Tunisia: ‘People’s power’ ousts dictator

Issue 

See also:
Egyptian protesters take to the streets (inc. vidoes)
Tunisia: Arab rulers shake in fear
Statements from unions in Tunisia and internationally
More detailed coverage at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

After 23 years of dictatorial rule, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to resign and flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14 due to a mass uprising.

The uprising began on December 17 in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid with an act of individual desperation.

Mohammed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old graduate who earned his living as an unlicensed fruit vendor. After being abused and humiliated by police who confiscated his fruit cart, Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and self-immolated in front of local government offices.

This extreme statement against poverty, lack of opportunity and state brutality ignited protests that spread nationally, despite police shooting protesters with tear gas and live ammunition.

By December 27, protests had erupted in the capital, Tunis. Bouazizi died from his injuries on January 4.

However, his dramatic protest had catalysed a movement that, less than a month later, overthrew the regime.

The movement harnessed the discontent that had been rising against decades of military rule, corruption and poverty.

International Monetary Fund-imposed economic policies had created “economic growth” (i.e. rising profits) for Western investors, and fantastic wealth for the president, his wife and her family but led to falling living standards and high unemployment and underemployment for most Tunisians.

The global financial crisis accelerated the fall in living standards.

Discontent was also fuelled by Wikileaks’ release in December of classified cables from the US embassy in Tunis. The cables showed the US, an ally of the regime, was well aware of the situation in Tunisia.

“Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” read a July 2009 cable released by the Guardian on December 7.

“They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power.

“And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family … Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.”

The leaked cables also showed that despite this, the US supported Ben Ali, a “war on terror” ally, regardless.

“We cannot write off Tunisia. We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here …

“Moreover, we need to increase mutual understanding to help repair the image of the United States and secure greater cooperation on our many regional challenges.

“The United States needs help in this region to promote our values and policies. Tunisia is one place where, in time, we might find it …

“We would speak to the Tunisians very clearly and at a very high level about our concerns regarding Tunisia's democracy and human rights practices, but dial back the public criticism.”

France also supported the regime, offering to send police on the eve of Ben Alli’s overthrow.

Ben Ali went on national television on December 28 to denounce the protests as “unacceptable” and warn Tunisians that the government response would be “firm”.

Repression intensified. Officially, police killed 74 protesters during the uprising. But UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told AFP on January 20 that the real death toll could be more than 100.

On January 6, at least six bloggers were arrested, including Tunisian Pirate Party activists Slah Eddine Kchouk, Slim Amamou and Azyz Amamy.

Popular rapper “El General” (Hamada Ben-Amor) was also arrested for releasing a song on YouTube titled: “President, Your People are Dying.”

Hamma Hammami, leader of the banned Tunisian Workers' Communist Party (PCOT) was arrested on 12 January. All have since been released.

The repression only fuelled the uprising. At first, unemployed and underemployed youth spearheaded the protests. But by the end of December the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) was playing a central role.

As Tunisians from all walks of life joined the protests, Ben Ali desperately changed tactics. On January 13, he announced economic and political reforms and promised he would not seek reelection in 2014.

He made another appeal on January 14, this time promising elections within six months. But this failed to stop the protests growing and he fled Tunisia that evening.

“The fear is gone, the people have put away their fear," feminist activist Sana Ben Achour told the January 14 Guardian. “I've been waiting 20 years for that day.”

US support for Ben Ali was based on the notion that his regime was a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

However, the movement that overthrew Ben Ali made no religious demands. It began as a protest against unemployment and inflation, and soon became a struggle for democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and an end to the regime.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and parliamentary speaker Fouad Mebazaa set up a “Government of National Unity” on January 17.

However, despite three UGTT leaders and some other oppositionists (including the Pirate Party’s Slim Amamou) being given cabinet posts, all powerful positions remained with Ben Ali’s party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD).

The UGTT ministers resigned from the government on January 18 and protests have continued. Now, a main demand of the protesters is to exclude the RCD from the government.

The new government has legalised parties banned under Ben Ali, released 1800 political prisoners and allowed a free press. The BBC said on January 21 that “journalists have kicked out editors who were handpicked by the old regime”.

However, these reforms have not satisfied the protesters any more than the announcements by RCD ministers that they had resigned from the party.

The UGTT has called for a new government with no links to the old regime.

The three main parties that were illegal under Ben Ali (and excluded from the “unity” government) — the PCOT, the Islamic Hizb an-Nahda and the nationalist Congress for the Republic — have made similar demands.

The three parties have worked in an anti-dictatorship alliance since 2005.

PCOT leader Hammami said on January 15: “All forces which played an effective and crucial role in toppling the dictator, whether political, trade unionist, human rights, or cultural, whether organised or otherwise, are, alongside the masses, to be involved in drawing Tunisia's future and cannot be represented by any other figure or body in any negotiations or communications with the government.”

Hizb an-Nahda has called for “a Constitutional Council which represents all political tendencies and civil society institutions such as trade unions, the Association of Lawyers, and representative bodies of unemployed graduates who played an important role in the revolution, with the aim of building a democratic constitution for a parliamentary system that distributes and de-centralises power on the widest scale possible”.

The ex-RCD led “unity” government seems intent on holding onto power but Tunisian protesters continue to defy police violence.

The January 19 British Independent said that, unlike the police, the Tunisian army had refused orders to use live fire against protesters in the previous weeks.

The army also fought against elite police units loyal to the ousted president and helped organise civilians to do likewise (although the army has also sought to stop civilians acquiring firearms).

The army has so far remained loyal to the new “unity” government. But there are signs of growing solidarity between rank-and-file soldiers and protesters.

Al Jazeera news report on a "Caravan of liberation", mass protests that descended on the interim prime minister's office to demand he and all figures from the old regime ("the whole gang") resign. A woman on the street told Al Jazeera: "This is to show the people and the whole world that what you see is is a revolution, not an uprising or a coup. It is a revolution of the poor and the martyrs."

"On January 18, UGTT workers at STAR, one of the country’s main insurance companies, went on strike and expelled the company’s CEO, Abdelkarim Merdassi, in protest at his links with the Trabelsi clan. This video captured the extraordinary moment when the workers physically expelled him from his office while singing the national anthem." (www.marxist.com .) This process has been repeated at other major companies and media outlets by TUnisian workers.

Democracy Now! talks to Cairo-based political analyst Issandr El Amrani on the “first revolution in an Arab nation for decades”.

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