By Anne AlexanderDominic KavakebFathi ChamkiHela Yousfi
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The Battle of Tunis

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
The revolt in Tunisia has sent shivers down the spines of dictators across the region. Anne Alexander looks at the roots of the revolution and considers its broader implications, while Tunisian activists Héla Yousfi and Fathi Chamki give their accounts of the uprising and Dominic Kavakeb examines the role of the internet
Issue 355

There is no doubt that the uprising in Tunisia has cast a chill over the dictatorships of the Middle East while millions around the region have been inspired by the hope that their struggles against unemployment, poverty and corruption can break the machine of state repression. Street protests and cyber-activism have (albeit belatedly) caught the imagination of the global media, but the unfolding revolutionary process in January 2011 shows clearly that something more profound has shifted in Tunisia.

The fall of Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali demonstrates that the stresses imposed on the states of the region by the combination of neoliberal reforms and global economic crisis have the potential to fracture regimes by triggering popular revolts which can neither be managed by co-option nor broken by repression. More importantly, the way in which social and political demands have been interwoven throughout the protests, and the emergence of the trade unions as a key force in the uprising, opens up the possibility of a more far-reaching process of revolutionary transformation from below.


The role of the Tunisian trade union federation, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), was crucial in breaking Ben Ali, a fact recognised by the remaining leaders of the old regime as they scrambled to cling on to power by appointing a coalition cabinet on 18 January which included three UGTT representatives. These appointments were significant on a number of different levels. Firstly, they recognised that the UGTT’s decision to call local general strikes on 12 January and then a national general strike on 14 January played a profound role in the collapse of the Ben Ali regime.

But the appointment of UGTT ministers was more than a gesture of co-option to a powerful opponent; it was a desperate attempt to revive a partnership between the ruling party and the trade union leadership that had helped to maintain the stability of Ben Ali’s regime during much of the 1990s. Crucially, this initial attempt to reconfigure the old alliance between the UGTT and the regime’s RCD party failed. Within hours protesters were mobilising again in the streets, demanding the dissolution of the RCD. The UGTT cabinet members resigned, further emboldening the demonstrators who were joined by police and members of the National Guard.


This withdrawal from the coalition cabinet points to a double fracture, which runs between the old regime and the UGTT leadership, but more importantly within the UGTT between rank and file activists and the bureaucrats at the top.

Olivier Piot, reporting for Le Monde Diplomatique, travelled across Tunisia in the week before the fall of Ben Ali. He found local UGTT activists constantly debating whether and how to force the national leadership to break with the regime. On 7 January the local secretary of the UGTT in Tozeur told him the national leadership was planning to call a national strike by school teachers in three weeks time. In response to the journalist’s stunned silence, he added, “I know it is a long time to wait, and I’m not sure if it won’t be too late. I’ve told the union leaders, but they are closely tied to the authorities. For my part, I feel that from now on we risk seeing poor districts across the cities of the centre and the south going up in flames.”

But within four days the national leadership of the UGTT had authorised regional general strikes, shutting down key urban centres such as the port city of Sfax on 12 January. Trade union activists Piot spoke to that morning in Sfax reckoned that around 90 percent of the local population had supported the strike call. Only 48 hours later, as street protests spread to the centre of the capital, Tunis, Ben Ali fled the country.

As US academic Eva Bellin points out, since independence in 1956 the Tunisian state has oscillated between strategies of repression and co-option when dealing with the trade unions. The UGTT played a vital role in the struggle against French colonial rule in the 1950s and, although its membership was entwined with that of the main nationalist party, the Neo-Destour, it emerged into the post-independence period with an independent base of its own.

Co-opting the unions

Habib Bourguiba, a key leader of the anti-colonial struggle and Tunisia’s first president after liberation, eventually brought the UGTT leadership under the domination of the state after a series of confrontations during the 1950s and 1960s. A period of co-option was followed by an explosion of workers’ protests and strikes in the 1970s and further repression in the final years of the Bourguiba regime during the 1980s.

Ben Ali’s coup against Bourguiba in 1987 marked the beginning of a new phase in relations between the UGTT and the state. Conscious of the rising challenge for the Islamist movement, in particular the Ennahda Party, Ben Ali bolstered the UGTT as a counterweight. He was also concerned, in the early years of his rule, to paint himself as a democrat, in contrast to Bourguiba. Ben Ali released trade unionists from prison, restored confiscated assets to the UGTT, gave the trade unions an expanded role in advising the regime on economic and social policy, and supported regular wage rises for workers, despite at the same time embarking on a programme of reforms designed to reduce the role of the state in the economy.

Social revolt

Ben Ali’s neoliberal restructuring won praise from the World Bank and Western governments, but failed to deliver on its promises of prosperity for all. The overall official jobless figure of around 14 percent hid much higher levels in towns such as Sidi Bouzid, where the uprising began, as well as extremely high levels of youth and graduate unemployment. The rebellion which rocked the phosphate mining region of Gafsa in early 2008 showed, on a localised level, how protests by the unemployed could both explode contradictions within the UGTT and trigger a broader social revolt. On 5 January 2008 young unemployed protesters occupied the headquarters of the Gafsa region UGTT.

They were quickly joined by miners’ widows and families, triggering a wave of strikes and protests uniting workers, the unemployed, school students and local people. The motor behind the Gafsa protests was not low wages but high levels of unemployment, leading to growing numbers of unwaged family members dependent on one working miner. Local UGTT leaders played a key role in the protest movement, despite the fact that the union had been historically implicated in corrupt deals with the mining company to maintain low levels of recruitment to the mines. Several UGTT activists, including Adnane Hajji, who became a prominent spokesperson for the movement, were sentenced to long jail terms, although Hajji and others were pardoned by Ben Ali in 2009.

The 2008 miners’ rebellion was eventually quelled by massive repression, and did not spread outside the Gafsa region. By contrast, in December 2010 demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid over the police’s treatment of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old vegetable seller who set himself on fire after his handcart was confiscated, triggered a longer-lasting cycle of protests. Students played a crucial role in the demonstrations, prompting the Tunisian authorities to close schools and colleges in an attempt to halt the protests. Students were joined by lawyers, 95 percent of whom were reported to have joined a general strike on 6 January in protest at police attacks on their colleagues at earlier demonstrations and rallies.

Thus there was, from relatively early on, a dialectic between spontaneity and organisation in the development of the uprising which made the revolt increasingly difficult for the authorities to contain. Individual acts of desperation, such as Bouazizi’s self-immolation, triggered local solidarity protests and sometimes – thanks to their transmission by the mainstream and social media – echoes across the country. However, it was the intervention of organisations capable of mobilising on a national scale, such as the Lawyers’ Bar Association and finally the UGTT, which appears to have finally shifted the balance of forces between protesters and state.

The question now is whether the workers’ movement in Tunisia can not only continue to drive forward the process of sweeping away the whole old political order but also whether it can begin to challenge the economic roots of exploitation. Workers are reported to have driven out corrupt managers associated with the Ben Ali regime in some places, but if this develops into a movement for workers’ control inside the workplace, combined with the reassertion of the social and economic demands which sparked the Sidi Bouzid intifada, it can begin to challenge capitalism itself.

It is the possibility that the process begun in Sidi Bouzid may spread to Algiers, Cairo and beyond which has alarmed repressive governments across the region. Even before the fall of Ben Ali rising food prices had triggered riots in Algeria, while the collapse of his regime opened the door to a wave of protests mingling social and political demands in Jordan and Yemen. It is the impact of the Tunisian Revolution on Egypt that will be most closely observed by the US and its allies, however. There are many structural similarities between the regimes of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak – both have presided over economic reforms which have brought privatisation, foreign investment and, until recently, glowing praise from the World Bank.


At the same time, Egypt, like Tunisia, suffers from high levels of youth and graduate unemployment and spiralling food prices. Mubarak’s regime has sought to contain social and political protests using a variety of mechanisms, including manipulation of food subsidies – although the process of neoliberal economic reform has made this increasingly difficult to do. The relationship between the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and Mubarak’s party, the NDP, has many historic parallels with that between the UGTT national leadership and Ben Ali’s party. In both cases the regime co-opted the national union leaders through a combination of financial inducements and integration into the ruling party.

In contrast though to Tunisia, the most important gains of the recent strike wave in Egypt so far have been the emergence of fledgeling independent unions, rather than any serious signs of rupture within the ETUF. Nevertheless, it is clear that neoliberal economic reforms, as they have weakened the ETUF’s ability to deliver benefits and jobs for its members, have thus hollowed out a key institution of Mubarak’s regime. The Egyptian presidential elections scheduled for September 2011 will also revive tensions within and outside the ruling party over the looming succession crisis, prompted by the need to find a suitable replacement for the ageing Mubarak.

There are differences in the configuration of the opposition forces in Egypt, which will shape whatever events unfold there. There is no opposition group in Tunisia which has the social and political weight of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, and the Brotherhood’s recent retreat from conflict with the state has made it more difficult for many other opposition groups to mobilise in the streets.


Despite this, in Egypt, even more than was apparent in Tunisia, the potential for popular revolts to widen cracks in the regime remains greater than it has been for many years, after a decade in which a “culture of protest” has flourished. And the greater degree of transformation within Tunisia, the more opportunities there will be for similar dynamics of protest to take root in Egypt and elsewhere. The longer that pressure from below continues to visibly shape the decisions of the government in Tunis, and even to discipline or break it, the greater self-confidence will be gained by those challenging the state on the streets of Cairo, Amman and perhaps even London.

Anne Alexander

Refused by the streets

Héla Yousfi is a Tunisian activist based in Paris. She spoke to Socialist Review about the driving forces behind the revolution

I am from Sidi Bouzid, and a big part of my family live there.

You’ve had a lot of people in the media saying that this is something that happened very fast. But in Tunisia you’ve had a lot of social protests. For example, in 2008 you had big protests in Gafsa, a mining region. They were repressed by the Tunisian police.

You had a long period with a lot of social protests over lack of civil liberties and economic problems, but the official media didn’t talk about them. So what happened in Sidi Bouzid and the Tunisian Revolution is the result of a fight over many years. For me it wasn’t a surprise.

The economic crisis helped accelerate the regime’s collapse. People from the south used to go to the coastal region or emigrate to find jobs. But now they don’t have jobs in the tourist areas because of the economic crisis, and the European Union just closed its doors. The corruption of the Ben Ali regime and its clans increased people’s frustration.

People are stuck in an open prison, caught between unemployment, corruption, lack of civil liberties in Tunisia and the “wall” built by Europe to control immigration. For example, my 24 year old brother couldn’t get a visa to visit me in France because he doesn’t have a job. This also explains why the protests were so huge.

Tunisians are highly critical of the silence from Western governments over Ben Ali’s regime. Western governments supported Ben Ali, saying, “Yes, we acknowledge that there are some problems, but it’s not really a dictatorship in Tunisia.” For a long time Europe supported his regime, justifying this by saying that “you need to fight Islamism”.

The role of the trade unions was very important in this revolution. The oldest union, the UGTT, used to be very powerful in the period during the fight against colonialism. However, the central leadership had become totally corrupted by the regime. But the local union organisations were very effective and dynamic in supporting the revolution.

It was a spontaneous revolution but it was highly supported by the local unions in Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and elsewhere. These people pushed the central leadership who were pro Ben Ali to make a decision to give the order to go onto the streets.

Some figures from civil society, for example lawyers, also played an important role. The lawyers’ association was the only elected and independent association in Tunisia. All the others had been corrupted by the regime. The lawyers were then followed by some doctors, and of course the bloggers.

After Ben Ali left, you had a deal between some people who were very important symbols of the old regime, like Mohammed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, with some leaders of the opposition. The army supported this deal.

This deal was refused by the street, by the people who made the revolution. They pushed the unions’ representatives to leave the government.

When Ben Ali left he had the police with him. He had his own militia within the police, so the police were divided. The people causing trouble in Tunisia just after Ben Ali left were his militia, but you have people from the police who are against them.

The army is not as strong as people outside Tunisia might think. Ben Ali managed to weaken the army and didn’t give it a lot of money. People say the army is supporting us.

At the beginning of the revolution people were demonstrating against the corruption of the regime and against Ben Ali. Now it is interesting that if you go to the streets of Tunisia you have a lot of people starting to say it’s not only Ben Ali that caused the problems, but also the whole system of the regime’s RCD party. They are now asking the government to fire the managers of big firms (especially the ones that were privatised). They are seen as symbols of the corrupt Ben Ali regime.

The challenge now is to protect the revolution. Tunisians don’t want the mess of Iraq.

They are talking about the example of the parliamentary system in Britain. They don’t want a presidential system any more.

People are debating the future of the revolution. They talk about Portugal after the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship and about what happened in Iran.

Héla Yousfi is a member of Le Collectif de Soutien aux Luttes des Habitants de Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia

The revolution faces a trial of strength

Tunisia has just lived through an extraordinary month. A revolutionary movement has succeeded in sweeping from power a dictator who seemed only days earlier assured of remaining on his throne for life.

How can we explain this social explosion, which has rapidly turned into revolution?

In the first few days the demands focused on the material conditions of existence, summed up in the slogan “Work is a right”. Then the widening of the movement, together with the repression meted out to it by the dictatorship, accelerated its radicalisation to the point of challenging the established order. Political demands became associated with social demands, the concentrated expression of which was “Ben Ali, get out!”

It is very difficult to try to analyse a political situation when it is evolving so rapidly, sometimes even leaping ahead. But the key trends remain clear. The day after 14 January, the day of the great mobilisation, particularly in Tunis, was when the regime decided to rid itself of Ben Ali. But even while we had not yet had time to celebrate this historic victory, the dying regime made an attempted comeback with a “the government of national unity” in the hope of containing the groundswell that threatened to overthrow the established order.

The counterrevolutionary manoeuvre by the authorities had some success during the first three days, above all thanks to the leaders of the UGTT trade union rallying in support of the government.

On 18 January the announcement of the composition of the government of national unity acted like a spur to the revolutionary movement, which responded with a wave of demonstrations in most towns, above all in Tunis. At the same time, the rank and file of the UGTT forced the setting up of an administrative commission to act as a counter to the position taken by the executive bureau, which was very close to the authorities. This commission forced the resignation of the three ministers nominated by the union.

The announcement of the decisions of the administrative commission, on the afternoon of the same day, destabilised all the political partners in the government of national unity and pushed one of the three opposition parties that had joined the government to withdraw.

The revolutionary movement also went into action over the key political question – the future of the RCD. Just about everywhere the demonstrators have taken over its local offices, which were completely deserted (the total number of full-timers was said to be 10,000 – all paid for through public funds). Several have been wrecked. This movement has now spread to public enterprises and to state administrative offices, from which, thanks to initiatives by employees, the managers of these institutions are being expelled.

There is a trial of strength between the revolutionary movement determined to dismantle the old order and the counterrevolution that makes endless political concessions to try to protect what is fundamental, that is, the economic and social capitalist regime.

True, for now this issue is completely missing from the debate and from the demands, in view of the importance of what to do in respect of the RCD and its future. But we should expect the social question to bounce back to the surface very shortly.

Fathi Chamki (RAID-ATTAC, Tunisia)

No substitute

As the events of the Tunisian uprising unfold there has been an abundance of blogs and articles championing the role of social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, with some even calling this “the first Wikileaks revolution”. While both Wikileaks and social media have had an effect on the Tunisian people, to characterise this revolt as being caused by either of these things is to overstate their importance and at the same time massively understate the revolutionary strength of the Tunisian masses.

Undoubtedly for those of us outside of the country it has been fascinating to follow the latest events via Twitter and watch videos of the protests on YouTube. With the Tunisian authorities imposing a ban on the state-run media from covering the events, people have been forced to use the generally much freer internet to release information.

But it has been often overlooked that these protests actually began four weeks before the world’s mainstream media picked up on them. In that time the level of internet activity from the Tunisians hadn’t changed but was mostly ignored until the fleeing of President Ben Ali. It took nearly a month for the coverage on social networks to hit the headlines in any meaningful way.

Perhaps the area of social media that is most overstated is its ability to organise. Much was made of how Iranians used Twitter to liaise during their protests in 2009 and the same has been said of Tunisia. It’s wrong to altogether dismiss this notion – every generation uses the tools at their disposal to organise. Also we can’t downplay the need for activists to use online media to express political thought in countries where it isn’t always easy to do so openly. But the idea that Tunisians took to the streets after seeing a Facebook status is to dismiss the decades of frustration and anger that has built up in the country. Technological advancements have the ability to help mass movements but they do not cause mass movements.

The same is generally true with Wikileaks. We should always support the brilliant work done by the whistle-blowing website, but its revelations about Tunisia brought no surprises for the people who had been living in that authoritarian regime. CNN reporter Ben Wedeman said, “No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned Twitter, Facebook or Wikileaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression.”

The mass media does not purposefully set out to deny the ability of people to bring about change by themselves, but the constant talk of Twitter revolts and Wikileaks revolutions is the reality of looking at the world in a top-down way. Tunisians have used social media, not the other way around.

The hope now is that the revolution can spread across the Arab world. The internet can help to spread the idea and give confidence to the working classes of other nations, but it has always been and will always be ordinary people who change the world.

Dominic Kavakeb

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