TUNISIA « We are at a turning point”

Interview with Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami, communist activist, former political prisoner, one of the founding members of the organisation called Popular Front. 

What is your assessment of the situation in Tunisia? 

The political and social situation has suddenly worsened. It was already in crisis, but the government’s announcements have made things worse. 

After the revolution and the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, Tunisia has had eleven successive governments. All of them were bound by the implementation of International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programmes that started as early as 1985. Most of these governments have included the fundamentalist Ennahdha party and the « modernist » parties, or so-called independent « technocrats », but actually, senior officials linked to the World Bank and the IMF, as well as former members of the Ben Ali regime recycled after 2011. 

Given the weakness of the bourgeois parties, a colonial type of capitalism reigns, where French imperialism, the European Union, US imperialism, the Gulf monarchies (Qatar, Emirates and Saudi Arabia), and, more recently Turkey, play a major role. 

Nevertheless, all these governments have shown a weakness. Their austerity, ‘adjustment’ programmes could not be forced through and imposed. Neither the popular movement nor the trade union centre the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), which is at the heart of it, could be broken. 

Of course, since 2011, we have experienced setbacks. But the masses have never stopped their protests, their sit-ins, their demonstrations on the slogans of the revolution: the demand for work, for a health system, for development programmes for underdeveloped regions, etc. Not a year nor a few months without strikes and demonstrations of this or that sector of the working class: there were two general strikes, protest movements, as in the civil service, strikes called by the regional branches of the UGTT. 

The Tunisian bourgeoisie and its international masters have not found the governmental formula that would allow for a certain political stability, especially during the presidential election of October 2019, which saw an « independent » candidate, Kaïs Saïed, being voted in with general assent. 

What are the brutal measures that the government wants to implement? What is the reaction of the labour movement? 

What the current Prime Minister, Mechichi, is promising is a programme of pure and simple destruction of the public sector. It is the old recipe of the international institutions to put an end to public companies (Tunisair, Tunisia Ferries, public banks, etc.), to impose a freeze on salaries and hiring in the public sector, with, in the long run, the objective of liquidating 20% of public sector jobs. The Prime Minister justifies this by the conditions set by the donors: « If we do not implement these measures, we will not get the funds from the donors. « The measures announced also include the cessation of public subsidies on basic foodstuffs, which translates into a sharp drop in purchasing power. 

Finally, the announcement of the possibility of selling agricultural land to foreign multinationals (and in particular to Qataris) has provoked major protests among small farmers, in regions and sectors that had not protested before. For the popular strata, the working class, the peasantry, the unemployed youth and the populations of rundown regions, this announcement of the sale of land is seen as a provocation against national sovereignty. 

The UGTT, the historic organisation of the Tunisian working class, has clearly said no to this adjustment programme, no to the liquidation of the public sector, no to the sale of agricultural land, for freezing the price of basic food products. Last week, the executive of the UGTT, enlarged to include the secretaries of the twenty-four regional unions, adopted a clear position, and convened the broad leadership body of the centre, empowered to call for action, for 17 June. 

The last two weeks have been marked by mobilisations against police violence… 

Several police « blunders » committed in working-class neighbourhoods have sparked the flare-up. The death of a young man during a police check in the Sidi Hussein district in the west of the capital, and then a video that was widely circulated showing police officers beating and stripping a 15year-old child of his clothes, all of this triggered a wave of indignation and social anger in many districts and regions. The more so as the responsibility of the Prime Minister, who is also the Minister of the Interior, is engaged. The demonstrations chanted « Down with this government of misery and repression! « . 

A few words of conclusion, ten years after the Tunisian revolution? 

Despite ten years of struggle by the popular movement and its linchpin, the UGTT, despite the 

mobilisations and the struggles, there is also a certain degree of despair among the underprivileged sectors and the fringes of the crushed petty bourgeoisie. This is reflected both in the vote for fundamentalists and in the illusion that can be created by Abir Moussi, a representative of the Free Destourian Party who advocates a return to Ben Ali (funded by the Emirates). 

The left-wing parties have been weakened. As for the UGTT leadership, it intervenes on all political issues and, in a way, plays the role of a workers’ party… but refuses to propose a solution to the question of power. Today we are at a turning point: the pressure of international capital requests to force the way against the movement of the masses. Either this pressure will lead the UGTT to take the lead in mobilising against the government, towards a general strike, with an antiimperialist and democratic perspective, or the anger that is rising will lead elsewhere and risk turning against the organised workers’ movement.  

Interview by Dominique Ferré on 16 June