Tunisia’s Continuing Revolution

By John Passant

After a month of demonstrations—and a general strike that the normally tame-cat unions were forced to call—the Tunisian dictator of 23 years, Ben Ali, fled the country on January 14 last year.

A little over a week later the Egyptian revolution erupted. From there the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, demanding justice and jobs, freedom and food.

In Tunisia in October last year, the Islamist party, Ennahda, won 40 percent of the vote in free elections. It formed a coalition government with a progressive party and social democrats. The victory was not surprising.

Unlike some of the moderate left, who gave a democratic veneer to Ben Ali, Ennahda was banned under the dictator. It helped the poor. During the elections it talked about jobs and better living standards—unlike much of the left, which campaigned against the threat of Islamism and for secularism without connecting at all to the basic economic needs of workers and peasants.

In office, however, the Ennahda Government has continued with neoliberal policies and has cozied up to business. It has not been able at all to address the economic problems of the country. The position of workers and the poor has worsened. Unemployment has increased from 14 percent to 20 percent. Among young people it is close to 40 percent and there are over 180,000 unemployed graduates.

In January the Tunisian dinar fell against the U.S. dollar and economic growth was either zero percent or negative. Poverty is rife, with, according to one recent report, one-quarter of the country living below the poverty line.

After Ben Ali fled, strikes broke out across Tunisia for better wages. Those strikes, as well as demonstrations, have intensified after the elections in October 2011. For example social security workers went on strike in December. In the same month police broke up a sit-in by workers in Gafsa, a mining basin where graduate unemployment is over 60 percent.

In January a government spokesman complained that “over 513 strikes have been held since the revolution started.” He warned against “incitements” to strike. There has been talk amongst government and business of making strikes illegal. One Ennahda parliamentarian has called for strikers to be crucified.

The warnings don’t seem to be working. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) threatened a major strike across a number of industries against labor hire in January, but called it off after negotiations began. However strikes and demonstrations in Gafsa intensified in the same month.

Journalists and other media workers went on strike in February in defense of free speech. They threatened a general journalists’ strike after police beat reporters covering a UGTT demonstration in the capital, Tunis.

Garbage workers, sanitation workers, airline workers, oil workers... the list goes on of those who have struck for better pay. To give some idea of the magnitude, in 2011 the number of strikes was up by over 120 percent from 2010; the number of days lost increased by over 300 percent.

This year has started off in similar combative fashion. With its break from the old regime and newfound fighting spirit, the UGTT claims 500,000 members out of the four million workers in Tunisia.

As I write, demonstrations have broken out in Sidi Bouzid over water shortages and there have been calls for a general strike in the region. Sidi Bouzid is the symbolic home of the revolution, the place where unemployed graduate and street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in December 2010 and started the uprising that overthrew Ben Ali.

The removal of the dictator was a great achievement. But the revolution’s demands were not only for an end to Ben Ali and the holding of free elections—key was the demand for a better life. Today the people of Tunisia are no better off economically and the government is trying to restrict some freedoms. The revolution remains incomplete.

Yet strikes and demonstrations are growing, making demands to fulfill their stalled revolution. If workers organize and strike for better pay and in defense of democracy the possibility of the continuation and deepening of the revolution opens up.

Socialist Alternative, (New Zealand), March 25, 2012