Oussama, a militant from the Ligue Gauche des Ouvriers, a Trotskyist organisation in Tunisia, spoke to Workers' Liberty about the recent spate of Islamist violence in Tunisia.
Tell us about the recent Islamist violence in Tunisia.
Oussama: “It started last Sunday 26 June. There was a film showing, “No God No Master”, a documentary, at a cinema in central Tunis. Before it was shown at the Afric'Art cinema, there was a big demonstration of Salafists and Islamists with placards and slogans proclaiming God is Great and Salafist slogans, calling the director an enemy of God and so on. The Afric'Art cinema is situated 20 metres from the Interior Ministry. And in the adjacent street there is the police Prefecture. In front of the cinema there is always a bus full of riot police. And on that day, there were policemen in front of the cinema. Suddenly they were withdrawn, and the Salafists attacked the cinema, destroyed the doors; they beat the boss of the cinema; they attacked cinemagoers; they ripped up the screen and destroyed the projection room.
On Monday 27 June, the police intervened and arrested 7 people. There was a demonstration of Salafists and Hizb-ut-Tahrir in front of the court to demand the liberation of their friends; there was a group of lawyers nearby and the Salafists attacked the lawyers.
The third event was the meeting of the PCOT on Friday in Ettadamen [a working-class district of Tunis]. The Salafist waited armed with knives and iron bars, even with gas. They attacked the hall, with the activists in there and citizens of Ettadamen. They beat people.
I have seen policemen taking part in these demonstrations, in civilian clothes. They appeared to be leading the demonstrations sometimes. This is new. A few weeks ago there were no such acts but these last two weeks we have seen attacks by Hizb-ut-Tahrir [a racist, hard-right Islamist group] and Salafists. These attacks took place under the eyes of the forces of order and the government let them happen. The police let them do it. I personally believe that this was the work of the political police. Their fingerprints are on these actions, they bear the mark of the police. They want to direct people to fight among themselves. They want this period to be a war between Islamists and progressives. They want to take attention away from economic problems, corruption and so on. These fights are taking up all the front-page space in the press of Tunisia. It is a sort of masquerade. The political police are manipulating the Islamists. It is known that HT has worked with the police in the past. They want to create a kind of war, a kind of chaos.
After the last round of police repression, the situation calmed down, but we see today that there is a resurgence of violence which is in no-one’s interest, and a manipulation of violence into a struggle between Islamists and progressives, a struggle over the Arab-Muslim identity of Tunisia – a question which is frankly secondary in our situation. They want to exasperate the people and make them say, “we have had enough of violence, we are tired of politics”. It is the same scenario as in the end of the 1980s when the Islamists turned on the left. We must be vigilant.
Nahda has denounced the violence at the cinema and the attack on the PCOT.
The “Modernist, Progressive Pole” has suffered similar attacks to the PCOT, at the hands of Salafists.
What is the relation between Nahda and the Salafists/HT?
Oussama: Officially there is no relation or alliance between Nahda and the Salafists. But in reality HT do the dirty work for Nahda. Nahda does not want to be seen to demonstrate against a film, it would look bad to demonstrate against the freedom of expression. But there is always HT and the Salafists; so Nahda can rely on them. Contrariwise, Nahda is the strongest political Islamist party, so the Salafists and HT will vote for the Nahda list. There is an implicit relationship, they belong to the same current of thought. There is a Salafist current within Nahda as well. The relationship is complex but they belong to the same political family.
What is the programme of the Islamists?
Oussama: I don’t see a clear programme coming from the Salafists. Few parties have a clear programme. There are two broad projects vis a vis the shape that the new constitution should take – one progressive, democratic, of the left; and there is the conservative project, which is also an Islamist project. Those who want to inscribe Islamic values in the new constition. But the ultimate project of the Islamists is the Islamic state. They want to go step by step. I don’t think they believe in democracy as an end in itself. We believe in democracy as an end in itself. They see democracy as a stage in the movement towards an Islamic state. Their leader Ghannouchi has written that “democracy is an obligatory stage in the establishment of an Islamic state” – that’s the programme that they have.
If the battles with the Islamists are secondary questions, what are the primary questions?
Oussama: For me the question of primary importance is to arrest and try all those who were involved in the old regime. Torture, breaches of human rights, stealing public money, all that – there are many guilty of these crimes who are still working. There are many who threaten and torture prisoners who are still working in their old jobs in government. We need a great purge of all the elements of the old regime. Justice must be served – those who killed demonstrators, who killed our martyrs, they have not been tried. We have expelled a dictator, and we are beginning his trial not with charges of murder or anything like that, they are starting his trial by charging him with taking drugs. They are mocking the people.
The second priority is the democratic transition. Democratic transition is threatened today. The counter-revolution is still there. We see things like the Salafist attacks, and an act of arson in a prison recently. There is still no equitable distribution of the riches, so any real democratic transition will threaten those who are rich and in control of the wealth. The rich will prefer chaos to democratic transition. And it is down to us to fight to defend the democratic transition and drive through a fundamental and complete change in our system of governance, in our economic system, in the nature of our economic development.