Tunisia: a Revolution begins
The president Ben Ali has left the country amid violent protests and the prime minister has taken over control of the government. Tunisian Parliament President, Fouad Mebazaa, was declared interim president Saturday by the Constitutional Council ruling out the possibility of a return to the head of state Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. The state of emergency announced by the President Friday afternoon is still on. The state of emergency is enforced throughout the country, with curfews going from 5pm to 7 am. In addition to this the police have the right to shoot anyone who does not comply and gatherings of more than 3 people during the day are banned.
It is clear that the regime wants to use the abdication of Ben Ali to crack down. They want to preserve the structure of the regime even though its most unpopular figure has gone. The revolution is now faced with a series of choices: will it press forward and get rid of the whole regime and force a democratic solution? Will it go beyond a full democratic revolution and begin a social revolution that will be able to tackle the economic issues which began the revolution in the first place: unemployment, inflation and poverty?
As Friday’s developments show the revolution certainly has the power to challenge the whole Tunisian social structure. Let’s come back on the events of yesterday.
More than 10,000 demonstrators gathered in the Greater Tunis this Friday morning following the call for a general strike by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). Students joined the protest in massive numbers. The protesters started their march from the Mohamed Ali square, passing across Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main artery of the capital. They pushed through the police lines placed along the way, the demonstrators managed to reach, for the first time ever, the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior where they gathered in front of a heightened security presence which surrounded the building. Men and women, young and old sang the national anthem and chanted slogans demanding “freedom and a national government“, and called for President Ben Ali to quit. Other slogans were “The Interior Ministry is a ministry of terror “,”tribute to the blood of martyrs” or “no to the Trabelsi (family of the wife of the president) who looted the country “. By late morning the demonstration was dispersed by the police with tear gas. Army tanks were deployed in front of the Ministry of Interior, while security forces chased down young demonstrators in the stairs of a residential building and of a mall, where they have withdrawn. The atmosphere on Avenue Habib Bourguiba was unbearable because of the tear gas as police reinforcements arrived.
Demonstrations went on all around the country as well, in Sidi Bouzid, a city in the south west where the crisis began a month ago, 1,500 people marched and chanted ‘Ben Ali out’ while at Regueb, close to Sidi Bouzid, 700 People also raised slogans hostile to the President. In Kairouan, a city in the centre of the country, the demonstrators shouted “Ben Ali out” as well as in the town of Gafsa in the south-west, according to union sources.
Following the general strike called by the General Union of Tunisian Workers and the different demonstrations of the day and their repressions by the regime, President Ben Ali’s decided to sack his government and to call for new elections in six months.
The events of yesterday happened despite the television speech of the President Ben Ali yesterday night in which he said that he has understood the Tunisian people. It was the third time since the beginning of the movement, which has started on the 17th of December and has now caused 66 deaths according to Unions and Human Rights groups, that he addressed the people through a television speech. The tone and the content of his speech were clearly different and a feeling of resentment in Ben Ali’s voice was clearly perceptible. He said to the Tunisian people that he has understood them, and he called for a cease fire with the protesters, while also adding that he has understood the demands about unemployment, the demands about necessities, and the political demands for more freedoms. The President also assured that he was “misled” on the analysis of the social crisis and he said that he enjoined the composition of an independent investigation committee that would establish the “responsibilities” of everyone and every single party involved in the violence. He ordered prices slashes on sugar, milk and bread, as well as an increase in the budget of social support to the people, while promising total freedom of information and complete access to internet. Yesterday evening as a result of this speech, websites blocked in Tunisia, including Dailymotion and YouTube were working and available again. Ben Ali declared that he had issued orders to the interior minister that no more bullets be fired on protesters, unless security forces were under threat. He said that he will not accept that another drop of blood of a Tunisian be spilt. The Tunisian President announced that the 75-year age limit on presidential candidates should remain untouched, meaning therefore that he would not change the Constitution to run for a sixth mandate in 2014, himself being already 74 years old. Early this morning, the Tunisian Foreign Minister on the French radio Europe 1 even said the establishment in his country of a national unity government was “quite feasible” and “very normal”. The mobilization and the demonstrations of the day have shown the poor results these declarations had on the determination of the people to go on with the protests.
But many were left asking how relevant are the words of a dictator that has not listened to the people of his country and has jailed or exiled many opponents for more than 23 years? The events yesterday show how irrelevant Ben Ali’s promises for more freedom were. On Friday the demonstrations in Tunis were dispersed with tear gas and protestors shot by security forces. Ben Ali assured us he will not run for a new Presidential mandate in 2014 and respect the Constitution, but this is the same man that changed the Constitution in 2002 through a so called “referendum”, won with 99% of the votes, to allow unlimited number of presidential terms. He called for a cease fire and declared that he does not want to see any Tunisian blood spilled, but on Thursday night after his speech thirteen civilians were killed by gunfire from security forces in Tunis and its suburbs according to medical sources. In Tunis a journalist was also hit in the leg by police gunfire as rioting youths clashed with the police, according to witnesses present at the scene.
Ben Ali has pursued a policy that has condemned himself to failure. We have already talked of the brutality and the absence of democracy of this regime, as well as its economic failure leaving one third of those under 30 years old jobless, while graduates represent 50% of the unemployed. One of the main sins of this regime is its corruption, especially concerning the Trabelsi family, to which the wife of the President belongs. His daughters married four of the wealthiest heirs in the country. His second wife, Leila, symbolizes the greed of the family in the eyes of the Tunisian population. His brother, Belhacen Trabelsi, who married the daughter of a leading Tunisian boss, took control of a private bank through the intervention in his favor of the Governor of the Central Bank. The Tunisian people know all these things, and this why the Trabelsi have been the targets of the demonstrators not only in slogans but as well in direct actions against them. Several properties, including businesses and industries belonging to the Trabelsi family across the country, have actually been attacked by the demonstrators. The wife of the President Leila Trabulsi, fearing the fall of the regime and a Ceausescu scenario in which she was partially rights, has actually left the country with her daughter yesterday before the speech of her husband.
President Ben Ali understood that he could not to rely indefinitely on his security forces to crush down and repress the movement of protest because the far majority of the country is now opposing the authoritarian regime. Moreover, according to some opposition sources, the Army Chief of Staff, General Rashid Ammar has been sacked by the President few days ago. He reportedly refused to order the soldiers to quell the riots and expressed reservations about excessive use of force, the sources said. He was replaced by the military intelligence chief Ahmed Chbir, according to some information which could not be confirmed officially. President Ben Ali knew he would not be able to count on the long term on the support of the western imperialist forces, again guilty of a criminal silence in front of the repression of the Tunisian people by the security forces, to maintain its authoritarian regime before the persistent resistance of the movement of protest. Western imperialist countries have shown once again disregard for Human rights when it comes to a friendly authoritarian regime.
People have understood they cannot trust the words of this President and he is now gone, but the regime is still in place. The following question is: Is the departure of Ben Ali enough and can the Tunisian people trust the counterparts of Ben Ali now in power? Is a change in the structure of the regime enough? Prices cuts and more freedom of information and internet access were not enough to appease the frustration and the anger of the Tunisian people. This is why the movement of protest has continued today all over the country despite the Presidential speech yesterday night. Will the departure of Ben Ali from power and the call for elections in six months appease the Tunisian people? Nothing is less sure, people do not believe in the sincerity of the counterparts of Ben Ali’s regime, although the ex president was the main target of the demonstrations slogans. The coming days will be crucial, as well as the reaction of the movement of protests to these new elements.
Ben Ali declared Thursday night that the situation today necessitates a profound change. The President is right for once, and this profound change has been partially achieved with his departure, but his counterparts also need to resign from power now and not in 2014, as the Tunisian people demonstrating in the streets reiterated yesterday. Can fair and democratic elections be held in an authoritarian regime, even a weak and shaken one? Is it a trick of the counterparts of the regime to put an end to the resistance of the Tunisian people and stay in power or a sincere call for a democratization of the regime? This is to the Tunisian people and the movement of protests to decide.
What is undeniable is that the Tunisian people achieved a fantastic success in pushing Ben Ali out of power, the regime is injured, but the regime still exists. We have observed a change in the structure of the authoritarian regime, but not a social revolution. The revolution is not completed until the fall of this regime and until the economic system that condemns Tunisians to poverty and unemployment has been overthrown.
People of Tunisia have to decide where to take now the struggle. Since 1989 many revolutionary upheavals have resulted in transitions from dictatorship to democracy East Europe in 1989, South Africa in 1992, Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000. But the new ‘democratic’ leaders continued to exploit class differences and enforce poverty, inequality and unemployment. The task of the Tunisian revolution, with one of the best organized working classes in the Arab world at its heart, is to meet the challenge of social exploitation as well as political oppression.
Workers and the students have definitely shown that they are the power of tomorrow in Tunisia. They have shaped this movement of protest and accumulated victories over a brutal and authoritarian regime. They are definitely able to shape a future true social and democratic Tunisia. The “Jasmin Revolution”, as we call the movement of protest now in Tunisia, has never been so close to achieve its complete Revolution.
Article also available on Counterfire: http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/international/9285