Tunisia: An ongoing revolution

Following are portions of an interview with Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami, a lawyer and one of the leaders of the Ligue de la Gauche Ouvrière (LGO, Workers’ Left League). He was formerly a leader of the Organisation Communiste Révolutionnaire (OCR, Revolutionary Communist Organisation, Tunisian section of the Fourth International). He was interviewed by Jan Malewski on Feb. 19, 2011, before the fall of the Ghannouchi government. The full interview appears at http://www.internationalviewpoint.org.
Q: Since December 2010 the Tunisian masses have overthrown the dictator Ben Ali and given the signal for revolt throughout the Arab world and beyond. What happened in your country?

Jalel Ben Brik Zoghlami: I think that we are in a process that you would call revolution, a social revolution, social, democratic, and national. It is an anti-system revolution and it is a revolution for national dignity. In its Tunisian dynamic, as in its Arab dynamic, it is a permanent revolution. Since January one of the essential slogans—and it is not us who have raised it!—has been “Uninterrupted revolution, Ben Ali out!”
The essence of our revolution can be summed up in three slogans: work, freedom, and national dignity. It is a revolution that began by the symbolic gesture of a young graduate who immolated himself. He symbolized these young graduates, without work, who take the road to Italy and Europe before it is closed off. Young Mohamed Bouazizi symbolized these completely crushed youth. After his gesture it was the explosion, the eruption of the masses, above all young people from the “forgotten” deprived regions—Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Gafsa, and so on—and the popular neighborhoods of the big cities, Tunis, Nabeul, Sfax and Sousse. It was always the youth who began the struggle. The internet has played a prominent role at the level of the media—in Tunisia there are 1.8 million network subscribers, once again predominantly young people.
Q: How have these youth in revolt been able to confront the police state?
JBBZ: When it was said that this revolution had no leadership, it is true. There was no political leadership. But there was a “rearguard,” that is, points of support for the eruption of the masses. When the youth revolted and confronted the system directly, they had to confront repression. Then they fell back, to regroup and organize their defense, in the branches of the rank-and-file structures of the Union générale des travailleurs tunisiens (UGTT, General Union of Tunisian Workers).
In these regions, which are not heavily industrial, they found above all teaching trades unionists, who had been students in the 1980s, who had emerged from the student movement of that time influenced by the radical and nationalist left. In the 1990s, the black years of Ben Ali’s repression—there were 40 deaths under torture, 30,000 political prisoners—they were in the trade-union movement, not so much as politically organized activists, but with their political baggage, above all that of the radical left. Who were they? Leaders of our organization or those close to us, or other groups of the radical left, those of the Jan. 14th Front, which comprised 13 parties essentially of the far left and nationalist organizations.
Q: Your organization, the Ligue de la Gauche Ouvrière, was founded during the struggle.
JBBZ: Yes, the Ligue de la Gauche Ouvrière was set up during the revolution. But its activists did not come from nowhere. They were very well known leaders in the trade-union, associative, feminist world, known in the political confrontation with the regime, youth leaders known in the cultural movement, well known organizers who were at the head of the movement in Sidi Bouzid, union leaders in primary education or in posts and telecoms. Some of them came to us from the Organization Communiste Révolutionnaire, the Tunisian section of the Fourth International, which broke up following the repression, because it could no longer go forward in its form of organization. In 1990 there were 40 sentencings of youths—the oldest was 27, the youngest 16. It was a very hard blow.
The OCR was an organization of revolutionary youth, which had a clear position against the regime and against the fundamentalists, for a popular workers’ orientation. … Let me make it clear, we always struggled against the fundamentalists—who wanted a state which would be anti-woman and anti-worker, who today go hand in hand with the character the most hated by the working class, Mohamed Sayah, a leader of the Néo-Destour [the predecessor of Ben Ali’s ruling party] who repressed the general strike of February 1978 alongside Ben Ali—but we have never accepted this repressive police state regime.
Q: What was the role of the trade-union movement in the fall of Ben Ali?
JBBZ: What really transformed the relationship of forces in favor of the revolution were the three regional strikes, called by the UGTT. On Wednesday, Jan. 12, in the Sfax region, on Thursday, Jan. 13, in the regions of Kasserine, Kairouan, Sousse, and Monastir and on Friday, Jan. 14, in that of greater Tunis. Inside the Administrative Commission of the UGTT, which called these strikes, the union bureaucracy—weakened by the destruction of its historic bases—was faced with very strong unions led by comrades essentially of the radical left—the primary and secondary education teaching unions, which are very strong, together with nearly 100,000 members, whereas the whole membership of the UGTT is 517,000 members, that of posts and telecommunications, that of doctors and public health, the leaders of the regions of Ben Arous, Jendouba, and so on.
The union bureaucracy was obliged to take account of the radical unionists. The revolutionaries inside the UGTT called for a general strike, the bureaucracy had to give way before this pressure, and this led to successive regional strikes, allowing the movement to build itself little by little. These strikes led to the flight of Ben Ali, which took place on the day of the general strike in greater Tunis.
Today in Tunisia, unlike in Egypt for example, we do not have to organize the working class, we have an organized working class, whose essential sectors are under the leadership of the radical left. Their most high profile representative is a comrade of the Workers’ Left League. The dynamic of the working class currently is to fight against this bureaucracy. That is why the union bureaucracy refused to enter the government, because it was afraid of its radical base. But, without being part of it, it supported the second government, still more linked to the international institutions.
Inside the UGTT there is a big rank-and-file radicalization. The general secretary has understood it and has announced he will leave his post at the next congress, in two years. He has said that he will respect article 10 of the statutes—abrogated at the Djerba congress in February 2002—which stipulates that no member of the executive can hold office for more than two terms. That means that eight of the members of the current executive would have to go. With the revolutionary situation there is not only a big radicalization but also a huge mood to demand democracy in all the institutions.
Q: What are the current debates in the revolutionary movement?
JBBZ: We have begun to speak of a transitional program in Tunisia, of urgent tasks and transitional tasks. Among the urgent tasks there is the total dismantling of the RCD party and the police state institutions, the question of work for the unemployed, the nationalization of all the properties of the families linked to Ben Ali under the control of the workers, the cancellation of the debt, taxation and so on.
At the same time there is a proposal at the level of the institutions, that is to create a National Congress for the Defense of the Revolution with all the organizations—trade unions, human rights organizations, parties and above all the autonomous committees of organization which exist in the insurgent towns and villages. The discussion goes from the demand for the overthrow of Ghannouchi and his government—and I believe he will be obliged to quit—to that of the demand for a new government chosen among all the components of the Congress, so that there is a government whose task would be to legislate on the current, democratic, national, and economic questions and to prepare genuinely free elections to the Constituent Assembly.
I believe that this is completely realistic. Even if the relationship of forces does not allow the overthrow of this government, this weight of popular representation inside this Congress will weigh on it and would allow proposing, controlling, and blocking and so on. We advance the Constituent Assembly and at the same time a democratic popular workers’ government. In Tunisia that could be done in the form of a popular and democratic UGTT government.
We need a congress of the mass movement with a broader representation, not only the UGTT executive but all the union federations and regions. At the same time we need to structure in each region, locality, and sector committees genuinely linked to the popular masses. That would give the true popular forces control and initiative.
Q: You spoke of autonomous committees. What form do they take?
JBBZ: … Where there were serious confrontations against the police and the repressive administration of Ben Ali, people organized for their demands and to defend themselves against the attacks of the police and against repression. That led with time to a popular organization and a local leadership.
Afterwards, with the fall of Ben Ali, there were attacks by the militias and sections of the police to spread fear. People organized across Tunisia to defend their neighborhoods, schools, public services. That led to neighborhood defense committees. The ruling party ran the neighborhoods. When it collapsed, the people were obliged to run the localities themselves, and the offices of the RCD became the offices of the people of the neighborhood. They met, discussed and, as there was a big politicization, everybody talked about the government, its choices, links with ministers with Ben Ali, with France, with the USA and so on. In all the neighborhoods the people have chosen to meet in these former RCD offices and to create Houses of Defense of the Revolution.
In some neighborhoods spontaneous forms of organization endured, and in others a leadership was elected. The village committee became de facto the municipality. It is a process of self-organization to meet vital needs—to organize everyday life, defend oneself from the militias involved in smuggling, the RCD, the police, and so on at the same time as a will to discuss the social, political and other questions. …
There are forms of self-organization also emerging in the public establishments and institutions, linked to the intervention of trades unionists and workers to get rid of the most corrupt managers and replace them by the most competent. For example at Tunisie-Télécom they have demanded that the 30 % privatized portion of the company is renationalized and that the most corrupt directors with the most indecent pay levels are removed. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the workers demanded that the Minister not return to the ministry, because he had given the image of Tunisia as a lickspittle of French imperialism….
Q. What’s the situation of the revolutionary left?
JBBZ: Today the essence of the Tunisian radical left is unorganized activists. The existing organizations, a dozen of them, do not represent even 10 % of this left which is very present in the autonomous organizations in the neighborhoods, the unions and so on. Hence the task of building the party that the revolution needs must be taken on in the very course of the ongoing revolution.
That isn’t an easy task. The organizations of the radical and revolutionary left are emerging from illegality or are setting themselves up. If they attract activists who have until now been unorganized, they lack material resources—office, libraries, means of expression, publications. We hope that all those in the international revolutionary left who are enthused by our revolution will help us.