not sideline enterprise, like the UGTT does”.

Tunisia has finally ratified the international convention against torture; benefits for the long-term unemployed have been agreed; and there is ongoing public debate about the nature of the new constitution.

Bahrain

Bahrain, a chain of 30 islands off the Saudi Arabian coast, is inhabited by 800,000 people. Facing the threat of protests, the country’s rulers have attempted to buy-off trouble by awarding the equivalent of over US$2000 to every Bahraini family.

However on Monday 14 February security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse dozens of protesters in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. One person is reported to have died.

The King and the elite in Bahrain are Sunni; 70% of the population are Shia Muslims who face unemployment and discrimination.

The state became a form of constitutional monarchy in 2002. Elections in October 2010 gave supporters of the country’s Sunni government a slight majority in the 40-member lower house of parliament. A reactionary Shia opposition party, al-Wifaq, took 18 seats.

In the run up to the election oppositionists were rounded up. 250 Shia activists were detained, some on terrorism charges.

The lower house, the Council of Representatives, has restricted powers. The upper house — or Shura Council — all of whose members are appointed by the royal family, can (and does) over rule the lower house.

Saudi Arabia

State-sponsored clerics have issued fatwas against the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and forbidden any repeat in Saudi Arabia. The king has supported Mubarak as a pro-Western, anti-Iranian ally.

But many Saudis will support the rebellions and oppose Saudi Arabia offering refuge to former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali. They do so for radically differing reasons. Liberals support the democratic upheavals; religious reactionaries see opportunities for Islamist parties in Tunisia and Egypt and oppose Ben Ali as a secular leader.

Algeria

On Saturday 12 February, the Algerian government deployed 30,000 riot police to (sucessfully) disperse a demonstration called by the opposition umbrella group National Co-ordination for Change and Democracy (CNCD).

Many young Algerians attempted to stay in Algiers’ 1 May Square overnight, but they appear to have been unsuccessful. The CNCD met afterwards and announced another demonstration for Saturday 19 February. Estimates of numbers at the demonstration stretch from 250 (from the regime) to 5,000 (organisers).

Under an emergency law in effect since 1992, demonstrations are banned in Algeria. The regime says it will repeal that law “soon”.

West Bank and Gaza

Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regime in Gaza have suppressed demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution.

The Fatah-led regime in the West Bank openly supported Hosni Mubarak until the end. Demonstrations for Tunisia and Egypt were stopped from happening in January, and on 2 February the Palestinian Authority’s EU-trained Special Police Force violently dispersed a small demo in Ramallah.

However, on 7 February a larger protest, led by the Palestinian left parties and including several prominent Fatah members, went ahead, and there were protests in other West Bank towns.

Perhaps more surprisingly given the links of Hamas to the Muslim Brotherhood and the position of Iran — which is presenting the Egyptian uprising as the first stage of the Islamic Revolution — Hamas was until recently hostile to the movement in Egypt, or at least did not support it.

On 31 January the Gaza authorities broke up a demonstration in Gaza City, arresting six women and making them sign pledges not to take part in authorised protests.

Both Fatah and Hamas fear the spread of working-class and popular unrest into Palestine.

Since the fall of Mubarak, Hamas has changed line, hailing the Egyptian revolution and allowing demonstrations for the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, in what seems to be an embryonic campaign for the tearing up of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Socialists should support the opening of the border, naturally, but oppose agitation for war between Egypt and Israel. Our priority must be solidarity with the left and labour movement — in Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.

Yemen

In Yemen the beleaguered President Ali Abdallah Saleh is attempting to force an end to protests that demand his resignation, using state forces and groups of thugs to attack the opposition.

On Monday 14 February several thousand protesters gathered in the capital Sanaa chanting: “After Mubarak, it’s Ali’s turn”. The protests are growing in size.

Supporters of the president, armed with traditional Yemeni knives, broken glass, and sticks attacked the demonstrators.

The protests in the capital have been organised by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The JMP is an alliance of leftist, secular liberal, nationalist and Islamist groups and has been in existence for most of the past decade.

The programmes of the JMP’s constituent elements do not match up. And in addition the leaderships of key groups are also divided. For example, the Yemeni Socialist Party is split over whether and to what extent to align with the demands of the Southern Movement (al-Harak), the grassroots grouping agitating for greater autonomy for the southern provinces and, increasingly, secession.

Islah, the largest of the Islamist parties in the JMP, is split along ideological lines (which also appears as a generational divide) over, among other issues, the role of women in the party.

The JMP has styled itself as a very different type of opposition to the armed struggle which erupts periodically in the north of Yemen, led by Shia tribesmen or al-Qaeda which is active too. JMP protesters have adopted pink as their colour and their rallies have been orderly and peaceful. (MERIP report, 9 February).

Some formal concessions have been won from the long-ruling President. He has promised not to change the constitution so he can rule for life, and that his son will not inherit his position. However he has reneged on promises before.

It is possible that Saleh will ride these protests out, forcing the opposition to back down or he will buy sections of it off. However, if he does go then according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, there are three possibilities: an orderly transition to democracy, with the proportional representation favoured by the opposition; the fragmentation of Yemen; a military coup and the possible secession of the southern part of Yemen.

Half of Yemen’s 23 million people live below the poverty line. Unemployment is at nearly 40%; the country is running out of oil and water, and corruption is rampant. Illiteracy stands at over 50%.

• Reporting by Mark Osborn, Ed Maltby and Sacha Ismail.

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