Tunisia: Mass protests to deepen revolution

Demonstrators watch as the army pulls down signage of the former ruling RCD party from the top of RCD headquarters, January 20.

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“This is a message to the people and the whole world that what you see is a revolution, not an uprising or a coup,” a woman told Al-Jazeera on January 23. She was among people from across Tunisia who descended on the capital and surrounded Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s residence.

“It is a revolution of the poor and the martyrs."

On January 27, Ghannouchi, the leader of the national unity government, announced that 12 ministers linked to the former ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) would be replaced by independent figures in an effort to appease the largest protest movement in Tunisia’s recent history.

The movement that overthrew Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 has remained on the streets. Mass protests are demanding all members (and recently resigned members) of Ben Ali’s RCD party be thrown out of the government and for policies to fight the country’s crippling unemployment.

Since Ben Ali’s overthrow, a key demand of the movement has been the establishment of a government with no ties to the old regime.

After Ben Ali’s overthrow, a unity government was formed that included former opposition parties — but only parties that were legal under the dictatorship. RCD ministers remained in control of the government.

Protesters took direct action and occupied and ransacked RCD offices in more than 30 towns and cities throughout the country.

In some big companies, workers occupied their workplace and physically ejected managers tied to the RCD regime. In media outlets, journalists have overturned their pro-regime editors.

This has led to the unity government ministers announcing their resignation from the former ruling party.

However, this has not demobilised the movement. Ongoing protests have called for all former members of the party to be removed from office, including Ghannouchi.

A “liberation caravan” of hundreds of rural Tunisians arrived in the capital Tunis on January 23 and surrounded Ghannouchi’s offices. Protesters tore through barbed wire and overwhelmed police.

The caravan set off from impoverished rural towns including Menzel Bouzaiane, in the same province as Sidi Bouzid. This was the town where the protest movement was sparked by a desperate act of self-immolation by a street vendor whose cart was confiscated by police in December.

Residents of the capital city showed their support for the caravan, donating stacks of old mattresses and bags of food so participants could camp at the site of ongoing demonstrations.

On January 27, protesters broke through police barricades around Ghannouchi’s office. Caravan members have pledged to camp out until the “unity” government is dissolved.

The camp was joined by students — who played a leading role in initiating the movement — as well as schoolteachers and university lecturers, an estimated 90% of whom went on strike on January 24, AFP reported.

Retail workers have also launched strikes. There have also been reports on social networking site Twitter of police going on strike.

The movement has exposed deep divisions between the Tunisian police forces — largely loyal to Ben Ali and the RCD — and the military, which has refused orders to fire on protesters and has often intervened to prevent police violence.

Solidarity between rank-and-file soldiers and protesters has been evident. The New York Times said on January 24 that soldiers on the street praised the protesters for ridding the country of corruption.

The army’s withdrawal from positions defending the capital in the last days of Ben Ali’s rule is considered a decisive factor in his overthrow.

Rachid Ammar, the chief of the general staff of the Tunisian army, fronted protests on January 24 to quell violence after clashes with police, pledging: “The Army will protect the revolution.”

However, Ammar argued against removing the government, declaring: “The revolution of the youth could be lost and could be exploited by those who call for a vacuum.”

The army’s defence of the revolution has made Ammar one of the most popular public figures in Tunisia. However, despite his call, protesters have not dispersed or abandoned their demand for a new government.

Since the upsurge of popular protest began in late December, Tunisia’s umbrella union organisation, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), has organised general strikes and key mobilisations.

However, its leadership was partially integrated into the Ben Ali regime and has shown some vacillation. After joining Ghannouchi’s unity government when it was set up on January 17, the UGTT’s three ministers resigned the next day under pressure from the rank-and-file.

On January 21, it called for a national salvation government without any RCD or former RCD ministers.

After Ghannouchi’s January 27 cabinet purge, the UGTT leadership announced that while it would not join the new government it would refrain from calling for its overthrow. The UGTT called off a planned January 28 general strike, Al-Jazeera reported on January 27.

However, Al-Jazeera reported the next day that the UGTT appeared to be backtracking away from its critical support.

The Tunisian elite and foreign powers have become increasingly concerned at the growing radicalisation of the masses — and for the need to get people off the streets to stablise the system.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the need to establish the “rule of law” and called on “all concerned parties to establish dialogue and resolve problems peacefully”. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said “only dialogue can bring a democratic and lasting solution to the current crisis”.

Before Ben Ali fled on January 14 to Saudi Arabia, Sarkozy’s government was offering to send police to the dictatorship to help crush the protests. Now it is clear the mass movement cannot be repressed, Sarkozy calls on the people to engage in “dialogue”.

Since 2005, the three key opposition parties that were banned under Ben Ali: the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party (PCOT), the Islamic Hizb an-Nahda and the nationalist Congress for the Republic have been allied against the dictatorship .

As the movement seeks a clean break with the past, the “14th of January Front” has been formed. It unites left-wing political parties and progressive and democratic organisations whose aim is “advancing our people’s revolution towards achieving its goals and to confront the anti-revolution forces”, including the PCOT.

The front’s immediate goals are the overthrow of Ghannouchi and the remaining RCD ministers. However, its January 20 founding statement explained it has also set goals to confiscate all property belonging to Ben Ali’s family; build a national economy with “vital and strategic sectors under state control”; and oppose the “liberal capitalist approach” to economics.

The statement also “[saluted] all the committees, the organisations and the forms of self-organisation of the masses and calls for the broadening of their actions in public life and the running of all aspects of daily life”.

Popular, grassroots committees have sprung up around the country as the people have sought to take control of their areas.

In the town of Sidi Bou Ali, in the eastern Sousse Governorate, a mass gathering on January 16 rejected the unity government's rule and the “undemocratic” constitution. Instead, it elected a “provisional local council in order to manage all city affairs and to work at a local level”.

Battles in coming weeks will determine whether attempts to demobilise the revolutionary movement succeed, or whether the mass movement takes power out of the hands of the unity government.

The protesters outside Ghannouchi’s office cheered at the announcement of the cabinet purge, but their protest continues. The January 27 Toronto Star reported: “They want the transitional government to be replaced by a kind of revolutionary council chosen by the people — an uncompromising stand that has many fearing a resumption of violence in the days ahead.”

Protester Lotfi El Mejri told the Star: “We won’t let them steal the revolution. If they do, it will be over our dead bodies.”

Al Jazeera report on the “caravan of liberation”.


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