Tunisia: New struggles break out in struggle against old regime

Protest in Tunis, May 1.

The rhetoric from Tunisia's interim government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda (the Renaissance), as well as the financial establishment, is that the old regime is gone.

What is needed now, they say, is stability and the restoration of economic growth to complete the transition to democracy.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde said on April 2: "Investors and the population at large need to regain confidence in the future of the economy, to look beyond the short-term difficulties and provide the foundations for a rebound of the Tunisian economy."

Echoing these remarks, the April 29 Global Post reported Ennahda political bureau member in Tunis, Said Ferjani, as saying: “We have to restructure an economy that has failed the country for more than half a century.

“We need some kind of stability. Some of the people don't want stability because they don't want the government to succeed.”

The reality, however, is the new regime has been largely constituted out of the skeleton of the old. The corrupt bureaucracy may be administered over by new ministers appointed by the government arising from the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, but the repressive police state apparatus remains the same.

The government of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, has been rocked by an ongoing wave of demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes by students, workers, the unemployed, democracy activists, and feminists.

The protest wave has been demanding the fulfillment of the demands of the Jasmine Revolution ― an end to corruption and the dismantling of the police state, justice for the victims of state violence and an economy which serves the needs of Tunisia's people.

Corruption and neopotism remains rife throughout the country. The publicly funded works scheme was expanded by the interim government after the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's overthrow on January 14 last year, in a bid to alleviate crippling youth unemployment.

Writing in the February 9 Guardian, Eileen Byrne said that in the town of Kasserine, the scheme was suffering from widespread abuse by foremen skimming more than 50 dinars a month ($33) from each worker.

In impoverished interior towns such as Kasserine, and the major coastal cities, protests have continued on-and-off since the October 23 constituent assembly elections.

A major issue has been the place of religion in the new state. Throughout January, a group of hardline religious Salafists occupied a university campus in Manouba and assaulted several administrators. This resulted in counter-protests by secular activists demanding an end to religious violence and defence of the civil state.

The Salafist occupation not only demanded the right for female students to wear the Niqab during exams but also for sharia law to be the basis of the new constitution. The Ennahda-led government called for peace, yet several of Ennahda's constituent assembly representatives made public statements supporting the Salafist occupiers.

Thousands rallied in Tunis's central Avenue Habib Bourguiba on March 20, Tunisia's independance day, to support the demand for a democratic state and to condemn the interim government's refusal to follow through on demands of the revolution.

EuroMoney.com said a chant at these protests was "People are sick of the new Trabelsis" ― a reference to the family of Ben Ali's second wife, which was a major beneficiary of the old regime's neopotism.

After these protests, a ban on demonstrations in Avenue Habib Bourguiba was announced on March 28 by Interior Minister Ali Laarayadh.

A major protest took place on April 9 to reject the ban. It was met with a major police crackdown.

The rally had originally been called to mark national Martyr's Day, but the breakup of a small protest by the unemployed two days before meant it quickly focused on slogans such as: "No fear, no terror ― the streets belong to the people."

Marching on Avenue Mohamed V, which adjoins Avenue Bourguiba, the protesters were met with lines of riot police, tear gas and assault. Lina Ben Mhenni, who writes the A Tunisian Girl blog, was among those assaulted by police officers.

Jaouhar Ben Mbark, an activist, suffered a broken arm, as did many others.

"About a dozen police attacked me," Ben Mbark told Human Rights Watch. "There were some men in plain clothes behind them, heckling me and calling me all kinds of names.

"While the police were dragging me to their police van, these men continued following behind them, hitting me and heckling me."

A march of 15 unemployed youth from Sidi Bouzid to raise awareness of the dire situation n Tunisia's interior region was also caught up in the violence on April 9. Sidi Bouzid is the town where Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated on December 17, 2010, triggering the uprising against Ben Ali.

Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The renewal of violence against demonstrators in the principal streets of Tunis shows that legal structures remain intact that made repression possible in the past, combining abusive laws and impunity for security forces.”

On April 12, Laarayadh backed down, announcing that the ban would be lifted so long as protests were “peaceful, orderly, remain in file, and adhere to pre-established routes and timings”.

An "investigation" into police violence was also announced.

Less than a month later, May Day rallies brought thousands of people to the streets. About 20,000 marched on Avenue Bourguiba. Demands echoed those of the uprising against Ben Ali: "Bread, freedom and national dignity"; the right to work; prosecution of corrupt officials; and freedom for the media.

The rallies were organised by Tunisia's largest unions, the UGTT and UTT. However, Tunisia Live said on April 28 that Ennahda also endorsed the rally on Avenue Bourguiba.

The UGTT was a leading body in the uprising against Ben Ali. It has since played an important role in supporting the wave of strikes and labour protests that has been renewed since the October 23 elections.

In late December, a congress of the UGTT elected a new leadership. Nizar Amami said in International Viewpoint that the new leadership is made up of a variety of left union activists, including those with party affiliations and independants.

The only alternative list, formed around the outgoing deputy leader, was largely comprised of those associated with Ennahda.

Whether the step towards such left regroupment in the UGTT will be followed throughout the rest of civil society ― in particular, by the left parties ― remains to be seen. If so, it can strengthen the struggle to challenge the establishment's bid to silence dissent through "stability".

Although the Jasmine Revolution has already won some impressive gains ― the overthrow of Ben Ali and many of his top cronies, and the constituent assembly elections ― the ongoings protests show that the economic and social injustices that drove Tunisians to breaking point in December 2010 are yet to be addressed.