Ongoing democracy protests in Tunisia, which continued beyond the January 14 overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to demand a government free from the former ruling party, were hit by a wave of vicious repression in late January.
The protesters from the “caravan of liberation”, which had camped for five days outside Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s offices in Tunis, were driven off the streets on January 29.
The caravan was made up of demonstrators from rural and regional towns where unemployment and poverty are worst. The protesters were supported by donations of food and mattresses by ordinary Tunisians.
They had refused to leave until Ghannouchi — also part of the hated Ben Ali government — stepped down.
Tunisian riot police stormed the camp, firing tear gas to disperse the crowd before destroying the campsite and the protesters' possessions.
The attack came two days after Ghannouchi announced the removal of 12 ministers, who were former members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), from the government. The move was a bid to appease protesters.
A statement issued by three education-sector unions said the security forces were also joined by militias made up of RCD supporters. The militias assaulted and chased protesters through the district.
The statement said that “the illegitimate hijacker government aims, through bloody repressive means”, to end the revolution and return to dictatorial rule. The unions declared their support for the demand to dissolve the RCD.
Militant teachers have been a key sector of the revolutionary movement. Teachers organised a general strike after the post-Ben Ali “unity government” — which was rejected by the movement due to the domination of former RCD members — opened schools that had been shut down in support of the revolution.
Education workers and schools have been among the key targets of violent repression.
Reports have surfaced of gangs loyal to Ben Ali roaming the streets of Tunisian towns and cities. Tunisia’s official news agency reported an attack on January 31 on a youth centre and other buildings in the central city of Kasserine.
Hundreds rallied in the city the next day, demanding that the government take action against those responsible for the looting.
A spokesperson for the local “regional committee for the defence of the revolution”, Mohamed Drbali, said police were nowhere to be seen during the February 1 protest.
The executive board of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which had initially declared its support for Ghannouchi after his January 27 purge, declared its “categorical rejection of recourse to security solutions” in a February 1 statement, Tunisia Online News said that day.
The UGTT called for a full investigation to determine who was responsible for the repression.
However, the UGTT had reportedly been in the process of negotiating with the protesters for a meeting with the prime minister in return for ending protests.
The latest repression follows brutal violence against the pro-democracy uprising in early January that forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. A United Nations report has found at least 219 people had been killed and more than 500 injured by security forces in the anti-Ben Ali protests, the Irish Times said on February 2.
Bacre Ndiaye, head of the UN human rights mission in Tunis, said: “The Tunisian state was a police state. There were abuses by the security apparatus and it has to be profoundly reformed.”
Unionists have alleged that much of the looting and violence that occurred during the protests that brought down Ben Ali was carried out by security forces loyal to the RCD.
The new interior minister Farhat Rajhi said these forces conspired to “thwart democracy”. Rajhi announced the arrest of his predecessor, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, in response.
Under popular pressure, the government has announced reforms to the security forces.
The government has also announced purges of top officials associated with the RCD, including 34 police and security officials. It has also sacked all 24 of the country’s provincial governors.
After the January 27 purge, only three former RCD members remain in the government: Ghannouchi and two junior ministers.
Assets belonging to Ben Ali and his family have been seized or frozen in Tunisia and internationally. European Union authorities have agreed to seize his private assets.
French authorities seized a private jet belonging to the Mabrouk family, which includes Ben Ali’s son-in-law.
Ghannouchi announced that he would retire at the next elections. He insisted that he remain in power during the transitional period in order to “restore the national economy’s pace” and “reassure investors”.
Channel4.com reported on January 23 that a proposal was put forward by three political figures seeking to mediate between the Ghannouchi government and opposition groups to dissolve parliament and establish a 50-member Jami’yyah Ta’sisiyyah (Transitional Council).
This council would run the country until elections in 2012.
This body, dubbed the “council of wise men”, would be populated by “elder statespeople” involved in the movement for democracy and independence in Tunisia. It would be headed by lawyer and founder of the opposition Movement of Social Democrats party, Ahmed Mestiri, who is one of the figures pushing the proposal.
However, the January 14 Front, a coalition of left groups banned under Ben Ali’s rule, issued a call on January 28 for a National Congress for the Protection of the Revolution to dissolve the parliament instead.
The congress would be made up of political parties, unions, human rights groups and other organisations that support “the demands of the people’s revolution and struggle to achieve them”; representatives from the popular grass roots councils and committees that have been “formed at the initiative of the masses” across the country; and representatives of Tunisian pro-democracy groups abroad.
It also called for the immediate repeal of repressive laws and the dismantling of the RCD — key demands of the popular movement.