The Tunisian revolution began two years ago this month—and set in motion a wave of revolt across North Africa and the Middle East.
On 18 December 2010 people first came out on the streets in the face of brutal repression from Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship. They demanded food, jobs and democracy.
Soon the chant “the people demand the fall of the regime” rang out across the capital Tunis, and in countless other towns across the country.
The death of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit seller, triggered the revolt. He set himself alight in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid after being harassed by police and having his cart confiscated. The loss of the cart would make his family’s struggle for survival even more desperate.
His frustration and anger was shared by millions of people across the country. They protested, struck and battled with police and the army.
The General Workers Union of Tunisia (UGTT) had operated through the dictatorship, but it was very tame and the leadership very corrupt. The revolution revitalised it. It called a general strike against the regime.
In January Ben Ali fled. Since then Tunisians have voted in the country’s first ever democratic elections. A coalition headed by the Islamist Ennahda party was elected in November 2011.
But the struggle for real justice and democracy continues. Many Tunisians are angry that the new government has done little to fulfil promises made in the run-up to the elections.
Unemployment is over 17 percent. And the security forces have responded viciously to sit-ins outside parliament and other protests.
Strikes and protests across the country—particularly outside the capital—are shaking the government. Graffiti stating, “The people want another revolution” has appeared in the farming town of Siliana.
For more than three weeks thousands of unemployed youth have battled police in the streets and the UGTT called for demonstrations against joblessness and poverty.
“Siliana will be the second Sidi Bouzid,” said Anis Omrani, a 24 year old protester who was blinded, along with at least 16 others, by birdshot pellets fired at protesters by the police.
The Ennahda government fear Anis is right. In response to the protests it suspended the hated governor of the town, promised jobs and the police stopped using birdshot.
The UGTT is central to organising the protests here and across the country. On 6 December strikes in Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Gafsa and Sfax shut down public and private sector workplaces. Workers and students marched, chanting against the ruling party.
The government also faces other problems. Splits in parliament and on the streets between conservative Islamist Salafists, secularists and leftists are making the country almost impossible to run.
The crisis is deepening even though the government has just received a £310 million loan from the World Bank. It was awarded so the government could “respond to the aspirations of Tunisians expressed in the revolution”.
This is cynical. What the bank really wants is a cheap, subdued workforce. ut people show no signs of being bought off.
The UGTT has called a general strike for Thursday of this week. If the strikes this month are anything to go by, it could bring the country to a standstill.
Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahda, finds itself in a political crisis. The support that it won in the elections over a year ago is fading away.
The majority of its vote came from ordinary working people. But now those voters are back on the street, demanding regime change.
One teacher protesting in Siliana had voted for the party last year but felt the Islamists had let people down. Holding up a tear gas canister that police had fired at the demonstration she said, “This is the paradise of Ennahda that we elected. We won’t make this mistake again.”
Mohamed Sghaeir Saihi told Socialist Worker, “Ennahda’s electoral success is related to the political vacuum after the revolution. The parties of the left were divided and had failed to form an alliance.
“There were thousands of electoral lists to choose from in the vote for the Constituent Assembly, so the vote opposing Ennahda fragmented.”
The party has tried to maintain the image that it acts in the interests of the revolution. But allegations of cronyism and violence by state forces expose the truth.
Mohamed added, “Ennahda’s rhetoric is two-faced on this issue. The party hasn’t changed Ben Ali’s neoliberal economic policies that depended on the prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“These institutions are not in the least concerned about the interests of the workers anywhere in the world. All they care about is the interests of global capitalism.
“Ennahda has no plans for economic development and no solutions to the problem of unemployment. The opposite is true. Unemployment has doubled since Ennahda came to power.
“The party has no solution for social problems, or the environment, or the health service, education and transport. They haven’t even solved the problem of lack of security.”
Mohamed Sghaeir Saihi is the spokesperson for the teachers’ union in the UGTT union federation, and assistant general secretary of the UGTT in the Kasserine region. He spoke to Anne Alexander about the role the unions and workers play in the revolution
The revolution was born in the poor neighbourhoods, in the marginalised towns and villages. These places had nothing—no transport, no health services, no schools and no work. Anyone who opposed the regime could be stopped, interrogated, followed and files would be kept about them.
People rose up because they wanted a dignified life, and a fair distribution of wealth, but also because they longed for the smell of freedom.
The UGTT played a determining role in the Tunisian revolution. The federation’s offices, in Tunis and in the provinces, were the meeting point for the protests.
Activists being chased by the police found refuge in our offices. The police destroyed many regional offices, breaking up the furniture and tearing up documents. This happened in Kasserine.
It was the UGTT which organised the rallies on 25?December 2010. The secondary school teachers’ union called for a rally in Mohamed Ali Al-Hami Square in Tunis. We raised slogans which had not been heard before in Tunisia, attacking the families that ran the dictatorship.
That day, while I was returning from Tunis to Kasserine late at night by car, the sparks of the revolution reached Kasserine and neighbouring areas. The police used live bullets.
The UGTT’s leadership wasn’t happy about the workers setting off on this revolutionary road. It threatened to destroy the leaders’ cosy relationship with the regime.
The federation leaders started attacking the activists, saying that they were against the UGTT leadership and were acting against the federation’s decisions. I remember on 25 December 2010, the UGTT closed its doors in the face of some trade unionists who wanted to organise a sit-in there.
The then-UGTT general secretary told the press that the federation was not responsible for what was happening in the streets. He wanted to save face with the regime, and salvage some kind of cooperation with it.
Our leaders were telling us to close the doors of our offices and not to get involved in ‘politics’. According to them, the unions were just a place for dealing with professional issues.
We broke the control of the bureaucracy by working with the youth groups, the school and college students and the large numbers of unemployed.
They didn’t have unions of their own, so we opened the union offices to them. This was the opposite of what the bureaucracy wanted. But the revolution was too strong, and the base of the UGTT was the locomotive of the revolutionary movement.
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