Tunisia: Interview with Communist Workers' Party (PCOT) leaders

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Ted Walker interviews Samir Taamallah, Chrif Khraief and Jilani Hamemi

November 26, 2011 -- Al-Thawra Eyewitness, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- I first met with Samir Taamallah, a former political prisoner and member of the central committee of the Communist Worker's Party of Tunisia (PCOT), in Tunis on October 4, 2011, to discuss the October 23 Constituent Assembly election and Tunisia's ongoing revolutionary struggle. The first part of the interview took place before the election. The follow-up interview part took place after the results were known.

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How is the election campaign going?

Samir Taamallah: We are still in the beginning of the campaign – opening offices in all regions, getting together the essential means of a campaign; these things are not easy for a party without major financial support like ours! We are working in communities, printing flyers and posters, distributing as much of our material as we can with few resources. In addition, we are also profiling ourselves on the internet – through Facebook, Twitter, our website.

What issues have you been campaigning on?

We've mainly been campaigning on three fronts – the political, the social and the economic.

On the political side, the issue is how to write the constitution and how the new parliament will be formed. We are struggling for the new constitution to defend freedom of thought and belief, individual liberty, gender equality and the right of employment. On this front, we are also looking for a change with Tunisia's foreign relations, especially its relationship with Israel.

On the social front, we are fighting for essential services to be made available to all citizens – free health care, free education, free housing – as well as for fairer income levels to address inequality. Right now we are calling for an increase in the minimum wage to around 400 dinars a month to keep up with inflation.

On economic issues, we are part of the campaign to suspend debt service payments, and to channel this money towards investmentment in Tunisia. At least in the short term, we need to cancel these payments if we are to develop our economy. We are also encouragining Tunisian investment for the needs of our country, not for profit – we are not against investment, but we want it to be done in a reasonable way that benefits the people. Under Ben Ali, all capital was directed and exploited by the regime – everyone who wanted to start a business competing with the regime's favoured monopolies would have problems with the government.

Do you think the election will address the problems facing Tunisia?

That depends on what happens after the election. There are two possible outcomes from this election – either the government of interim president al-Baji al-Sebsi will stay in power and continue working as it has, or we will build a new government chosen by the Constituent Assembly. The PCOT is fighting for the latter course. We believe that only a new government can make real immediate inroads into the structure of the old regime. We believe that the Sebsi government is putting obstacles in front of the process of democratic transition, for example, the possibility of referenda, which are being discussed right now, which will take more time to organise and delay a real transition to democracy.

The PCOT stands for a transitional justice. We believe that there can be no democracy without getting rid of the structures of corruption and all figures from the former regime being judged in a fair way. For this to happen, we need a new government to form.

What were your personal experiences of repression under Ben Ali?

I am a member of the national leadership within PCOT. In 1994, I was sentenced to five years and three months in prison – but I was not imprisoned. I remained underground, constantly moving from place to place, and in that way I stayed safe from the regime.

Then in February 1998, I was again judged and this time sentenced to nine years and three months. As with the first time, I lived underground; I was eventually imprisoned in 2002, along with [PCOT leader] Hamma Hammami and Abdel Jabbar Mandouri. In the same year, we were released from prison, and we continued the struggle.

We never changed our minds or made concessions to the regime, despite the Ben Ali regime's persecution. We faced beating, threats, everyday fighting with the police – this was the common experience for every communist militant in Tunisia before the revolution.

In your opinion, will the revolution of January 14, 2011, keep going?

The PCOT sees a revolution not just as a moment but a progression of events over time. We consider the election as just a crossroads between revolutionary forces, which want to pursue the revolution until it creates the popular awareness of the meaning and value of freedoms as a right, and the counter-revolutionary powers, which include the former members of [Ben Ali's] Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). Each member of the central committee of the RCD has formed their own party; they are working in the same way to go back to the past and renew their power.

Other counter-revolutionary powers include the transitional government, which has made fictitious concessions to calm down the population. For example, the decision was made to dissolve the political police of the State Security Department; yet it is well known that all members of the bureau were found new jobs one by one and are still working.

We believe that the Sebsi government is struggling against the revolution – putting obstacles in the way of justice, undermining our independance, maintaining the regime's media. The government is ruling beyond its mandate and is illegitimate. For example, the old judicial files for the Trabelsi family or other regime figures are not being pursued and they are being allowed to flee the country one by one or only pursued for small crimes – but not for murders or drug trafficking.

Parties using money to buy votes are also acting as counter-revolutionary powers; they can lead the revolution in the wrong path by using its slogans, for example, "Give your vote to the revolution". Those who buy your vote today will sell you tomorrow.

We believe that the counter-revolutionary powers are negotiating with the population, giving some rights against security and political stability. But they are not making the kind of deep social and economic change the revolution was fighting for, change that we need in order to start on a new basis. For example, the violent conflicts between the clans in the south are being empowered by the counter-revolution giving them political capital, with help of the political police, as a way of undermining the revolution. People's energy is being channelled into fighting a fake problem which has never existed in Tunisia in order to push the revolution from its path.

Tunisians are very aware of this situation, but still have a peaceful temper, and are willing to give the interim government a chance to step down and for the Constituent Assembly to move the democratic transition forward; but if the election doesn't deliver real change they are ready to make another revolution. The consciousness of Tunisians is strong; so far, all these attempts against the revolution have failed.

Are elections the only way forward for Tunisia's revolution?

From the beginning, we wanted to form a national revolutionary government made up of parties, associations, independents – but other powers refused. The Higher Independent Election Committee is a fake body set up to counter this idea and instead channel the revolution into protecting the status quo.

We've reached the point where elections, if transparent, honest and fair can really help the success of a democratic transition. The PCOT is willing to give the elections a chance and see the outcome.

We are willing to not return to the beginning point of the January 14 uprising, but to look forward to the revolutionary struggle. The new generation of Tunisians are no longer afraid of anything. Fear was the main way by which Ben Ali stayed in power, but that is now useless.

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The following questions were answered by Chrif Khraief and Jilani Hamemi after the October 23, 2011 election. The response to the first question comes from a statement by Hamma Hammami. A more detailed statement by the PCOT on the election result was released on October 29 (the original Arabic can be read here. It has been translated into English by The Moor Next Door). For more details on the results of the Constituent Assembly election, see the infographic here.

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How do you feel about PCOT's results in the election? Do you feel the campaign was successful in raising the issues that you wanted to?

Hamma Hammami: Some newspapers consider that the election of October 23 was extraordinary and unique, furthermore, perfect; this is clearly an exaggeration. We have to avoid blind optimism for the election's results, and instead consider it with more criticism.

There were many complaints against some lists, and I don’t think the judiciary system would be rude in taking positions in their affairs. But despite our criticism, the PCOT isn't asking to re-run the election or to cancel it, however we have some remarks.

First, the reduced number of participants in the elections: according to the ISIE, only 48.9% have voted! Such statistics are worrying and their impact on the political future of the Constituent Assembly would be important, because the constitution doesn't reflect the opinion of the majority. To heal this problem, the PCOT is calling for the constitution, once it is drafted, to be presented to the people in a referendum. Thus, the Tunisian population can accept it or not.

Second, political money (money invested by parties in their electoral campaign) was a significant factor in the results. No one can deny that there obvious differences between spending an average 25 dinars per elector and spending 500 dinars.

Third, the use of religious rhetoric in mosques and public areas directly and indirectly influenced people. The biggest failure is that people who should have reacted against such attempts to influence voters didn’t, and behaved just as passively as they did under Ben Ali regime. It’s just like there were hidden powers that wanted to divide atheists and religious people.

Fourth, the poor role played by the media, especially the public media, meant that it didn’t help people distinguish, choose and understand what the constitution does and its content means.

Fifth, there were mutual attacks between parties which sometimes reached a very pitiful level.

Sixth, many infractions of electoral rules were noticed in polling stations, confirmed by a wide number of observers.

To conclude: no one can deny that the Tunisian election was manipulated by international actors (most notably US and European ones) which are aiming to limit the Tunisian revolution to minor reforms and modifications and want to sustain the former system, and maintain former pro-capitalist economic, political and social policies. This foreign intervention was facilitated by the transitonal government and some parties, because during the election campaign there were many people travelling in and out Tunisia and we there were many assurances from different parties that Tunisia would maintain the old political and economic policies.

How does PCOT evaluate its own participation in the election?

Chrif Khraief: We estimate that our participation was very weak, and we’re not satisfied because three seats in the assembly doesn’t reflect the real weight of the PCOT on the streets. No one can deny the historic role, the historic activism and the big impact of the PCOT in building the revolution. We are looking critically at ourselves all the time for the purpose of going forward and overcoming our weaknesses and improving ourselves.

It’s true that the PCOT has learnt revolutionary activism and have always done it very well, but we’ve never learnt or experienced electoral campaigning. We conducted a clean electoral campaign in which we focused on our program and proposals for the constitution and the transitional government and we relied on our activists' energy and motivation, mainly young ones, but we’ve suffered from our weak implantation in cities and countryside, which negatively impacted on transforming our political reputation into an electoral power. And we lost many voices by changing our name “PCOT” to “Al Badil (Revolutionary Alternative)”; many people didn’t recognise us on polling day.

We made a big mistake when we didn’t organise a supervisor for each polling station, which allowed some parties to use the opportunity to influence people. We’ve also faced the electoral campaign with very modest material means and we relied on campaign funding given by the authorities, which reached us very late in the campaign. Additionally, our candidates were the target of a very rude campaign of attacks because of our principles and integrity; some parties spread many rumours against us which didn’t allow us reach our target result of 10%.

Although our results are not satisfying, we’ve learnt a lot from this experience, we actually know our weaknesses and we are more convinced than ever of our principles.

Do you feel like the new government will make any deep social or economic changes? Will it pursue real justice against the former regime?

Chrif Khraief: We don’t believe that the new government, with its current composition, is willing to make radical and real changes on the social and economic fronts. Even before the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly, government members are reassuring the world that they would carry on the same way as the former regime. This is especially true regarding economic policy; they have stated they will pay foreign debts and they still sustaining the market economy that led to political dictatorship, economic regression and social inequality.

On the social front, the Constituent Assembly has shown no interest in poor people and disadvantaged interior of Tunisia, which were neglected for a long time under Ben Ali, and that was one of the reasons behind the protests and strikes. And given the lack of judicial reform, even if the government makes decisions, they would be fake because we can’t exercise real democracy when the agents of the former regime are still active, the judiciary system is still not fair or free, the media is still not free, the administration is still corrupt and people involved in torture and corruption are still free. We can’t talk about real justice without talking about accountability and giving back esteem to the victims of Ben Ali.

There have been major strikes in the tourism, transport and other industries since the election. Have PCOT members been involved in or supporting these actions? What role is the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) taking in the revolutionary struggle?

Chrif Khraief: The PCOT was not behind those protests, but it’s supporting them and forever will! We will insist that the government realise the promises it gave just after the revolution -- like cancelling interim work wages, subsidising those worked on a fixed wage, adopting transparent standards of recruitment.

Workers are, at present, split into two groups. There are revolutionaries who aim to concretise internal democracy within the General Union of Tunisian Workers, and defend workers against capitalists and bosses. This includes democrats, left, syndicalists and others. This was always present in the brightest moment of the UGTT: the strike of January 26, 1978; the bread revolution of 1984; legitimacy fights of 1985; support for Iraq in Gulf War of 1990; the Redeyef and Oum Laarayes uprising of 2008. But mainly and above all, these workers were involved in the revolutionary movements that led to the downfall of Ben Ali on January 14, 2011.

All activists of this kind are going to have an assembly in December to pursue the path of revolution and to install a real democracy and to pursue defending workers' rights.

[The second kind of workers] are the bureaucrats who represent the counter-revolutionary power (bosses' syndicate) that wants negotiations to fail ... rather than making the union a tool of worker's independence and power. These bureaucrats are the ones who supported Ben Ali until the last moment and treated revolutionaries as troublemakers.

What do you think about the #Occupy protest movement that has been growing around the world and which saw an Occupy Tunis protest on November 11?

Jilani Hamemi: The #Occupy protest movement that began in Wall Street is a logical consequence of the collapsing capitalist system. In fact, the capitalist system has passed through many crises through its history, but they are getting closer and closer ... And now, the Occupy protest movement is giving hope that we can change this capitalist system to a communist one. This movement is tagging its origin to the “Arab spring” and it’s materialising into a similar revolutionary struggle against miserable life conditions.

The capitalist system is now making every effort to absorb the street’s anger and make frequent interventions – but these have not worked so far, because the people want real change: a minimum guaranteed industrial wage, a guaranteed yearly income, the right of work, the right to free education, of public health care, the cancelling of debts, and even the cancelling of many countries foreign debt, such as Tunisia's. They are demanding a new society based on democracy, equality and freedom.

That’s the real way of struggle. We have to hold on to reach our objective. The struggle won’t be easy, but it's not impossible for us to win. But we must remain critically aware of the movement's weaknesses. 

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sun, 01/29/2012 - 17:42


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Supporters of Al-Nahda party during a rally in Tunis on 14 January 2012. (Photo: Ali Garboussi)

By Naji Kheshnawi

Published Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tunis – After the flight of former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, a huge number of newly formed parties declared their intent to become active in the Tunisian political process.

The number of licensed parties reached 150, representing the full spectrum of ideologies including Marxist, liberal, Islamist, nationalist, and many others.

However, before the constituent assembly elections on 23 October 2011, a large number of these parties entered into political alliances and coalitions:

– The Democratic Modernist Pole: Includes the Renovation Movement, Socialist Left Party, and the Centrist Way as well as independent political, legal, and cultural figures.

– The Independent Democratic Alliance: Includes Abdelfattah Mourou, one of the founders of the Islamic Tendency Movement (later al-Nahda); several well-known personalities and parties with an Islamist orientation such as the National Alliance for Peace and Development, the Democratic Meeting Movement, and the Justice and Development Movement.

– The 23rd of October Coalition: Today includes al-Nahda, the Congress for the Republic, Reform and Development Movement, and the Party of People’s Unity after a number of smaller parties dropped out of the coalition.

– The Left Four Alliance: Includes the National Democratic Labor Party, the Tunisian Communist Workers Party, the Democratic Nationalists movement, and the Arab Democratic Front Party.

These are among the most important political alliances and coalitions that formed before the constituent assembly elections.

The results, however, surprised many and produced the following distribution of seats: al-Nahda (90 seats), Congress for the Republic Party (30 seats), Democratic Coalition (21 seats), the Popular Petition (19 seats), Progressive Democratic Party (17 seats), Initiative Party, Modernist Democratic Pole, and Tunis Horizons (5 seats each), Tunisian Communist Workers (3 seats). The remaining 12 seats were won by independents and small parties.

After the Islamist al-Nahda took control of the assembly – and despite its alliance with the Congress for the Republic and the Forum for Labor and Liberties – a ring-wing project, with religious overtones, began to appear in Tunisian politics and society.

In response, several new political alliances were formed with a clear goal: stopping al-Nahda from merging state and religion and defending the civil nature of the state.

For this purpose, the Secretary-General of the Progressive Democratic Party in Tunis, Maya Jribi, announced that her party will be merged with the Tunis Horizons Party and the Republican Party to form a united front.

Meanwhile, the Tunisian political scene is awaiting the announcement of a nationalist front uniting Nasserist and the Baathist parties, such as the People’s Movement, the Progressive Unionist People’s movement, the Nationalist Democrats Movement, the National Democratic Labor Party, the Arab Democratic Front Party, and the Baath Movement.

And in an attempt to establish a coalition of all the democratic centrist parties, a number of activists from both the Tunisian Labor Party and the Renovation Movement met and issued a joint statement on January 16.

The statement stressed the necessity of uniting all the democratic centrist parties into one political front that would “go beyond the numerous parties available now and be capable of influencing local affairs and providing a convincing political and social alternative that would live up to the ambitions of the Tunisian youth and general population, and satisfy the revolution’s demands for freedom and social justice.”

Although the fear of Islamic parties gaining too much power is a common uniting factor, all the coalitions and alliances formed in Tunis after the constituent assembly elections were built on ideological and political foundations.

For this reason, they are expected to thrive and bear fruit as opposed to the coalitions formed before the elections for pragmatic reasons, such as winning the largest possible number of assembly seats.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.