Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tunisian Workers, Youth Uprising Struggles for Fundamental Change

Tunisian Workers, Youth Uprising Struggles for Fundamental Change

Unrest spreads throughout the region alarming western states and their surrogates

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

Despite attempts by the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party to defuse anger and tension inside this North African state, the workers and youth have continued with their mass demonstrations and strikes aimed at removing the neo-colonial regime and replacing it with a representative government of national unity. On Jan. 24, a strike by the teachers’ union was met with further repression by the beleaguered government in Tunis.

The teachers, who are affiliated with the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), struck on the same day that the government sought to re-open schools that have been closed since Jan. 10 in response to the more than one month of mass demonstrations, strikes and rebellions that have led to the forced-exile of the western-backed former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the failure of his RCD party to form a coalition regime. Coinciding with the strike by the nation’s educators it was reported that demonstrators fought running battles with the police hurling stones and smashing windows at the ministry of finance building in the capital.

Strike actions by the teachers were decisively political with the principal demand being the abolition of the existing regime which is still dominated by the discredited and repressive party of the former President Ben Ali. In defiance of the curfew imposed by the RCD government, demonstrators have set up outside the offices of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who took over after the fleeing of Ben Ali on Jan. 14, saying they will not leave until the current regime resigns.

“We will stay here until the government resigns and runs away like Ben Ali,” a student named Othemene told the French Press Agency (AFP). Small business owners have largely remained sympathetic to the strike or afraid to open up in contravention to the majority of workers and youth who want to bring down the RCD regime.

Mourad Lessoued, a shopkeeper, told the Tunisian daily La Presse de Tunisie that “Every day, I’m practically the only one to open my store early in the morning. Many shopkeepers still fear an escalation of violence. Everyone is still in shock…. I think it would be better if my fellow merchants got back to business as usual to revive the activity of our souk.” (Jan. 24)

In efforts to assuage the masses in Tunisia, the government has detained some of the leading figures that were closely associated with former President Ben Ali. State Television reported on Jan. 24 that a political adviser, Abdelaziz bin Dhia and former interior minister and leader of the upper parliamentary house Abdallah Qallal-- as well as the head of a private media network-- were placed under house arrest for supposedly attempting to hamper efforts to bring about the weak and ineffective political reforms initiated by the RCD regime.

On the international level, the United States and France have been cautious in their statements related to the current political situation inside the country. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Prime Minister Ghannouchi and told him that the Obama administration was encouraged by moves to bring about an inclusive government in Tunisia. (Globe and Mail, Jan. 24)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy held a press conference on Jan. 24 and announced his government’s willingness to extend financial emergency aid to the regime in Tunisia, a former colony. “I have asked Prime Minister Francois Fillon to prepare measures that will be presented to Tunisia to help the transitional government, especially on the economic front. I hope these measures can be put into place as quickly as possible.” (Reuters, Jan. 24)

Liberation Caravan Travels to Capital

Hundreds of Tunisians left the southern city of Menzel Bouzaiane on Jan. 22, a small town located in the same province as Sidi Bouzid where the rebellion started on mid-December in the aftermath of the self-immolation of a 26-year-old university graduate, and traveled to the capital of Tunis where they joined protesters outside the Prime Minister’s office the following day. Although the offices of the prime minister had been cordoned off with barbed wire, demonstrators tore down the barricade and joined those who had camped out in the area.

The demonstrators had marched 50 kilometers before boarding buses to the capital where they first gathered at the ministry of interior before moving on the prime minister’s office. Hashem Ahelbarra, a correspondent for Al Jazeera, said that the security forces stationed outside of Ghannouchi’s office were “completely overwhelmed” by the crowds of protesters. (Al Jazeera, Jan. 23)

According to Hashem, who said in relationship to the character of the demonstrations on Jan. 23, that “They’re chanting the same slogan that has echoed across the country—‘Down with the regime, down with the former party, down with the interim president and with the prime minister. They’re saying that the fight will continue for as long as it takes, until they see a radical change in Tunisia.” (Al-Jazeera, Jan. 23)

Ghannouchi in an interview on State Television on Jan. 21 said that once the political situation had stabilized he would end his involvement in politics. The prime minister has ostensibly resigned from his leadership position in the ruling RCD party saying on television that “My role is to bring my country out of this temporary phase and even if I am nominated I will refuse it and leave politics.”

Even though Ghannouchi has claimed that he wants to end the current political impasse, no specific date has been announced for the holding of national elections aimed at creating a new government. The Tunisian constitution mandates the holding of elections in 60 days once a government is no longer in force.

A number of the leading banned political parties have issued statements rejecting the RCD’s attempt to maintain power through the appointment of selected ministers without any fundamental change in the division of power inside the state. The exiled leader of the al-Nahda party, (Renaissance Party) Rachid al-Ghannouchi, said that his organization should not be considered a threat to the political culture of Tunisia despite claims to compare him with the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“According to al-Ghannouchi, “We are a moderate Islamic movement, a democratic movement based on democratic ideals in… Islamic culture. Some people pull Khomeini’s robe over me, while I am no Khomeini nor a Shia.” (Al Jazeera, Jan. 23)

The al-Nahda party called for a “Constitutional Council which represents all political tendencies and civil society institutions such as trade unions, the Association of Lawyers, and representative bodies of unemployed graduates who played an important role in the revolution, with the aim of building a democratic constitution for a parliamentary system that distributes and decentralizes power on the widest scale possible and puts an end to the corrupt era of one party and its pharaonic leader.” (Monthly Review, Jan. 19)

Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi, who is not related to the Renaissance Party leader, has said that the exiled leader of al-Nahda cannot return to Tunisia until a 1991 prison sentence is lifted. This refusal to allow al-Ghannouchi to reenter the country appears to contradict a Jan. 20 cabinet action that supposedly lifted the ban on political parties inside the country.

The RCD government has also announced the release of some 1,800 political prisoners. Nonetheless Al Jazeera correspondent Nazanine Moshiri reported that “We’ve heard earlier in the day (Jan. 20) that some Islamist ones, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, may not have been freed yet, being kept under Tunisian anti-terror laws.” (Al Jazeera, Jan. 20)

Also Jan. 20, demonstrators attacked the ruling RCD headquarters with a large steel cable that ripped down the name of the organization from the building. The crowd carried placards reading: “We are no longer afraid of you, traitors, and ‘RCD out!’”

Illustrating the difference in the response by the security forces, which during the first few weeks of the uprising shot down scores of protestors, and the army, which has been more restrained in their approach to the unrest, on Jan. 20 outside the RCD headquarters, an army captain told the crowd that “I am with you. We are not going to shoot you.”

The army captain went on to say that “What matters is that the rally is peaceful.” In response to the trashing of the RCD headquarters, the army fired shots into the air in an effort to control the crowd.

Other political parties have issued statements calling for the resignation of the RCD.

The Workers’ Communist Party (PCOT) noted that “All forces which played an effective and crucial role in toppling the dictator, whether political, trade unionist, human rights, or cultural, whatever organized or otherwise, are, alongside the masses, to be involved in drawing Tunisia’s future and cannot be represented by any other figure or body in any negotiations or communications with the government.” (Monthly Review, Jan. 19)

At the same time the Congress for the Republic criticized the political maneuvering of the RCD government to be “an attempt to abort the revolution and return to the very same old state on the basis of the laws and constitution of dictatorship, and to take us back to the same state, but with a new fa├žade. The acceptance of this government is tantamount to placing the country once again under the hegemony of the party of corruption and repression, the RCD, while among the principal slogans of the revolution was ‘Down with the RCD, down with the torturer of the people.’ (Monthly Review, Jan. 19)

Regional Impact of the Tunisian Situation

Demonstrations have also continued in neighboring Algeria where similar conditions of high unemployment and rising food prices have sparked anger. On Jan. 22, police clashed with protestors in Algiers where multiple casualties were reported. (Deutsche Welle, Jan. 22)

The opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD-Algeria) said the demonstration took place in order to defy the government’s ban on protest activity. The Interior Ministry reported that 19 people were injured in the clashes, including 8 police officers.

Also in the capital of Yemen, Sanaa, students at the University held demonstrations on Jan. 22 and 23 calling for the resignation of the U.S.-backed regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A banner was carried by the students which read: “No to inheritance, no to extension, learn from the Jasmine Revolution,” in reference to the uprising in Tunisia.

It was also reported on Jan. 23 that the leader of the Yemen demonstrations, Tawakul Karman, was arrested by the authorities. Karman, a woman student and a member of the Islah Party, was arrested on the orders of the General Prosecution Office. (Al Jazeera, Jan. 23)

Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, Karman’s husband, said that she was arrested on Jan. 23 on her way home and that he had no accurate information on the student’s whereabouts. On Jan. 23 thousands of students entered the streets in protest against Karman’s arrest.

Karman, who is the leader of the Women Journalists Without Chains, had been calling for the Yemeni masses to support the uprising in Tunisia. The world economic crisis has also impacted Yemen, where half the population lives below the official poverty level.

Demonstrations were also reported to have taken place in the southern port city of Aden, where similar demands were also made for the resignation of President Saleh. Police were said to have opened fire on the demonstration, injuring four people and arresting 22 others.

In Egypt, a coalition of opposition groups including the Karama, the April 6th Movement, the National Association for Change, The Popular Democratic Movement for Change, the Justice and Freedom Youth Movement and The Revolutionary Socialists, called for national demonstrations against the U.S.-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25. This day has been proclaimed “Revolution Day” by these opposition groups in response to the official holiday sanctioned by the government called “police day.” (Ahram, Jan. 24)

Egypt, which is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid next to Israel, is reported to have anywhere between 5,000-10,000 political prisoners. The regime of Mubarak has violently suppressed mass protests and strikes over the last several years.

What Role for Anti-Imperialists in the U.S.?

These developments in North Africa and throughout the Middle-East region has prompted the concerns of U.S. and French imperialism who have framed their foreign policy as a so-called “war on terrorism” against “Islamic fundamentalism.” In contradiction to the imperialists’ viewpoint, the secular and overtly political character of these demonstrations, rebellions and uprisings, should be supported by progressive forces inside the western states.

The economic crisis of capitalism is worldwide and the demands put forward by the workers and youth in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen and Egypt have significance for the proletariat and the oppressed nations inside the United States. The failure of capitalism to provide jobs, social and public services, adequate food distribution and political freedoms is an international phenomenon.

Coalitions in opposition to the U.S. imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, should extend their mandates to support the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle-East. Workers and the oppressed inside the U.S. and other western capitalist states can learn from the efforts of their counterparts in these geo-political regions.

No comments: