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Arab Spring eyewitness: Reflections on the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia

[The writer is an Australian Socialist Alliance activist presently in the Middle East. His regular reports appear in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]

By Ted Walker, Cairo

October 7, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Arriving in Egypt the day before the September 9 protests that brought tens of thousands into the street, marches to the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Court, and then the storming of the Israeli embassy, certainly threw me in at the deep end! But arriving in Cairo at almost any point would have been like that.

For the last few months, Friday protests -- in Cairo's Tahrir Square and nationwide -- have been going on more or less every week. The week after September 9, there was a protest at Tahrir Square of around a thousand against the military trials; today there are "back to the barracks" protests demanding a quicker timetable for creating a civilian government.

But even outside of what could be called the "democracy" movement of bloggers and activists, there has been mass democratic struggle in almost all layers of society, and the Tahrir protests are really only the tip of the iceberg. Most days when I walk around the city or meet various people there are little sit-ins or protests or speakouts happening outside ministries or public buildings. More than once I was simply in my room and I saw protesters marching past from my balcony that I knew nothing about!

New workers' movement

The lion's share of these protests are by parts of the new workers' movement, which has been growing here for several years. The official trade unions and syndicates, more than 4000 in total, were sewn up by US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak's ruling misnamed National Democratic Party (NDP), but in the last few years underground independent unions have been forming out of wildcat struggles within Egypt's major factories and businesses. Now there's more than 150 independent unions, and more are being established all the time; some of these unions have won official recognition, and are leading struggles – both for economic demands like better pay and conditions, but also for structural reforms, to get rid of Mubarak's cronies and for more workers' control.

For example, one protest march I saw was by secondary school teachers, who are striking for better pay, demanding the removal of the minister and more funding for public education – a major issue, as all Egyptian families have to shell out for either private schooling or extra tuition due to the inadequacy of the state schools.

Cronies

The key figureheads of the old regime are imprisoned or on trial in absentia, but in pretty much every big business, ministry or government department and public service – Mubarak-era cronies are still in power, and the networks of corruption still exist. The repression of protest and activism may have eased up since February 11, but corruption – such as the bribes to get things done in the system – have worsened.

On this basis, it's clear to most Egyptians that the revolution hasn't changed much yet, but the revolutionary movement still seems to have the support of most people on the street. The trade union movement is a big part of this – revolutionaries aren't just talking about the nebulous structure of the whole political class, or rights and class in an abstract way, but also conducting campaigns against specific individual figures at all levels of power, who ordinary people know are corrupt and are stooges of the rich and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (which, thanks to years of billion-dollar blank cheques from the US, owns of huge swathes of industry).

Revolutionary left

Meeting with comrades of the Egyptian Socialist Party (a socialist unity project which seems like the closest thing here to Germany's Die Linke or Australia's Socialist Alliance) was really illuminating, especially for putting the particular struggles in context and finding out more about what's been going on with the independent trade union movement. It's a very radical movement. The Egyptian Socialist Party and other revolutionary socialists have prioritised working in this area, which is one of the reasons why it's been growing so successfully.

Key leaders of the democracy movement are also affiliated to one or another of the socialist parties, united under the banner of the "Coalition of Socialist Forces" –  the Revolutionary Socialists have been joined by several of the leading blogger/democracy activists, while the Egyptian Socialist Party, for example, has joined by many of the leaders of the Kefaya movement, which grew as a grassroots opposition force in 2004-2005 before stagnating somewhat after disappointing electoral results saw the Muslim Brotherhood become the main parliamentary opposition.

A big part of the inability of the democracy movement to make much ground up until now has been its inability to link with the urban poor and disadvantaged rural communities (something the Muslim Brotherhood has until now done much more successfully). So the unity between the different areas of struggle has been a key part in the success and growth of the revolutionary movement in the last six months; a key part of the democracy element right now, for example, is getting rid of the anti-strike and anti-demonstration laws imposed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces following the overthrow of Mubarak, as well as the state of emergency law. This obviously helps relate the democracy struggle to the mass working-class uprising going on.

Another aspect has been pro-poor work on a more direct level; revolutionary youth have been going into poorer communities, especially the informal slum settlements on the edge of Cairo, and helping to establish committees and networks simply to fight for access to basic infrastructure, jobs, food, etc. This is very exciting; there's a big layer of revolutionary "Tahrir" youth who are joining the organised left now that it's out from underground and openly propagandising.

While I was meeting with a comrade at the downtown Cairo office of the Egyptian Socialist Party, there was a meeting of around 20 young members, some with pre-January experience in politics but most without, debating the best ways to take the revolution forward. It was certainly a world away from some of the sleepy education meetings I've been part of in Australia! Many of the "Tahrir" youth can tend towards an ultraleft emphasis on protest, occupation and confronting the state – to what extent to embrace this tendency instead of emphasising the many kinds of party-building and activism needed to grow the movement has been something of a debate among the left here.

The revolutionary left in Egypt is well aware of the need to keep this struggle growing; to strengthen the parties and forces of the left so they can lead the struggle is everyone's primary task – while at the same time doing as much as possible to work towards unity, such as opening joint party offices in smaller cities where the left was unable to organise during the underground Mubarak years.

The left here hasn't yet won the kind of legitimacy to be seen as leading the revolution – that still lies with pro-democracy groups like the April 6 Youth movement or the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth – but they are very aware of the need to build a dual legitimacy to that of the pseudo-revolutionary government of SCAF stooges and Mubarakists through the struggle. In my opinion, this, rather than any electoral or democratic battle, is what will determine the failure or success of the revolution in Egypt.

Tunisia

Travelling to Tunisia was a bit of a shock after the turbulent revolutionary spirit of Cairo. When I first arrived, I was especially shocked by the fact that Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the Kasbah square (the two sites of major protest in the capital Tunis) are under occupation by the police, with razor wire set up outside the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Interior, the French embassy and pretty much anywhere that people will specifically protest against. The army is on the streets too; I've got no idea if they still have a pro-revolutionary image here, despite its US funding, but it is much smaller than the police forces. Either way, the streets are definitely under wraps at present, and mass struggle has been much more successfully contained.

Mass protests and strikes have definitely slowed down in Tunisia, at least in the major urban centres of the coast, over the last couple of months. The heavy police presence probably has something to do with this, but also the coming constituent assembly elections, which will take place on October 23. The constituent assembly will be responsible for writing a new constitution, and also appointing a new interim government for the next 12 months; after that time, a full-term government will be elected. This timetable is designed, as far as I can tell, to tread the line between reining in the revolutionary energy of Tunisia's youth and winning enough legitimacy among the majority of the population to avoid a "second revolution" protest wave breaking out.

But if the ex-Ben Ali regime figures who make up the present government are re-appointed to the new one, as the current prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, has signalled he is seeking to do, then I think people will hit the streets again; most of the activists and leftists I've spoken to here think it's possible.

I understand the situation is completely different in the disadvantaged interior of the country, where some cities and towns impoverished by government and International Monetary Fund policies, which prioritise investment on the coast to reduce infrastructure needs, have just kicked the police and government out; unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to get out there.

However, I think in some crucial ways here the struggle is weaker than is Egypt, even taking into account that the last two months have been during a lull due to electoralist organisation.

But the revolutionary struggle isn't dead or dormant here, despite the election sucking up the energy of a good number of democracy activists and the organised left. Like in Egypt, there are struggles within every element of society to get rid of corrupt figures from the old regime. For example, on my second day here I saw two protests: one, a group of around 650 graduate secondary teachers staging a sit-in at the Ministry of Education to demand the government create jobs for them; and another demanding the release of a police officer whistleblower who revealed that two recently appointed figures were corrupt and were responsible for killing protesters.

Tunisian left

One factor in Tunisia was union activity here; leftists were able to hide under the umbrella of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail) at the local branch level under Ben Ali dictatorship, although the top leadership was bought off by the regime. The UGTT was one of the key bodies, along with blogger-journalist-activists, in spreading the uprising from the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, where Muhammad Bouazizi self-immolated on December 17, 2010, to the bigger cities along the coast, due to the slightly greater leeway for activity at the local branch level.

There have been some initiatives to set up independent trade unions, including by the police, which have been quashed by the regime; I'm yet to hear of any purging of the UGTT of Ben Ali collaborators, but I really don't know what the state of play is there or whether the UGTT remains a functional body actually leading the workers' movement.

One exception worth mentioning is the national union of students; it had some leeway to struggle under the first post-colonial dictator Bourguiba, but was totally infiltrated by Ben Ali and became totally useless. Since January 14 it's been reclaimed and is leading struggles on campuses, over basic things like money for textbooks or students unfairly dismissed by the corrupt administrations still in place at most universities.

Due to the closeness of the relationship with France, many exiled left organisations organised among the diaspora in France for the last 10 or 20 years and have now returned; some of the more radical of the centre-left formations, which look likely to do well in the elections, such as Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms), are in this category. Revolutionary groups have returned since Ben Ali's downfall. The Left Worker's League (LGO), the main Trotskyist group, seems to fall into this category; most of the democracy activists and young people I've spoken to here don't even know who they are, and I haven't been able to get in touch with them or meet them yet.

Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia

I did manage, however, to meet with a member of the central committee of the Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia (PCOT), which played an essential role in the uprising against Ben Ali (largely through their involvement in the UGTT) and who seem to be the biggest and best force on the left here. Despite their affiliation to the Hoxhaist (Albanian Maoist) international tendency, they have the sharpest line on the ongoing revolution and how to keep advancing the struggle of anybody that I've spoken to here. It is definitely the only big-name party in Tunisia that hasn't switched to safe rhetoric due to the approaching election, and it is still talking about revolution!

The biggest weakness that I'd identify of the PCOT is that it isn't as well respected among democracy activists, or as big a part of that movement as, for example, the revolutionary socialists in Egypt are. Indeed, many of the leading blogger-journalist-activists here, such as Slim Amamou (who was named the minister of youth within the second post-January 14 government, although he recently resigned that post) and Azyz Amami, are leaders of the Tunisian Pirate Party, which seems to be taking on the role of groups like April 6 or the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth in Egypt.

The PCOT is a very old party, which struggled underground for a long time, which means it is well positioned to organise for the elections – this, I think, may have deterred people who are rightly cynical of the electoral process. However, revolutionary young people are definitely looking to the organised left, and to the PCOT especially (the local "goth" subculture in Tunis, for example, is full of PCOT militants!). The PCOT's main office in Tunis was absolutely bustling with young people doing various things for the election campaign.

 

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Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia popular among young voters

Communist Workers' Party of Tunisia popular among young voters
Daily Star of Lebanon

TUNIS: The posterchild of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisia is preparing for highly anticipated democratic elections, but a lack of enthusiasm among young voters and tensions between Islamist and secular partisans have many feeling pessimistic.

Fiercely proud of their revolution and eager for a democratic voice, many Tunisians lament the widespread lack of confidence in the country’s political class.

“A vast number of Tunisians, particularly the youth, have not seen concrete changes or proposals, so they question the future,” said Mohammad Mzeim, 32, a spokesman for the Communist Workers’ Party of Tunisia (PCOT) a popular party among the country’s many young voters.

Mzeim spoke from PCOT’s bustling third-story office, packed with supporters and stacks of campaign literature, off the Place de la Republique in the capital, Tunis.

“The real problem is that most people don’t know who they want to vote for. There are more than 100 political parties, 1,500 electoral lists,” he added. “The people have the right to vote but they cannot see clearly.”

Following the ouster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, there was an explosion of political activity and optimism in Tunisia.

The elections for a 218-member Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new constitution is scheduled for Oct. 23.

Tunisians will have the choice among 81 of the 111 registered parties and 1,541 lists, many independent, in 33 constituencies.

This breadth of choice, combined with a lack of trust in government after years of autocratic rule, has left many Tunisians undecided. Polls suggest that most Tunisians are likely to vote but nearly half do not know who for.

“There are two types – those who are extremely politically active, and those who discard their liberty because they haven’t seen change,” said a high-ranking member of Ettakatol, one of left-leaning parties expected to win representation in the Constituent Assembly.

The vast choice has not helped matters, he added.

Further complicating the campaign season has been a series of decisions by the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE), the body charged with overseeing the elections. Following concerns about foreign financing of parties, ISIE banned public advertising last month, limiting the ability of parties to reach voters.

ISIE has also banned foreign journalists from interviewing candidates, a decision that most believe was aimed at stemming the influence of Al-Jazeera Arabic and France 24, the country’s most popular television channels.

Kamel Jendoubi, the head of ISIE, assured reporters this month that everything was under control.

“The elections should take place under favorable conditions, but we are ready for any eventuality,” he said.

Recent events, however, have highlighted tensions before the vote. In the coastal city of Sousse demonstrators gathered last Saturday to protest the education ministry’s decision to ban students from wearing the niqab.

The following day protesters marched on the offices of the Nessma television station in Tunis, for airing the French-Iranian film “Persepolis,”which included an animated depiction of God. The initial protest was followed by clashes with police in Tunis’ Ras Ettabia neighborhood.

The weekend’s unrest underscored what is considered to be the election’s principal narrative: the battle between Islamists, namely the An-Nahda
(Renaissance) movement, and the center-left secular parties who, for the most part, seek to uphold the countr’s tradition of secularism.

Opinion polls have consistently shown Nahda to be the front-runner ahead of the elections. Led by the 70-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, who spent years in exile in London under the Ben Ali regime, Nahda is well financed and has an extensive network across Tunisia.

“We are against all forms of violence,” Nourdine Bhiri, a member of Nahda’s executive committee, told The Daily Star. But by airing Persepolis, he said, Nessma had “violated the fundamental right of all believers. The rights of citizens who are believers must be respected.”

Some feel that increased religious-based polarization will benefit Nahda. Moutaa Amin Nelwaer, a communications office the Socialist Left Party (a member of the Democratic Modernist Bloc), said that some feel after the secular period of Ben Ali, Islamism should be tried.

“They think: We had laicitè under Ben Ali, now is the time to support Islamism,” he said.

While Nahda is expected to win a sizeable share in the Constituent Assembly the elections, which will be closed-list proportional, could see the emergence of a larger alliance of center-left parties.

The Progressive Democratic Party, the largest opposition party during the Ben Ali era, Ettakatol, the technocratic Afek Tunis, and the Congress for the Republic, the party of respected activist, Moncef Marzouki, along with a collection of others, are expected to do well.

When asked to speculate on the odds of victory for his party, Nahda’s Bhiri, spoke instead about a democratic victory for the country: “Nahda is a Tunisian party among many Tunisian parties. Above all, it’s the Tunisians that will win.”

But he emphasized the importance of the youth vote, noting that the issues of the country, like high unemployment, affect them most.

Outside of the capital’s many political offices, youth discontent is evident. It can be heard on the street and in the universities.

At a tram stop outside the sprawling, white-washed Manouba University campus in Tunis, Trabelsi Hajer, a 20-year-old English student and Nahda supporter, said many of her friends are pessimistic.

“They are not confident. They think that nothing will change and they won’t vote. I have friends who won’t vote. It affects the freedom of the whole country,” she said.

More than a hundred students at Tunis University’s Human and Social Sciences Faculty staged an apolitical walkout for better conditions at the university Tuesday.

Wearing red arm bands, students marched down the university’s halls, banging on classrooms doors chanting: “Public education, democratic education, national culture” and “We will die but we will take the injustice from our land.”

Despite the widespread hesitancy and indecision, Tunisians have not lost sight of the symbolic importance of the upcoming elections, particularly as sectarian tensions flare in Egypt and fighting continues in Libya.

Many resident of Tunis, a city where concertina wire and armored personnel carriers still guard popular squares, told The Daily Star that they feel a responsibility to vote, regardless of whether they support a certain party.

“It’s a question of conscience,” said Elhamad Ismail, 26, a web designer and Ettakatol supporter. “The youth who are conscientious are very involved in the election. Those who are not, are not.”

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