Tunisia: ‘It is a real revolutionary process’ -- interview with 14th January Front militant

Alhem Belhadj (right) speaking at a session of the French New Anti-Capitalist Party congress, February 11.

February 27, 2011 -- Alhem Belhadj is a Tunisian revolutionary socialist and member of the Ligue de la Gauche Ouvriers (Left Workers’ League). It is a part of the 14th January Front, which unites left-wing groups seeking to push Tunisia’s revolution forward by creating a new government free from members of the former ruling party, and supporters policies reversing neoliberalism.

Belhadj spoke with Green Left Weeklys Tony Iltis on February 12, at the congress of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France, about the Tunisian revolution.

* * *

I think there is a real revolutionary process. Things are going very quickly.

There is a lot of change. Every day, there is some change and there is a big popular resistance.

A problem is we don’t have a big party that can lead. But even that was a good thing in a way — each group was responsible to do something. There were a lot of people working together from different organisations, trying to create something together.

Even before January 14, 2011[when dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned], there are a lot of regional and local committees to defend the revolution and continue struggling.

After the revolution, the police of the overthrown president and the militia of the former ruling party sought to destabilise the situation and create panic.

People organised themselves for self-defence. Now we have Committees to Defend the Revolution. In a lot of regions, trade union regional and local committees have emerged.

At first, they tried to put up a new government with a lot of ministers from the old regime. But the people refused. The people applied real pressure to bring that government down and succeeded. But the second government, which is presented as though run by technocrats, is still not a real rupture with the last.

It didn’t carry out a lot of needed tasks. It didn’t kick out the former ruling party, it didn’t reorganise the police. It didn’t make a clean break with past. But it put in place three commissions to discuss where we are going. These may take six months, but we need to be very vigilant.

Protests are still taking place all over, even in schools and hospitals. All representatives of power are questioned. There is a real social movement against all power.

A great problem is that, in this revolution, the Americans are very present. In the government, there are two new ministers who came from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. They are in the government to protect these interests.

The first thing this government announced was that it would pay Tunisia’s debt. They haven’t explained where they will find the money for social justice. They don’t speak about the tasks of the state in improving employment or carrying out agrarian reform. There are a lot of problems in agriculture in Tunisia.

That’s why the people’s councils, with trade unionists and the left, have a lot of tasks to demand of the government — things [this government] can’t do.

14th January Front

The 14th January Front is a left organisation. It is against the government. It says clearly this government can’t carry out the tasks we need. They can’t organise a constituent assembly. They can’t provide social justice.

So we are asking people to organise themselves to do these tasks.

The 14th January Front is the main political opposition to the government, but in other spheres, there is also the UGTT [Tunisian General Union of Labour] and civil society.

People are using Facebook. It has a real role. [Under Ben Ali] we couldn’t hold meetings. We couldn’t have [open] political parties.

Facebook was a way to get together to discuss things while at home. Even when the internet was blocked, people found ways to get round it. We had a lot of help to do it.

It was a good way to keep informed. The media was not free. There was nothing about the revolution in the Tunisian media.

But every Tunisian was informed minute by minute by Facebook. It was a way to ask people to be active. It was very important.

[The Islamist party] Ennahda could become a big force in Tunisia. But it could become one if the revolutionary movement doesn’t work well with the people.

This is because it is near the people and will respond to their problems.

The other question is: what is US imperialism planning in the region? What is its relationship with Islamism in the region?

It is a question now and I think it is important to know. It can be a source of danger because imperialism could form an alliance with moderate Islamists — only when they are in power, they are no longer moderate.

[This article first appeared at Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper. Tony Iltis attended the New Anti-Capitalist Party congress in France respresenting the Socialist Alliance of Australia.]


Maite Mola and Claudia Haydt took part in a European Left delegation to Tunisia from February 10th to 13th and tell how the political and social situation is being dealt after the fall of Ben ALi

EL vice president, Maite Mola, with Mustapha Ben Jafaar, former president of the PDP and one of the designated candidates for Tunisia presidency

Was it a revolution  or an uprising  which occurred in December and January in Tunisia? The people of Tunisia talk of revolt or revolution and if they give it a name at all, then they call it the "Sidi Bouzid revolt" in reference to the city where it all began. "The revolution gives us the opportunity to dream," words of the Tunisian writer and former dissident, Taoufik Ben Brik. Whether the revolution is over and the priority should now be a transition to normality, or whether the Revolution - still far from complete - is a process, are questions which divide the various left-wing groups in Tunis.

Unity rather than division

In Tunisia in mid February, 24 political parties were officially registered; many of them are new and virtually unknown. It is still quite difficult to reliably forecast which one will play central role in the new Tunisia. If you ask people on the road about left parties, usually the PCOT (Communist Workers' Party) is among the first they mention. Its leader Hamma Hammami has spent long years in prison and in hiding and is therefore respected by people from different political backgrounds for his consistent commitment to freedom and democracy. In contrast to other left-wing opposition parties PCOT was never officially recognized. PCOT remained an active political force under Ben Ali's regime and in spite of massive repression, imprisonment and torture, many members still remain active. As a result, they constituted an important force during the Tunisian Revolution. PCOT consciously worked together with various opposition forces, whether center-left, liberal or Islamic. Only through this cooperation, was it possible to get rid of Ben Ali, who for years set the various opposition groups against one another. By unduly exaggerating the "fear of Islamists," Ben Ali convinced not only Western countries to that his regime would be the lesser evil, but he also managed to paralyze parts of the Tunisian opposition. The "ruling minority" could only stay in power by fragmenting and inciting them against each other, according to Hammami's analysis.

The PCOT like other parties also started immediately after the fall of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to build new party structures. Everyone expects moderate success for the PCOT at the next parliamentary elections. The question of power in Tunisia however will be decided within a center-left political spectrum.

Social Issues play a central role

Besides the Islamic Ennahda there are also liberal and conservative parties, with the latter currently playing a minor role in the restoration of the political landscape. The revolution was sparked primarily by social issues, therefore those who have put social justice at the center of their programs, have the best chance of succeeding. Therefore many parties from the extreme left to center left (including Ennahda) have reached a broad consensus. The fight against unemployment is a top priority, the same goes for regional development, the end of privatization - especially in the area of public services - and reducing the cost of living. Also on the agenda is the dismissal of the presidential system and the formation of a parliamentary democracy.

There is disagreement on the issue of cooperation with the transitional government. Some hold that there is a risk of losing everything, if some amount of normality and stability isn't established very rapidly and they see it as the responsibility of left-wing parties and organizations  to join the interim government and thus participate in the control of the political system. This position is represented by the reform communist Party Ettajdid that belonged to the "legal opposition" under the rule of Ben Ali and is currently represented by two members in the Tunisian Parliament. Tunisia's Minister for Education and Research Ahmed Brahim is a member of Ettajdid.

Betrayal of the revolution?

The former dissident, Ben Brik sees the participation of government as collaboration, even betrayal of the revolution. He fears that by allowing left "constructive cooperation" (Democratic Progressive Party / PDP) or by "assuming responsibility" (Ettajdid) they facilitate the survival of the old system. However the situation and the signals from the population are not so clear and therefore other parties from center-left, which also have been marginalized under Ben Ali, like the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), also see the need for involvement in the interim government. The PDP is the first Tunisian party with a female chairperson, Maya Jribi. The éminence grise of the party is their former chairman and lawyer Ahmed Chebbi Néjib. He is named among the possible presidential candidates. The PDP is one of the most popular center-left parties. Chebbi is the Minister for Regional Development, a post which is very important for the under developed parts of Tunisia. Among the first projects in this area include the restoration and expansion of the rail network in rural areas. Opposition parties, even the ones which had been officially recognized, had a tough time in Ben Ali's Tunisia. They could hardly advertise their positions; leaflets were usually confiscated or could not even be printed. Besides Ettajdid and PDP, an activist of the Pirate Party is involved in the interim government as State Secretary for Youth and Sports. But even if the Internet and social media played a central role in the Tunisian revolution, the Pirate Party - at least until now - has no discernable mass basis.

 The Trade Unions in Tunisia

The Trade Union UGTT was founded in 1946; its first secretary general was killed in 1952. There are about 500,000 members. They are not communists, but also not anti communist. It is a mass organization that got its current structure at the time of Ben Ali's rule.
In the days before the revolution, the shift of power within the UGTT, regional organisations and the unions, the rank and file of this union demanded the resignation of the current leadership, accusing them of compromise with the government and corruption.

Although the UGTT is not part of the government they support the interim government and accept the reform committees formed by the government, but they believe they must be political, not technical. They demand that the government move more quickly on negotiations to end the social tensions that have shaken the country. Tunisia needs a radical reform of labour laws and initiatives to support the unemployed.
The UGTT launched a campaign in Dakar in the WSF for cancellation of Tunisia's international debt.  They criticise the head of the Bank of Tunisia, who has announced that Tunisia will meet half of its public debt by April. These funds are needed to push priority projects, like creating jobs and reducing unemployment among young people. They propose a model of society based on decent work, without neoliberal economics, without corruption and further privatisation and the restoration of the rule of law.

The Power of the street

The "Forum for Labour and Freedom" (FDTL), also a party from the center-left, has Mustapha Ben Jaafar as its leader. He’s a renowned physician that initially declared as willing to take over the Ministry of Health on January 17th. When he realized, however, how many RCD officials held key positions in that government, he resigned immediately - along with most of the representatives of the trade union UGTT, which also briefly held several ministerial posts. Massive protests on the streets of Tunisia, urged many former RCD members to leave government. As a consequence no more representatives of the RCD are currently in the front row of the Government. However, many officials and experts from the second row of the old system are holding important administrative positions, their loyalties are not always clear. PDP and Ettajdid accuse Ben Chaafar, of having left the government to have a better basis for the presidential elections. In fact, Ben Chaafar is a promising candidate.

Which one of the different power strategies is going to be successful, will be shown by the elections that will probably take place in the middle of July.Tunisia currently has a "government on probation". Every political action is observed very closely by the population. They welcome that finally the anti-torture convention is ratified, that freedom of the press rules and that there are small improvements in social security. The real political power in Tunisia is - thankfully - still with the people, and the people have lost their fear. It is especially this power of the street, which ensures that at least the general policy direction is as the people would like it to be. The transitional government knows very well that everything that is perceived as a "betrayal of the revolution" will lead to massive protests.