Socialist Worker

World Social Forum: Tunisia takes the spirit of revolution to the world

In the birth place of the Arab Spring, activists from across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe came together to discuss the way forward. Simon Assaf joined them and spoke to delegates in Tunis.

Issue No. 2347

Intense discussions at the WSF in Tunisia

Intense discussions at the WSF in Tunisia (Pic: Amine Ghrab/Flickr)


In Tunisia you cannot escape the revolution. On arrival at my hotel in Tunis the bell boy took the opportunity to update me on “el thawra” (the revolution) as we travelled in the lift. “There is progress,” he said “but it is going to take time.” 

My morning walk along the Avenue Bourgibathat that cuts through the capital was interrupted by a protest from a group of women. 

They were attempting to invade the ministry for women and the family. It quickly became an impromptu public meeting.

The display window of the bookshop nearby advertised the launch of a new book “How do we revolutionise our tourist industry”. Across the road the ministry of the interior was barricaded behind rolls of new razor wire. 

Throughout the day, and well into the night, there are demonstrations and outbursts of revolutionary songs.

Inhibitions

Tunis is a city that has lost all political inhibitions. 

One passer by explained that deposed dictator Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali was “not that bad. It was his wife’s family that was the problem”. 

Another interrupted to complain that people were “too impatient” and a third disagreed, saying that “change was not coming fast enough.”

This spirit of open discussion still feels alien in a region where so recently any political talk was rare.

At one street meeting a young police officer was nodding away as a speaker denounced the growing influence of Gulf money in the country.

It was into this atmosphere that international delegates gathered for the World Social Forum (WSF). 

A demonstration traditionally marks the start of the global gathering. 

It felt natural, here in the birthplace of the Arab revolutions, marching through the streets where the slogan, “The people demand the fall of the regime” was first heard.

The march was led by families of martyrs of revolution. 

It was a cross section of Tunisian society that gave an insight into the uprising that toppled Ben Ali.

A veiled woman from a rural region held up a picture of her son. Next to her was an elegant middle class woman.

Together they clutched a banner that announced in Arabic, French and English “We do not trust the military.”

Behind them was a large and angry contingent from the Tunisian Popular Front, headed by the widow of murdered left-wing leader Chokri Belaid. 

Then came the colourful banners and balloons of the Italian, Spanish and French delegations. 

They marched alongside the families of migrants who had drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean. 

There were Moroccan trade unions, Tuareg rights groups and delegations of peasants from sub Saharan Africa, among many others.

At one point a group of Tunisian anarchists ran down the road chanting, “The people demand the fall of capitalism”.

This spirit of revolution, and the demand that “another world is possible”, feels at home in Tunisia. 

The lively, and often chaotic, debates were everywhere in the forum which was held in the capital’s university campus.  

The meeting “building solidarity with Tunisian trade unions” organised by Britain’s Mena Solidarity Campaign, was constantly interrupted by a loud argument among Egyptians next door.

The promise to “keep the noise down” was quickly forgotten as the discussion on “post revolution Egypt” with left wing opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi erupted once again.

At the end of the first day delegates had to negotiate their way past a group of Tunisian youth dancing to revolutionary hip hop near the campus gates.

But everywhere there are reminders that this revolution is far from over—and that all the gains of the Arab Spring could be quickly snatched away.

The WSF was marred by two days of unprovoked and violent attacks on Syrian revolutionaries by supporters of the Assad regime.

Many of the Syrians had made the journey to Tunis to share their experiences of the revolution with the global movement.

Despite this levels of violence, supporters of the Syrian revolution refused to abandon the event and were eventually given protection by Tunisian, Palestinian, Egyptian and other international delegates.

It is also the case that Ben Ali’s state apparatus is still here.

Huge groups of the hated, and much feared, plainclothes police suddenly appear and steam down into the city centre. 

Groups of well-armed soldiers guard ministries and state buildings. 

Unemployment is rising, as are shortages and frustration. The Tunisian, and Arab revolutions, remain unfinished and their success uncertain.

But the atmosphere is one of hope, and once awakened it seems difficult to imagine a return the old era.


‘The government has shown itself to be against the spirit of the revolution’

Trade union and Left Front activists Azac Sihem, Salim Ghrissi, Yahyaomi Samia, Mokhtar ben Hafsa and Ridha Chtioui 

‘Our revolution has had mixed results. We have not won even the basic demand for social justice, but we have won the right to speak, and Tunisians have lost their fear. Many people are now engaged in politics. 

This is our awakening. As activists we no longer feel isolated.

Now people are prepared to make sacrifices to fight for their demands.

Many people respected the now ruling party Ennahda for its opposition to the dictatorship.But its polices are not that different from those of Ben Ali.

It is beginning to use terror and has agreed to implement neoliberal economic policies and the austerity measures demanded by the IMF.

The government also wants to limit women’s rights. 

It speaks about the “transition to democracy”, but it is trying to implement a new dictatorship. 

This is why many people feel that a social revolution is still possible and necessary.  

Following the revolution left wing parties were at a disadvantage. 

We struggled to find a common front for the elections that followed. 

Now we have formed the Popular Front to coordinate our work. 

But we face a number of big problems.

Many people believe the government was behind the murder of the popular left wing leader Chokri Belaid. 

We fear that this government is prepared to use violence as it has failed to deliver on its promises.

Chokri’s murder triggered a huge crisis for the government, and for several weeks it lost all control over the country.

After the murder we called for a general strike and were supported by the UGTT trade union federation. 

This was an important step forward but the offices of the UGTT were attacked.

Now the UGTT is being drawn into the government’s political games.

At the same time thugs from the conservative Islamist Salafist movement set up “local committees” to “defend the people”. But these committees are being used for intimidation.

We know that real democracy cannot be won without achieving minimal social demands. This is our fight inside the Popular Front and among the mass of ordinary people.

The revolution has allowed us time to build, and win ordinary people to the idea of radical social transformation.’


Hussain el-Aris is from a small village south of the capital Tunis.

During our uprising we drove all the police and security forces out of our village. 

We took it upon ourselves to organise security as we heard that Ben Ali had released criminals from the prisons. 

Because we live in a rural area many people brought their shotguns and hunting rifles and organised patrols and build barricades. But we did not load them with bullets.

Some respected trade union activists formed a committee to run our affairs. 

They persuaded the merchants to re-open the shops and began to organise flour to restart the bakeries.

For two weeks we had control over our lives, but not without problems. 

There were many arguments and quarrels between the left and Islamists over whether the committee should be elected. 

And after many years of silence people wanted to express their opinions on everything, often on subjects that had no relationship to what we were discussing. 

But this is to be expected. For the first time people wanted to have a say in shaping their own destiny.

“Then the army returned, and people gave them a cautious welcome. 

Many felt the soldiers were neutral and would not turn on the people. 

But they were soon followed by the old police. 

Our two week experiment in local democracy during the height of the revolution was not without its problems, but we learnt that we could rule ourselves. 

But now the state has returned.


Nasri Charfeddine represents Dignity for Unemployed Graduates of Kesserine, a poor rural region in central Tunisia

We made many sacrifices for the revolution. Thanks to the people of Kasserine we took the revolution to Ben Ali and his militia.

 We lost 22 martyrs, and many were wounded.

In our region there is high unemployment, and those who have work receive very low wages.

Even those people from poor families who manage to pass university entrance exams find they cannot afford to go onto higher education. 

Even those who receive degrees find few job opportunities after they graduate.

The revolution gave us grand hopes and dreams for a better future. But the reality has proved very different. 

Prices are skyrocketing, unemployment is growing and there has been little investment.

There is a growing feeling that perhaps we need a second revolution, one that can meet the aspirations of ordinary people.


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