Tunisia: Left group holds first legal congress in 25 years


The Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (PCOT) held the first session of its first party congress as a legal organisation on July 22. The congress was held over July 22-24 in Tunis.

It featured foreign delegates and guests from Europe, Latin America and the Arab world. Estimates of attendees ranged from 1700 to 2000 people.

PCOT leader Hamma Hammami gave a speech in which he defended the party from accusations of involvement in violence.

He lobbed indirect attacks against “the forces of regression”, which can be seen as the Islamist party an-Nahda as well as the transitional regime formed after the January 14 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The transitional authorities have accused the PCOT of being “extremists” stoking recent unrest.

Hammami urged party members and supporters to register to vote in the October constituent assembly elections and stressed the need for ongoing efforts to reach the “objectives of the revolution”.

He described the overthrow of Ben Ali as “a revolution of the people not by a coup”. Hammami praised the role of Tunisian women in the January uprising and said the Tunisian people deserved full political equality.

The congress began with a moment of silence for Tunisians who died in the uprising. Musicians playing the socialist anthem “The International” and other songs were sung by Rym al-Banna, draped in Tunisian and Palestinian flags.

Chants from attendees (which rhyme in Arabic) included: “Bread! Freedom! National Dignity!”, “The people want a new revolution!” and “The people want the liberation of Palestine!”.

During one of the sessions, the party’s leaders (Hammami and others) considered changing the party’s name to leave out the word “Communist”.

Various Tunisian commentators have noted that although the party has a strong core support and enjoys relatively strong credibility with certain parts of the public, it nevertheless suffers from its identification with communism.

Many Tunisians associate communism with obsolescence, authoritarianism and atheism. The “atheism” association is particularly relevant because it exposes the party to attacks from Islamist groups and is seen as a disadvantage compared with other leftist parties not identified with the same label and not seen as being hostile to religion.

Tunisian news reports said no decision was reached as to whether to change the party’s name.

This points to something noted by blogger and commentator on the Arab world Issandr El Amrani in a recent interview: most Arab societies are relatively conservative in religious and cultural terms.

Even in a place such as Tunisia, where many people consider themselves secular, there is a stigma attached to atheism.

On the other hand, many Tunisians are left-leaning. Of those Tunisians who have made up their minds, a relatively large proportion have told pollsters they intend to vote for left of centre parties in the constituent assembly elections.

The PCOT polls relatively well, but usually comes in after more moderate democratic socialist parties, who themselves are outdone by an-Nahda (whose share of the vote is usually between 25% and 30%).

The PCOT’s website and literature describes its attitude to religion and the relationship between religion and politics in great detail. It explicitly spells out its views on secularism, national and Arabic identiy, the hijab (hijab-wearing women are often found at PCOT rallies), women’s rights and a variety of other topics.

Many of them are combative polemics, engaging with the arguments of prominent Tunisian Islamists. The party’s position on religion is well known it fits into the same broad category as most other leftist parties in Tunisia that are hoping to protect secular principles in the drafting of the new constitution.

Many Tunisians are sympathetic on this front, but there are also many people who might otherwise be sympathetic to their platform that are put off by the PCOT’s stance on this issue.

The party’s recent communiques have tried to remind people that the PCOT respects religious freedom and that as communists they are not against religion per se.

Elements of the Tunisian middle class are also less excited about the PCOT’s call for “continuing revolution” and are more interested in re-establishing “normalcy”.

The PCOT has been active in recent protests that have turned violent. The PCOT and its allies blame forces associated with the Ben Ali regime and the security forces for the violence. But many Tunisians are put off by the PCOT’s radicalism.

The stigma attached to the PCOT simply for calling themselves “communists” may be as strong if not stronger than their reputation related to secularism. An Al Jazeera Arabic report on the party convention reflected this, quoting journalists who seemed to mock the party’s communist identification.

These supposed handicaps aside, the party benefits from the reputation of its leaders, many of who were detained and tortured under Ben Ali. It is also respected for its active and well-known participation in the January uprising.

The PCOT also has a straightforward and popular stance on Palestine and the Arab uprisings. Like most Tunisian parties, the PCOT is relatively small. But it has built a relatively strong organisational infrastructure, with branches spread out across the country.

It has an efficient propaganda and communications network, using Facebook and other social media. It also has a vibrant youth and student component and older networks built over its many years of clandestine activism.

The PCOT’s political acumen will be put to the test in the October elections.

[Abridged from Themoornextdoor.wordpress.com.]