Tunisia: Mass popular uprising forced Ben Ali to flee the country

Tunisia is a different country to the one it was a month ago. The powerful movement of revolt of the Tunisian masses has swept away the dictator President Ben Ali with lightning speed, testimony to the rage that has been accumulated by decades of autocratic rule. Fear of talking about politics, even in private, has been replaced by a gigantic process of political ferment; a revolution is beginning. How far away are the days of Ben Ali’s ‘uncontested’ dictatorship!


Tunisia, which for years was praised by capitalist commentators and imperialist countries as the most stable regime of the region, depicted as a “model of economic development”, according to the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Khan only one month ago, is now full of cracks. The tourist paradise, with its marvellous Mediterranean beaches, has shown its ugly face, and the violence used to crush the genuine mass revolt has displayed the real character of one of the most oppressive regimes in the region.

The revolutionary movement which has developed over the last month in Tunisia is of tremendous historic importance for the masses of the entire Arab world and beyond. At a time when in most countries around the world there are austerity policies and where rising food prices are affecting everyone, Tunisia can become an example for working people and youth to follow. This movement is the biggest social upheaval that has shaken the Tunisian dictatorship for over a quarter of a century, and probably in the country’s entire history.

All successive attempts made by Ben Ali to try and calm the situation failed lamentably. Ben Ali’s ruling clan had irremediably lost any sort of popular support. After having dissolved the entire government, announced new legislative elections within 6 months and declared a state of emergency, the hated President finally fled the country, while protestors were jubilantly ripping his numerous vast portraits adorned on the facades of the capital.

Shock waves in the whole region

The epic struggle of Tunisian youth and workers has created a wave of panic among the neighbouring regimes, as well as amongst the governments of their western allies in Europe and the United States.

The commentaries of US President Barack Obama, applauding the “courage and dignity of the Tunisian people”, are likely to leave a bitter taste for the numerous Tunisians who have tirelessly fought against the American-backed government. Obama is, of course, celebrating an already accomplished fact in the hope of ensuring a pro-imperialist outcome. He and his cohorts take no initiative to criticise friendly or client regimes; thus Washington said nothing about the blatant rigging of last year’s Egyptian elections.

In the same way, the French government’s muted response to the protests and repression in its former North African colony has created an outcry of opposition from its strong Maghreb community. The statement of French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, proposing France’s cooperation with the Tunisian government to “restore security” – even pointing out the experience and knowledge of the French state in that field – has unveiled once again the real character of French foreign policy and the embarrassment of its ruling class, seeing the threat posed to its investments in one of its outposts in the region.

The Tunisian uprising has opened a new chapter of revolutionary developments in the Arab world, which could rapidly trigger a domino effect against neighbouring dictatorship regimes. Not coincidently, in the last weeks or so, the governments of Jordan, Moroccan, Algerian and Libyan have all taken measures to decrease food prices, for fear of similar developments taking place in their own countries. “Every Arab leader is watching Tunisia in fear, while every Arab citizen is watching Tunisia in hope and solidarity,” tweeted an Egyptian commentator quoted by the ‘Guardian’ (London) on 15 January.

The revolt, which started in the small city of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December, rapidly spread like wildfire to different parts of the country, and has gone far beyond the simple grievances against joblessness. It has not shown any signs of exhaustion despite all the ‘zigzagging’ and desperate moves displayed by Ben Ali’s regime in its struggle for survival. The cycle of barbaric repression operated by the police under the orders of the ruling clique led, according to Human Rights organisations, to over 70 people killed. Reports of police shooting live ammunition at funeral processions in memory of demonstrators killed on previous days showed how far this regime was ready to go to preserve its grip on power. Such an orgy of violence is typical of a regime whose very existence is at stake; however, it only helped to infuriate workers and youth. This was not only the case in Tunisia itself, but also in many parts of the world, where actions of solidarity and calls for the end of repression have been mounting in the recent period.

The Tunisian masses, having lost their fear of an increasingly isolated regime, rose up in every corner of the country. The capital Tunis, the economic heartland of the country, which in the first weeks of the movement had been spared the massive protests erupting in the poorer central and southern inland provinces, was decisively hit by the movement from Tuesday onwards. “We are not afraid, we are not afraid!” shouted hundreds of youth rising up and attacking local government buildings in Tunis’s working class neighbourhood of Ettadem on that day. In response, the government ordered the imposition of an unlimited curfew from 8pm to 5.30am in the capital and initially deployed, on Tuesday night, army units and armoured vehicles throughout the city. But these measures were largely inefficient, as thousands courageously defied them from the first night. Fear changed camp, moving over to the governing elite.

Splits in the ruling camp

In recent days, some ministers or ex-ministers, and other politicians from within the presidential party the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique), expressed growing public criticism against Ben Ali and the way he had been dealing with the protests; these divisions in the ruling camp expressed the boiling pressure from below, with some of the regime’s personalities trying to prepare the “post-Ben Ali” period by trying to capitalise on the mass movement. Parts of the ruling elite, to save their own interests, were increasingly prepared to get rid of Ben Ali, hoping to appease the revolt of the masses, as you would give a bone to a dog in the hope of calming him down.

Reflecting these growing divisions, reports have also talked about tensions developing in the army. The top army General, Rachid Ammar, was removed on Sunday 9 January, because of his refusal to give orders to his soldiers to repress protests, and for his open criticism against an ‘excessive’ use of force against demonstrators. Similar moves multiplied, especially among the rank-and-file soldiers refusing to fire on their class brothers and sisters, and, in some areas, fraternizing with the demonstrators and protecting them against the police.

This is the reason why the military was withdrawn from Tunis by the end of Thursday, and replaced by the police and other security forces, generally considered as more loyal to the ruling regime. But even sections of the police have been affected by the mass movement. The ‘New York Times’ related the story of two police officers directing enraged protestors away from attacking the police station in Tunis, and convincing them instead to go to the rich beachfront mansions of the President’s relatives! A demonstrator said “The police officers were poor like us. They said, please go to the mansions, it is more logical.”

The revolution must exploit these splits inside the state apparatus, in order to strengthen its own forces. Indeed, despite Ben Ali’s departure, the old state apparatus, with its huge repressive machine, has remained essentially intact. Outside the army, between 80,000 and 120,000 people according to some estimates, has been deployed by the Tunisian state to ensure control of the population. Despite the understandable climate of euphoria that exists because of Ben Ali’s departure, the revolutionary process has only begun, and all the dangers that are lying ahead must be faced with a correct policy. Incorrigible reactionary forces, from inside or outside the state machine, could try to exploit the general state of confusion to take back the initiative, and organise slavish violence against progressive forces, trade unionists, young protestors, etc.

To face this situation, a class appeal should be made to the rank-and-file state forces in order to win them over to the side of the revolution; the creation of genuinely elected committees of soldiers must be part of such a process, in order to clean up the army of all reactionary elements and people who have collaborated with the old regime.

Reports are now circulating about gangs engaged in looting, plundering, robbing houses and shops, setting fire to buildings and physically attacking people. There are high suspicions that these are composed of police, security forces and former criminals engaged by Ben Ali’s clique in order to show that, without Ben Ali, ‘chaos reigns’, and trying to put the blame on peaceful protestors.

On the other hand, the ‘law-and-order’ issue is used by the interim authorities to try and justify the maintenance of the state of emergency and martial law, and to imposing big restrictions on civil liberties. Both must be challenged, through the formation of democratically run armed workers’ defence forces, in order to protect the neighbourhoods, people and protests against any arbitrary violence, wherever it is coming from. It has been reported that in the Northern seaside city of Gammarth, inhabitants are organising in their neighbourhood to protect themselves from the regime’s militias. Such initiatives must be taken up everywhere, in order to guarantee security against any reprisals from reactionary elements.

Ben Ali’s zigzag policies have not saved him from an inglorious end

Ben Ali, in a desperate attempt of gaining some sort of relief, sacked his Interior Minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem – chief of the Tunisian police force – on Wednesday, trying to deliver a scapegoat to the masses. But this move, as with previous ministers’ removals, hardly satisfied the militant spirit and desire of revenge that had developed among the Tunisian masses. Then Ben Ali tried to put more stress on the ‘carrot’ rather than the ‘stick’ as a response to the revolt, rolling out one concession after another.

His Thursday night televised speech, promising not to seek a new term in office in 2014, ordering the troops to stop shooting live ammunition against demonstrators, announcing the end of internet censorship and total freedom for the media, more ‘political pluralism’ and reductions in the price of bread, milk and sugar, represented a u-turn from the policy adopted previously. But the measures did not stem the anger. This obvious sign of weakness coming from the regime strengthened the will and confidence of the movement, galvanising the sentiment of its own forces, and opening the gate for the protests to rush in an even more radical direction. This was illustrated by the unprecedented thousands-strong demo that took place along Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis on Friday, with protestors shouting “No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues!” “Ben Ali assassin!” “Ben Ali, out!”, “Go, go, go … game over!” demanding that Ben Ali quit power immediately.

The concessions made by Ben Ali were obviously only cosmetic changes, proposed in a desperate attempt by the government to avoid the struggle going further and threatening the very foundations of capitalist interests. Indeed, as Ben Ali’s removal from power had become a prominent part of the movement’s demands, behind that call, even if it was not necessarily formulated clearly, the whole system on which Ben Ali’s power relied was being instinctively put into question.

The tight grip of Ben Ali and his family, who have been in control, through massive corruption, cronyism and extortion, of huge parts of the wealth and profitable business activities in the country, became the symbols of the arrogant and corrupt power of the rich Tunisian capitalist class. “No, no to the Trabelsis who looted the budget!” had been one of the popular slogans, targeting Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi and her family, who own major stakes in many Tunisian companies. “Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage,” reported a cable written by an American ambassador and recently released by Wikileaks. On Thursday, some of Ben Ali’s relatives, according to some reports, had already left the country for fear of the consequences of the revolutionary movement. This was the case, for example, of the billionaire Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi, who took refuge in his luxurious mansion in Montreal.

What perspectives for the movement?

Ben Ali’s removal has now been achieved but, unfortunately, so far there is no clear independent working class political force that can give a lead to the spontaneous outburst on what to do next, and take initiatives in order to achieve a proper political and social revolution that would transform Tunisian society. To achieve this, a break must be made with capitalism and a start made to plan the renovation of society along socialist lines, fulfilling the interests of the majority by establishing real social justice, tackling the problem of unemployment by giving a decent job to all and satisfying the long-standing aspirations for real democratic rights.

The absence of a leadership armed with a clear socialist programme and capable of explaining what are the next steps needed to bring the movement forward could result in temporary ebbs in the movement. The political vacuum leaves open the possibility of all sorts of forces trying to exploit the situation to their own advantage. In such a situation, a coup coming from part of the army, presenting itself as a democratic “cleaner of the Augean stables”, is not excluded. Such a coup could even benefit for a while from some popular support. On the other hand, some bourgeois opposition leaders, who were already trying to depict Ben Ali’s last speech as an ‘overture’ from the government (Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Najib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party, had called the president’s announcement “very good”, while Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties, said Ben Ali’ speech “opens up possibilities”) will try to step in and use their previous absence from political office to preserve the old order.

On Friday night, after the Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, said he was taking over as ruler because Ben Ali was “temporarily unable to fulfil his duties”, there were reports of continued protests outside the interior ministry, calling for Ghannouchi’s immediate resignation. Subsequently, the Constitutional Council announced that the leader of the lower house of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, would be the interim president. The constitution requires new presidential elections to be held no later than 60 days from now. These people are preparing to stab the heroic struggle of the masses in the back! Ghannouchi is an economist who has spent his entire political career alongside President Ben Ali, while Mebazaa is also part of the same corrupt political elite. As Youssef Gaigi, a Tunisian activist quoted by Al-Jazeera, remarked: “People don’t know if they can trust this guy because he was also part of the establishment. He was part of the political party that ruled over Tunisia for the past 23 years, and was heavily involved in the previous government, which is known now as a dictatorship.”

The masses have not displayed such energies, sacrifices and blood just to see other members of the ruling elite, closely associated with the old regime, take Ben Ali’s place. On the first day after Ben Ali fled, the government deployed the army, police and security services on the streets. This must serve as a warning to workers, the unemployed, young people and the poor masses from urban and rural areas. Officially this was to ensure ‘law and order’, but while working people want order in their lives, this was not the aim of the government. The ‘law and order’ that Ben Ali’s associates want is one which allows them to remain in control. This is why it is essential that working people get organised and build mass independent organisations that can elaborate a revolutionary strategy to get out of this impasse and avoid their revolution being stolen from above.

Workers and young people should not put any confidence in any sort of re-composition of power amongst the plundering and murdering bandits. The old regime’s repressive apparatus must not be allowed to continue and the old government cannot remain in power. As regards to the calls for a ‘national unity government’ – which is being increasingly raised by important parts of the opposition parties – that could only make sense if it means a government of unity of the working class and all the oppressed, a government genuinely representing the masses in struggle, willing to completely purge those who ran and profited from Ben Ali’s regime, and standing firmly against any compromise with all the capitalist rulers, whether Ben Ali’s close associates or not. Any other ‘unity’ would mean neutering the revolutionary movement and effectively utilising it as an auxiliary force to replace one clan of oppressors with another. Genuinely free elections can be organised under the democratic control of the working people; this is the only way to prevent supporters of the old regime trying to subvert the revolution.

In that sense, the question of who controls the country’s wealth and the means of production has become one of the central issues facing the movement, if it is to solve the crisis of unemployment and poverty. Indeed, as long as economic relations remain on a capitalist basis, run for the profits of a few (whoever are these few!) no sustainable and fundamental change can be made to the living conditions of the majority. Only the organised working class, by taking control over the commanding heights of the economy, can bring such a change.

Part of the leadership of the trade union body, the UGTT (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens), has shared long-standing and friendly relationships with the dictatorship; for instance, the general secretary of the UGTT reiterated his support for Ben Ali only a few days before his downfall. Despite all this, it was ultimately carried away by the repercussions of the revolutionary wave among its 500,000-strong membership, and consequently forced to call for action. “Loyal to the regime since the late 1980s, the UGTT supported the reelection of President Ben Ali in 2009. Its role since the start of the movement, on 17 December, 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, however, is quite different. Many debates were first organised around the country in the buildings of the regional sections, which resulted in late December the general secretary of the UGTT threatening criminal prosecution of the members attending such meetings. The day after Christmas, the movement, which relied on a few dissident branches of the union such as those of the postal sector or of primary and secondary education, had gradually won all branches of the union.” (Mediapart, 12/01/2011)

This week, solid citywide general strikes took place in Sfax, Sousse, Kasserine, Tunis. In the capital, despite the call of the union leaders not to demonstrate during the two-hour general strike on Friday, many defied these orders and took to the streets anyway. This struggle to sweep away the old regime should urgently be extended and coordinated, including if necessary through a general strike demanding the removal of all Ben Ali’s associates, full democratic rights and a government of working people and the poor. The formation of democratically controlled committees, elected by the workers themselves in the workplaces and in the factories, is necessary for this. Similar organising committees should be set up in the neighbourhoods and villages, to make sure the struggle is everywhere controlled from below, and that every political organisation can defend democratically his views and proposals in terms of the following up of the present movement. Such committees could then link up with each other on a local, regional, and national basis, to give the foundation of a government of the working people and the poor masses.

Such a government – in which every elected official would not gain more than the wage of an ordinary worker, and would be subject to recall at any moment – would confiscate the major companies and banks from the hands of the mafia-type rulers who still control them at present, and put them under public ownership, under the democratic control and management of the working population as a whole. This would lay the basis to start the socialist reconstruction of society, based on the democratic planning of the economy in the interests of all. Such a step would stand as an inspiring example for the masses of the whole region.

The CWI stands for the full recognition of all democratic rights, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and for an immediate end to the state of emergency. We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Tunisia and for the setting up of working class courts to judge all the criminals, assassins and torturers that are still running free or even occupying leading positions in the state apparatus. Tunisia’s future must not be decided by a deal between elements of the old regime and pro-capitalist opposition leaders; instead there must be free and fully democratic elections for a revolutionary constitutional assembly, where representatives of the workers and poor could decide the country’s future.

We call for actions to take place on an international scale in solidarity with the Tunisian struggle. Initiatives can help to structure an international campaign to publicize and support actively the Tunisian revolution in the making.


President Ben Ali flees country in face of mass revolt


“The people sacrificed so much – they are not ready for fake promises”

Interview with activist in Tunisia

Yesterday, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled Tunisia, reportedly to Saudi Arabia. He was forced from office after 23 years in power following weeks of mass protests over joblessness, high food prices, corruption and the regime’s repression. The protests started after a graduate sets himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid over lack of jobs on 17 December. Police repression has left at least 100 people dead.

On Friday, a limited general strike was called by the UGTT union. Thousands of people gathered outside the interior ministry, in the capital, Tunis, a symbol of the regime. The police opened fire.

No longer able to maintain his iron grip in the face of mass outrage, Ben Ali fled Tunisia and it was announced that Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has taken over as ‘interim president’. A ‘state of emergency’ was also declared, banning gatherings of more than three people and imposing a night-time curfew. Security forces are authorised to open fire on people not obeying their orders.

Ghannouchi indicated he will attempt to form a new ‘coalition’ government and said he will meet political leaders today. The role of the army in these developments is not clear.

There will be huge relief that finally Ben Ali is removed from power but the masses will want to see their other demands met, including an end to repression and corruption and a radical change in the economic situation.

But Ghannouchi will attempt to take measures to defend the overall interests of the ruling class. Workers, the unemployed, youth and the poor can have no faith in any new regime or government of ‘national unity’ to meet their social and economic needs or to bring about real lasting democracy. The imperialist powers, like France and the US, which previously backed their ally Ben Ali, will now be making efforts to ensure a new regime is installed that can see off the demands of the working class and poor and continue to defend the interests of Tunisian and global capitalism.

The masses have shown their huge potential over the last days and weeks in Tunisia. Many have boldly faced state repression and many have died. The Tunisian events have shaken North Africa and the Middle East and solidarity protests have taken place in several countries. To develop their struggle, the working people and poor of Tunisia need their own mass independent organisations, including a party to fight for their class interests and full democratic rights, based on a socialist programme. Instead of a new pro-capitalist regime cobbled together from the remnants of the Ben Ali regime and other bourgeois forces, workers and youth need a government based on the class interests of the working class and poor.

Below, Stefan Müller, from the CWI in Germany, interviews Ahmed Rafiki, a school teacher and member of the UGTT union in the mining town Gafsa, about recent events. The interview took place just hours before Ben Ali fled Tunisia.


Interview with Ahmed Rafiki, school teacher and member of the UGTT union in Gafsa


What has been going on in Tunisia over the last weeks?

There was a huge, nationwide wave of discontent, and it manifested itself in peaceful demonstrations. But the state, with its police forces and anti-riot forces, bloodily oppressed the demonstrations. They killed over a hundred Tunisian people; most of them were young people and people in their teens.

What is the reason for this discontent?

First, it seemed to be social. People were demonstrating for better living conditions, for jobs, for cheaper commodities, but then it turned out to be not social but political. After 23 years of bloody oppression by Ben Ali, people were marching in the streets and demanding him to step down. But then it got worse each time the president held a speech on TV. First he denied everything and he said it’s just a question of a guy who committed suicide by burning himself. He said, “We are being oppressed by the protesters“! Then he said “OK, I understand, but you should know, the people who are demonstrating are veiled people and they are a bunch of terrorists.” So he called the students, the people, and the young, and the teachers, the lawyers, the doctors and everybody, he called those people “terrorists”.

So what sections of society are going to the streets?

I just arrived from a demonstration that lasted 4 hours, and the people there were aged from 7 to 77, there were the jobless, lawyers, doctors, mothers and grandmothers, and students and everybody. Everybody was demonstrating against Ben Ali.

So, what is happening now?

Now it shows how mean, how bloody, how ferocious Ben Ali and his allies are. I shouldn’t forget this. The position of France’s government was really cowardly and cheap. They blamed the people, and suggested the French police helping to oppress the people.

Now the country is in a state of fear, the people are afraid. People are buying huge amounts of supplies because of the curfew, there’s an emergency state declared. The police bloodily oppressed manifestations in Tunis and in the country today. The most dangerous thing is, there are gangs of unknown people, nobody knows who they are, stealing everything and destroying the country and burning down buildings.

You say that the people who are seen in TV throwing Molotov cocktails [petrol bombs] are not the demonstrators?

No no, they are the real demonstrators, the people who are clashing with the police are demonstrators, they’re protesting for a free and democratic Tunisia, against Ben Ali and his Mafia. They are protesters, but those people, they act in the dark, in the back streets of Tunis. They steal, they destroy, and everybody in Tunisia knows who they are: they are governmental militias that are terrorizing the people.

Today Ben Ali dismissed his government [at the time of this interview, Ben Ali had not yet fled Tunisia – socialistworld.net]. What will happen now?

Now the country is going to the unknown. There are even prisoners running away from the prisons. There is no revolutionary advanced guard, there is no opposition, there is no clear alternative for Tunisia, and there is no revolutionary alternative. All the dissidents are living in Canada, in London, in France. The military hasn’t moved.

What is the role of the military now? There was footage of an officer saluting the coffin of a killed demonstrator during a mass funeral. The military is not oppressing the demonstrations, is that correct?

Right, the military doesn’t oppress the demonstrations, the police is. The army now is protecting post offices, ministries and TV stations, and sensitive areas of the city.

Do you think there is the possibility of a coup d’etat?

Nobody knows. It is possible. But that’s not what the people want. I’m sure the people wouldn’t accept it. Now the people have sacrificed so much, and they are not ready for fake promises by the president, they want the president out, and they will definitely not accept a coup d’état.

Thank you very much, and good luck.


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