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Tunisia: Activist leader assassinated as left re-unites to provide alternative

More than 1 million people mobilised to protest the assassination of Chokri Belaid.

By Patrick Harrison and Dominique Lerouge

February 12, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Furious protests have exploded onto Tunisia's streets and a general strike has been called after the assassination of left-wing politician and lawyer Chokri Belaid on February 6. Belaid was head of the far-left Party of Democratic Patriots (PPD, he was previously leader of MOUPAD: see article below). His killing is Tunisia's first reported political assassination since independence.

Belaid was gunned down outside his home. Only 12 hours before, he publicly denounced "attempts to dismantle the state and the creation of militias to terrorise citizens and drag the country into a spiral of violence", Al Ahram said on February 6.

Afer Belaid's assassination, thousands of people rallied outside the headquarters of the interior ministry and other places on February 7 and 8, confronting tear gas and police assault. Protests spread across all major regional cities and towns, with a general strike in Siliana on February 8. Headquarters of the Ennahda party were attacked in several places.

Siliana was the scene of a regional uprising late 2012 demanding regional investment, job creation and political agency. Belaid took part in the protests, promoting interior minister Ali Larayedh to accuse Belaid of "stirring up trouble".

Belaid's brother Abdelmajid told AFP: “I accuse Rached Ghannouchi [leader of the Islamist Ennahda party] of assassinating my brother.” Although no suspects have been identified by police, most demonstrators agreed with him, with chants such as "Get out!" and others targeting the party and its leaders.

Belaid's funeral took place on February 8. At the insistence of his widow, Besma Khalfaoui, women were encouraged to take part in the funeral procession.

Nessma TV estimated 1more than 1 million were on the streets.

Belaid was a leader of the new Popular Front for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution. His PPD was one of 12 parties that united in October to form the Popular Front. The PF has been active in trade unions and social struggle; the UGTT leadership is largely comprised of PF leaders.

International Viewpoint's Dominique Lerouge discussed the significance of the formation of the the new left front in a January 31 article below.

* * *

Since the spring of 2012, the Tunisian political landscape has been marked by a growing polarisation between two major forces:

1. The first consists of the islamists of Ennahda, the Congrès pour la République (Congress for the Republic, CPR) of President Marzouki and the Ettakatol party led by the social-democratic president of the Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jafaar (Ettakatol is now the official Tunisian grouping of the Socialist International);

2. The second pole strives to bring together various forces, essentially 17 parties emerging from the break-up of the parties of Ben Ali and Bourguiba regimes, who, within the logic of “everything but Ennahda” have fallen behind Nidaa Tounes (the Call of Tunisia) led by Caïd Essebsi (a prominent minister under Bourguiba who was prime minister from February to December of 2011). Talks began in late spring 2012 between Essebsi’s party and the forces involved in the governments of Mohammed Ghannouchi immediately after the fall of Ben Ali, for example those emerging from the PDP (Parti démocratique progressiste, Progressive Democratic Party) and the “modernists” around Ettajid (which traces its origins to the old Communist Party). Currents from the Parti du travail tunisien (Party of Tunisian Labour, PTT) led by Badoui were added. The primary objective of Essebsi was to bring together former leaders and activists of the overthrown Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party of Ben Ali.

Left re-unites

The Tunisian left, whose activists had played a leading role in the revolution of December 2010-February 2011, was marginalised during the elections of October 2011. Grouped inside the January 14 Front, the various left and Arab nationalist political organisations made the choice of contesting the elections alone, when they lacked the material means to be visible. Their capacity to intervene in the struggles was diminished.

In the spring of 2012, discussions started to reconstitute a January 14 Front on new bases, open to other parties as well as independent individual activists (not belonging to any political party). The challenge was to build a third political pole to oppose the two others situated within the framework of neoliberal capitalism.

When asked about this in July 2012, the leader of the Parti des travailleurs (the Workers’ Party, formerly the Communist Workers Party, PCOT) Hamadi Ben Mim explained:

“The revolutionary political forces that formed the January 14 Front in the days that followed the fall of Ben Ali have largely contributed to the fall of the first two interim governments.

"When Caïd Essebsi then became prime minister, on February 27, 2011, the PCOT favoured bringing him down and replacing him with a government in the service of the workers… But there was no consensus on this point between the revolutionary parties: Essebsi threw some bait to the left organisations, and some of them fell for it. The January 14 Front then exploded... It is now necessary to recover and bring together again the revolutionary forces of the left, whether Marxist or nationalist. It is necessary to build a new coalition, on the basis of a revolutionary new program to combat the polarisation between Ennahda and the forces led by Essebsi.

"To achieve this, we want to revive the January 14 Front, in another form. The conditions for such an association are now met, because most of those who had previously agreed to enter into the framework put in place by Essebsi have learned the lessons of it… Exchanges between the Parti des Travailleurs and the Trotskyists of the LGO [Ligue de la Gauche Ouvrière, Workers’ Left League] face two main problems: first, the LGO would like the UGTT [Tunisia's main trade union] to rebuild the front and the latter would be around it. The Parti des Travailleurs is opposed to this tactic, and thinks you must start by grouping the Marxist left and nationalist political organisations. Second, the LGO considers that the backbone of any front must be the UGTT. The Parti des Travailleurs thinks that the constitution of this front does not have to wait until the UGTT agrees to participate. Especially as the UGTT seeks, in its latest initiative, a consensus between government and opposition.” [1]

In July 2012, Chedli Gari, then responsible for trade union work inside the Patriotic and Democratic Labor Party (PTPD), also drew a negative balance of the break-up of the Tunisian left: “the division of the political organisations of the left was catastrophic at the October 2011 elections. We made the calculation with Jmour and Hamma Hammami: If we presented unitary lists, the PCOT of Hamma Hammami, MOUPAD of Chokri Belaïd and the PTPD could have come in second place. By adding the Arab nationalists, we would have remained second but with more seats. Three weeks before the elections, we were still trying to achieve common lists, but each organisation has finally contested the elections alone thinking it would get the lion’s share.”

In the summer of 2012, Gari explained the reasons for the break-up of the PTPD: “it is necessary to break with the very right-wing political orientation of Abderrazak Hammami and the majority of the political bureau reflected notably in periods of flirting with Ennahda, Essebsi, Chebbi or Ettajid. Abderrazak Hammami has indeed tried to reach out to the major parties and has pushed for a break with the radical left. He wanted the PTPD to be perceived as the organisation safeguarding the revolution from its extremist tendencies: thus he met with Rached Ghannouchi [the founder of Ennahda] and Essebsi as well as the Ennahda human rights minister.”

Gari presented thus the orientation of his current since its split with the PTPD: “our focus for the coming months is as follows: strengthen the process of unification with the MOUPAD, with whom a fusion congress is scheduled from August 31 to September 2; Rebuild a front including the Arab nationalists, who are very attached to Muslim identity, which is why Ennahda seeks to win over some of them. We are not located in the Islam-secular debate posed by Ennahda and Ettajid.” [2]

Meanwhile, Néjib Sellami, one of the main leaders of the UGTT’s secondary school teachers and a known activist from the MOUPAD, said last July: “a peasant woman told me last week: the Tunisian revolution is like a watermelon on a table. It is indeed not in a stable situation, it fluctuates and may fall to earth at any time. This image pleased me very much. We had an authoritarian regime in the Palace in Carthage in the hands of Ben Ali, today, another authoritarian regime is being established at the Casbah in the hands of Jebali, the Islamist Prime Minister. This party practices a form of double-speak: it claims to be democratic and civil, but its practices are reminiscent of Ben Ali’s RCD. It wants to decide everything and Tunisians today fear the return of a dictatorship in a religious form. Faced with Ennahda, a grouping has formed around Essebesi with old Bourguibistes and former RCD members. They are joined by forces of the centre, or even exits from the left. Ennahda and the US and French governments want to push the Tunisians to choose between two poles: Ennahda and the parties originating from the old regime. These two forces are well structured and have lots of money. But a third pole is taking place rejecting this polarisation. It is made up of left-wing and Arab nationalist parties. They want not only to prevent any return to a dictatorship, but also to achieve the satisfaction of the demands for which the people made the revolution. The objective is to restore what existed previously under the name of the January 14 Front”. [3]

A member of the leadership of the Ligue de la gauche ouvrière (Workers’ Left League, LGO) Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami summarised the conditions of reconstruction of a January 14 Front this summer: “this front will be meaningless unless several conditions are simultaneously met: 1. A firm base in the current social mobilisations, the political left is currently lagging behind the social mobilisations; 2. Establish a program of struggle and mobilisation around the essential points: against the line of Ennahda, reactionary, anti-democratic and opposed to women’s rights, cancellation of the debt and the agreements of association with imperialist forces, for the campaign against unemployment and for the right to work, the establishment of a system of development favouring the disadvantaged classes and regions... 3. To clearly oppose the anti-social, pro-imperialist and undemocratic policies of the government of Muslim Brotherhood of the Ennahda party and their puppet allies. And to combat illusions around the liberal pole of the old RCDistes (around Sebsi) and their ally Najib Chebbi. 4. To call for the fall of the current government and start to discuss the nature of a popular government. For the LGO, it should be based on a popular and democratic workers’ front, with the spinal column or the UGTT; 5. Opening up to and working with independents, notably leaders in the struggle in the trade union movement, in the regions, among women, the unemployed and young people”. [ibid.]

An initial agreement was announced on August 13, 2012, between12 parties, announcing the creation of the Popular Front for the Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution. The daily newspaper Le Temps noted: “At a time when observers of national political life believe that a polarisation between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes is now inevitable ..., the Popular Front, bringing together left and Arab nationalist parties, considers that Tunisians are not forced to choose between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes” [4].

This new Popular Front brings together organisations from various traditions:
  • Marxist-Leninist: Parti des travailleurs (Workers’ Party, the former PCOT, led by Hamma Hammami), Parti des patriotes démocrates unifiés (Party of United Democratic Patriots, resulting from the recent merger of the MOUPAD led by Chokri Belaïd and the Jmour current of the PTPD), the Parti patriotique socialiste révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Socialist Patriotic Party led by Jamel Lazhar), and the Parti de la lutte progressiste (Party of the Progressive Struggle, PLP, led by Mohamed Leban);
  • Trotskyist: Ligue de la gauche ouvriere (Workers’ Left League, LGO);
  • Socialist: Parti populaire pour la liberté et le progrès (People’s Party for Freedom and Progress, PPLP, led by Jalloul Ben Azzouna); Marxist Pan-Arab: Front populaire unioniste (Popular Unionist Front, led by Amor Mejri);
  • Nasserite Arab nationalist: Mouvement du peuple (Movement of the People-Hraket Echaab, led by Mohamed Brahmi);
  • Baathist Arab nationalist: Mouvement Bath, led by Othmane Belhaj Amor, Parti de l’avant-garde arabe et démocratique (Party of the Arab and Democratic Vanguard, PAGAD, led by Khereddine Souabni);
  • Others: Tunisie verte (Green Tunisia, led by Abdelkader Zitouni), Mouvement des démocrates socialistes (Movement of Socialist Democrats).
  • Many independent activists also participate in the front.

At its first national conference in September 2012, the Popular Front adopted a draft political charter and elected the historic leader of the PCOT/PT, Hamma Hammami, as spokesperson.

Notes

[1] Interview conducted by Alain Baron in Tunis on July 18 and 19, published by the website of Europe solidaire sans frontières.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Cited in Alain Baron, Tunisie: Le regroupement à gauche franchit une nouvelle étape.

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Splintered History of the Tunisian Left

 

A protester gestures to police during a demonstration near the Interior Ministry in Tunis on 8 February 2013. Tens of thousands of mourners chanted anti-Islamist slogans on Friday at the Tunis funeral of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid. (Photo: Zoubeir Souissi - Reuters)

By: Noureddine Baltayeb [1]

Published Saturday, February 9, 2013

The assassination [2] of Chokri Belaid, a leader of Tunisia’s leftist Movement of Patriotic Democrats (MPD), raises many questions about not just Belaid’s party, but the Tunisian left as a whole.

The roots of the Tunisian leftist movement in all its variations go back to the Tunisian Communist Party, founded by the French in 1920.

With independence, the faction was gradually transformed into a Tunisian party, but despite its old roots, “the party did not spread in society for two central reasons,” according to Abdul-Jalil Bouqara, a historian specializing in the Tunisian left.

“The first was its position on independence following World War II. It rejected calls for independence, adopting the idea of coalition and unity between Tunisia and France under the leadership of the French Communist Party,” Bouqara explained. “This stance led Tunisians to abandon the party.”

“The second reason was its agreement on the partition of Palestine following the creation of the state of Israel,” he continued.

Despite attempts in the 1950s to “Tunisify” the party and adopt independence, it remained isolated until the beginning of the 1960s. Back then, a group of Tunisian students decided to establish a new leftist movement in France named “Afaq,” or “Prospects,” which adopted socialism and democracy.

In 1967, the new movement began aligning with the Maoist tradition, which was gaining ground worldwide. This new direction caused a split inside Afaq, prompting the creation of a splinter group called the “Patriotic Democrats,” which is where Belaid got his start.

Its activities were launched with the 1969 publication of al-Shola, or The Flame. One of its key figures in France and founder was Khaled al-Faleh.

Afaq’s leadership branded the group Stalinist, but this was a label that the Patriotic Democrats did not try to hide. Despite its leanings, the group called for abandoning socialism to concentrate on what it called back then, resistance against imperialist hegemony over Tunisia and the need for agrarian reform, due to MPD’s belief that a feudal class still owned most of the land.

The current became popular with students and began spreading in the Tunisian university scene. It was known for its radical positions and suffered from various splits. It ended up as a number of small groups whose influence was limited to some colleges and trade unions, especially teacher’s associations.

Attempts at Unification

When former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January 2011, several leftist parties began to practice their work in the open after years spent underground.

The most important of these groups was the Workers Party, which inherited the Afaq movement; its splinter, the Socialist Party; Belaid’s MPD who had led the Patriotic Democratic Current in universities; the Party for Patriotic Democratic Action; the New Left Party; the Progressive Struggle Party; the Radical Left Current (Trotskyist); and the Patriotic Democratic Party.

Despite this multitude of leftist groups, the left could only reap 5 of the 217 seats in the post-Ben Ali parliamentary elections.

The meager results in the elections prompted Belaid to commit to the unification of the Tunisian left, especially the patriotic-democratic family. Thus came Belaid’s initiative to unite the patriotic democrats in the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party.

The failure of this initiative convinced Belaid of the need to expand it to include all leftists, including the heirs of Afaq, namely the Workers Party, which was formerly accused by the Patriotic Democrats of being reformist.

This led to the Popular Front, which even included the Baath party’s two factions, the Syrian Baath and the Iraqi Baath.

Today, after the assassination of Belaid, the Tunisian left lost a leader who had resolutely strived to unite it, but the bullets put an end to his dreams.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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