They were intent on not allowing power to slip from the corridors of parliament and the presidential palace to the streets where the masses were celebrating the flight of the hated dictator. It was crucial for them above all to ensure the maintenance of “constitutional order”. Articles 56 and 57 of the Constitution were invoked and different figures were put in charge with lightning speed, trying to form a new government as soon as possible. First it was Ben Ali’s Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, quickly replaced by the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, who then, in turn, proceeded to ask Ghannouchi to have talks with all political forces in order to form a national unity government charged with calling elections.
Talks were frantic during the whole weekend. From the point of view of the ruling class this government had to fulfil two aims: 1) to ensure the continuity of the old regime, 2) to do it by pretending that it was “new” in order to gain some legitimacy on the streets where the Tunisian people had carried out the revolutionary overthrow of Ben Alí. For this purpose a number of figures from the “loyal opposition” were included as a fig leaf.
Meanwhile, the remains of Ben Ali’s hated police force and secret services were roaming the streets in unmarked cars, shooting at civilians, organising looting and generally attempting to create a mood of chaos, violence and fear from which they hoped to benefit. An amazing 120,000 people were employed by the police in a country of just over 10 million inhabitants, controlling all aspects of everyday life and spying on the population on a massive scale. Many of those are still loyal to the dictator, armed and fighting for their own survival.
Starting on Friday night, the Tunisian people started to organise to fight back against them. In neighbourhoods around the country groups of men, women and children armed themselves with sticks, stones, knives and whatever else they could get their hands on and set up barricades and roadblocks to protect themselves, revealing a sharp revolutionary instinct.
One eyewitness described the situation: “Every single corner had a collection of men, young boys and even a few women brandishing all sorts of weapons (except guns). They had built barricades out of random trash to block traffic and were standing around them.” These peoples’ committees fought, and on many occasions defeated, the ministry of interior forces who were terrorising the population: “These terrorists were armed with automatic weapons and driving around in cars, and we were all on foot armed only with axe handles, knives and badly constructed barricades,” the same eyewitness explained.
Some of these committees also started to undertake tasks of ensuring the provisioning of food as well as maintaining public order. Elements of dual power started to emerge. In Bizerte, one of the epicentres of the revolution, the army went to the neighbourhood committees and told them that they were taking over, but the committees said they were staying and the army had no other alternative but to accept. The same was true throughout the country, as army soldiers collaborated with the committees to maintain order and fight the police and ministry of interior forces.
Last week during the revolutionary events that led to the ousting of Ben Ali, there were already many reports of fraternisation between soldiers and lower ranking officers and the workers and youth on the streets. As a matter of fact, Ben Ali was forced to withdraw the Army from the streets of the capital and replace them with the police for fear of the soldiers joining with the people.
During every real revolutionary movement cracks appear within the state apparatus, and particularly the army which is a conscript army drawn from the people. Some generals at the top of the Tunisian Army probably realised that they could not use the soldiers against the people and therefore understood that Ben Ali was finished and decided to switch their allegiance. General Rachid Ammar is reported as having refused an order for the soldiers to fire on the demonstrators and was removed from his command by Ben Alí. This has added to the popularity of the Army amongst the population.
The workers and youth of Tunisia should be very wary of any such false friends of the revolution. These false friends are behaving as they are only because the balance of forces has swung massively in favour of the ordinary working people. They will lean towards the masses in order to win their confidence, only to betray them later.
In Tunisia as in any capitalist country, the army as an institution is a capitalist body, created in order to defend the interests of the ruling class, however much it attempts to present itself as defending the people and the nation. Workers and youth should have no trust in Army generals. However, the lower ranks are much closer to the masses in social composition and background. With these layers – ordinary soldiers and lower ranking officers – the masses should build and strengthen their links. Soldiers and revolutionary officers should form their own committees and these should be linked to the committees in the workplaces and the neighbourhoods. They should denounce those officers involved in corruption and repression under Ben Ali and remove them from the institution.
As news of the new “national unity” government started to emerge, workers and youth were back on the streets. In Bizerte, Sfax and other places there were demonstrations on Saturday, some of them marching on the headquarters of the hated RCD ruling party and setting them on fire. In Bizerte the people defeated the Ben Alí militias and set their motorbikes on fire. There was a growing feeling that the revolution was being stolen from them.
Even before the actual composition of the new government had been announced demonstrations were being called for in the capital and most regional capitals for Monday. In Tunis a militant crowd of thousands gathered outside the offices of the UGTT trade union and then marched towards the Ministry of the Interior (Video). Similar demonstrations took place in Sfax (Video 1 and Video 2, Video 3), Kasserine, Monastir (Video), Bizerte (Video 1 and Video 2), Jendouba, etc. In many cases these demonstrations were organised by and rallied from the regional headquarters of the UGTT union. "The revolution continues, down with the RCD” was the common slogan. “They cannot steal the revolution from us,” said Abdel Haq Kharshouni, one of the protesters quoted by the Financial Times, “we do not want to be ruled by tyrants anymore.” In the capital, the demonstrators were met with riot police with water cannons and dispersed. (Video).
Finally, late on Monday 18, the composition of the new government was announced. Ministers from the old Ben Ali government kept all key positions including the Prime Minister and the ministries of Defence, Interior, Economy and Foreign Affairs. A few figures from the legal opposition were given token ministries: Moustapha Ben Jaafar, from the socialdemocratic “Forum démocratique pour le travail et la liberté” (FDTL) getting the Health Ministry, Ahmed Ibrahim, from the former Communist Party Ettajdid was given Higher Education, and the head of the liberal PDP Najib Chebbi was appointed as Minister for Regional Development.
As usual the former Stalinists and reformist leaders play the worst role of all. These are all parties which were legal under Ben Ali; some had representation in parliament and played no role during the insurrection. Significantly, when Ghannouchi announced the new government, he was flanked by Abdallah Kallel, former Minister of the Interior, well known for implementing brutal repression and directly responsible for the torture of thousands of political opponents. A number of figures from “civil society” were thrown in for good measure to try to increase the authority of the new government amongst the masses, including a blogger who had been arrested, a barrister, human rights figures, a cinema director, etc. Three representatives from the UGTT trade union were also included in the new government, in recognition of the need for the ruling class to get some support amongst the workers.
The Communist Workers Party (PCOT), illegal up until now, has correctly denounced this government as a manoeuvre to maintain the Ben Ali regime without Ben Ali. The PCOT has also called for the spreading of the committees and for the convening of a Constituent Assembly.
The only other party not to have been invited to this “new” government is the Islamist En Nahda, also illegal under Ben Ali. However, its leaders have declared they would be ready to join such a government. At the same time, it has been reported that one of the leaders of En Nahda, just released from prison, was present at the anti-government demonstration in Tunis this morning. The Islamists, who play no role in the actual revolution, are now attempting to win support by presenting themselves as more consistent democrats. These are not friends of the revolution, but just cynically trying to take advantage of it to promote their own reactionary views.
This new government does not have the support of the revolutionary masses. They quite rightly see that they made the revolution and now a government is being formed which is mainly made up of those they fought against, people who were part of the Ben Ali government right until the end, who are co-responsible for the 80 people who were killed by the regime during the insurrection. The fact that a few “oppositionists” who did not play any significant role during the movement are being included does not change anything. The promises of freedom for all political prisoners, freedom of expression and democratic elections do not change anything. The people fear that their victory on Friday is being stolen in front of their own eyes. A young unemployed worker summarised the feelings of the people: “It is as if Ben Ali was still here. The people from this government never had the courage to say ‘enough’ to Ben Ali. They want to steal our revolution. They did nothing to remove him. They should go!”
A new and powerful wave of anger is building up from below. This morning (Tuesday January 18), new demonstrations took place, including a few thousand in the capital, 10,000 in Sfax (where a general strike has been called for tomorrow), thousands in Sidi Bouzid, 1000 in Regueb (population 7,000), thousands in Kairouan, 3,000 in Kelibia and also 500 in Kasserine. In Tataouine the demonstrators ransacked the headquarters of the RCD. There were also demonstrations, numbering thousands, in Beja, in Gabes, in Mahdia, Hamma, Gafsa, Feriana, Kairouan, Zarzis, Kelibia, etc. Many of this demonstrations were organised by or rallied at the headquarters of the regional and local unions of the UGTT. One observer put it this way: “the Tunisian population feels that the Revolution is being driven away from its ideals. The main view of the opposition is that the people who made the revolution are not represented and that by keeping the RCD on board, and even at the steering wheel, the former regime is perpetuating itself.” This forced the UGTT national leadership today to announce that it does not recognise the new government and that it is withdrawing from it, this less than 24 hours from its formation!
The national leadership of the UGTT is not known for its radicalism. Last week it met with Ben Ali and welcomed the promises he made in a last desperate attempt to save his skin. On Sunday they went on national TV to distance themselves from appeals for demonstrations on Monday and called on all workers to report back for work and “re-establish normality”. If they have now been forced to make such a statement it means that the pressure coming from the rank and file of the trade unions and from the regional unions must be very strong and they fear losing their positions. Even the former communist party Ettajdid, which has joined the new government, issued a statement saying that their participation in it was conditional on a number of demands, including the removal of all RCD ministers!
As part of the unfulfilled tasks of the revolution, workers and ordinary trade union members should organise the democratisation of the trade union movement and the cleansing of the UGTT of all those who collaborated with the Ben Ali regime. Workers require unions that are genuine expressions of their interests. This means elections in the workplaces must take place, and a new leadership must be prepared to take over.
The next few hours and days will be crucial. The workers and youth of Tunisia have shown great courage and revolutionary determination. They must not allow the revolution to be taken away from them. They should rely only in their own forces, the forces that brought down Ben Ali. The Committees which exist in the neighbourhoods should be maintained and should link up through elected representatives at a local, regional and national level. Similar committees should be set up in the work places, within the ranks of the Army, amongst the students, etc. These are the only bodies that are legitimate representatives of the revolutionary people and which should be tasked with convening the Constituent Assembly. None of the politicians from the old regime can be trusted as the masses correctly understand.
The slogans of the day should be: Down with the national unity government! For a revolutionary constituent assembly based on the committees! Fraternisation with the army ranks and setting up of soldiers’ committees! The UGTT should call a general strike to enforce the will of the people! Trial and punishment of those responsible for repression under the Ben Ali regime! Expropriation of the wealth of the Trabelsi clan! The revolution continues; the workers and youth should remain vigilant!
The Ben Ali regime was not only a dictatorship, but a capitalist dictatorship. This is the reason why France, Italy, the US and the rest of the imperialist powers supported Ben Ali right until the very last minute. We also note that the Socialist International has decided to remove the RCD from its ranks, an embarrassing decision which shows that when it comes to imperialism the social democratic leaders always play the same imperialist tune.
If the revolution is to be taken to its logical conclusions, and the demands for work and dignity are to be fulfilled, the wealthy of the Tunisian capitalist class, the banks, industries and companies which supported, backed, financed and benefited from the dictatorship, must be expropriated. Only in this way, can the wealth of the country created by working people be put under the control of this same working people in order to fulfil the needs of the population. The aspirations of the Tunisian masses can only be genuinely satisfied through a social, as well as a political revolution: a socialist revolution.
1 See The Portuguese Revolution, by Alan Woods, June, 1974; The Revolution in Portugal, by Ted Grant, May 1975; and Worker's History - Portuguese Revolution 1974, by Phil Mitichinson, May 1994 for a detailed analysis of the 1974 Portuguese revolution and the role played by such figures.