Spartacist South Africa No. 8

Winter 2012


Tunisian Elections: Victory for Islamic Reactionaries

Workers Must Fight for Their Own Class Rule!

The following article is translated from Le Bolchévik No. 198 (December 2011), newspaper of our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France. It was reprinted in Workers Vanguard No. 993, 6 January 2012.

The popular revolt in Tunisia that ousted hated despot Ben Ali last January resulted in the election of a new constituent assembly on October 23. With the blessing of the imperialists, the “modernist” Islamists of the Ennahda party took 89 of the 217 seats in the new assembly, which is now tasked with the job of running the country for the next year as well as drafting a new constitution. Ennahda, the secular Congress for the Republic (CPR), a bourgeois party, and Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom), which is affiliated with the Second International, have formed a coalition to run the country. However, the Islamists have the real power in the coalition. Ennahda’s Number Two, Hamadi Jebali, was named prime minister on December 14, and his party got most of the key ministerial posts, notably that of the police, as well as the ministry of mosques.

The ex-Stalinist Communist Workers Party of Tunisia (PCOT), which won only three seats in the assembly, was apparently also invited to join the new government but declined, asserting that “remaining outside the government is the best choice for the PCOT” (La Presse de Tunisie, 19 November 2011). As we explained in our articles earlier this year, while the organized working class played a quite significant role in the popular uprising that led to the toppling of the hated dictator Ben Ali, it remained politically subordinated to the bourgeoisie. The main trade-union federation, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which is led by longtime Ben Ali toady Abdesselem Jerad, has since last January engaged in various political blocs, subordinating itself to bourgeois forces, including the Islamic reactionaries of Ennahda, in a so-called “National Council to Safeguard the Revolution”, which was formed on February 11. Jerad & Co. thus helped build the credibility of Ennahda, which then won the election. As we wrote back in March, “By thus chaining the workers to their class enemy, the trade-union bureaucrats and reformists are paving the way to a bloody defeat for the workers and the oppressed. It is necessary to break with class collaboration!” (Le Bolchévik No. 195, March 2011).

Indicative of the increasing disillusionment among the Tunisian masses over the perspectives offered by the first “democratic” elections in the history of the country, the rate of abstention was 46 percent on average and was especially high in the rural and less industrialized areas of the country. Tunisia has long been known as the least religious and most secular country in the region. The Ennahda victory thus does not as such indicate a strong turn toward political Islam, given that less than one-quarter of the potential voters cast ballots for its slates. However, this victory is ominous.

Immediately following the election, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi pledged to maintain a secular course, arguing that his party has no interest in establishing sharia (Islamic) law or alienating other parties in the coalition government. Indeed, Ghannouchi chose to govern in alliance with secular parties rather than with the populist Al-Aridah Chaabia (“People’s Petition for Liberty, Justice and Development”), a bourgeois party led by a London businessman who had been an Ennahda activist until 1992 and reportedly forged close ties with the Ben Ali regime.

However, while Rached Ghannouchi may promise, as he did in his first post-election speech, that “Tunisia is for everyone”, attacks on basic rights are sure to be on the rise. On December 3, a band of about 1,000 Islamic reactionaries attacked secular demonstrators with stones in front of the parliament, wounding many people. Even before the elections, Ennahda supporters began to flex their muscles. Two of the larger attacks were against films perceived as being anti-Islam. In June, ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims attacked a showing of the film Neither Allah, Nor Master! as promoting secularism and issued death threats against filmmaker Nadia El Fani. In October, thousands of Islamists demonstrated at the headquarters of a local television station and set it on fire to protest against its showing of Persepolis, an animated film that denounces the reactionary impact of the 1979 “Islamic revolution” in Iran and that the protesters claimed to be insulting to Islam.

While Ennahda professed to denounce the violence of the protests, Rached Ghannouchi announced his support of “the right of the Tunisian people to defend its religion” (l’Humanité, 19 October 2011). Now it is the manager of the TV station that showed Persepolis who is being prosecuted for “violating sacred values and moral standards and disturbing public order”, and he faces up to three years in prison (Le Monde, 17 November 2011). Drop the charges!

In the weeks following the elections, Ennahda has above all sought to reassure the Tunisian bourgeoisie and Western imperialism of its commitment to improving the state of the Tunisian economy. One of its main concerns is to bolster the flagging tourist industry, vowing to continue to allow liquor and bikinis at the country’s beach resorts (while simultaneously hinting that hotels should also offer liquor-free bookings for Muslims). More specifically, just a few short days after the elections, Ennahda met with Tunisian stock market representatives to discuss the implementation of its program of “developing and encouraging private sector initiatives while strengthening the market economy by improving the business environment so that companies can more easily access financial markets, as well as encouraging direct and portfolio investment by foreign investors” (La Presse Tunisienne, 27 October 2011). In other words, privatization, austerity and more grinding poverty for the working masses.

For Working-Class Independence

There has indeed been no improvement in the desperate material conditions that led Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor of vegetables, to set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, sparking the countrywide revolt that overthrew Ben Ali. A general wage increase of 4.7 percent was largely eaten up by consumer inflation, which hit an annual rate of 4.5 percent in October. Unemployment, which hits young people the hardest, has increased by more than a third since the beginning of 2011, and the number of unemployed could reach one million by the end of 2011. Conditions have been made even worse by the return of tens of thousands of Tunisians who had been working in Libya.

Strikes, sit-ins and workplace blockages have continued unabated since January 2011 in just about every sector of the economy: in telecommunications, transportation, education, the phosphate industry, oil, aviation and tourism, as well involving doctors, judges, postal workers, market vendors, brewery workers—the list goes on. To cite just one example, the Financial Times (15 August 2011) reported that in July there had been a total of 184 protest roadblocks across Tunisia, up from 103 in June, and that 156 protests had blocked access to industrial sites, including oil companies, up from 78 in June. The “post-revolutionary” police have continued to brutally suppress these protests with the help of the army. Thabet Belkacem, a 14-year-old youth, was killed on July 16 by the cops in Sidi Bouzid. Again on November 23 in Kasserine, cops firing their guns in the air attacked several thousand demonstrators with tear gas (, 24 November 2011).

There was a slight dip in the number of strikes in the month before the elections, as the UGTT obscenely called on the working class to avoid all strikes in the weeks leading up to the elections—a call that was only partially heeded. Having historically engaged in militant class struggle, the UGTT finally succumbed to years of repression under Ben Ali; many of its top leaders even joined the leadership of his Democratic-Constitutional Rally (RCD) party. Today the UGTT claims to represent more than half a million members.

The Tunisian working class remains chained to its own bourgeoisie not only by the trade-union bureaucracy but also by the reformist left groups, many of which were banned or repressed by the Ben Ali regime. These include the ex-Stalinist PCOT and the predecessors of the League of the Workers Left (LGO), which has links with the New Anti-Capitalist Party of Olivier Besancenot in France. Ettajdid (the former Communist Party) ran in the elections as part of the “Modernist Democratic Pole” slate, which won five seats. While its campaign centered on warning against the dangers of the Islamists, and Ennahda in particular, Ettajdid secretary general Ahmed Ibrahim told Reuters (12 October 2011) that differences with Ennahda “should not prevent coexistence with it.... Democracy means coexistence with everyone, without exception, including Ennahda.” Indeed, the fact that the electoral campaign was dominated by the polarization between “secular” and Islamist forces helped mask the utter failure of the workers movement to pose the real question: bourgeois rule (whether secular or not) or workers rule. The Tunisian proletariat must become a class for itself, fighting for power in its own name; and for this they need a revolutionary Leninist party.

As for the LGO, it tried to build its own class-collaborationist alliance (dubbed an “anti-liberal and anti-imperialist front”) with component parts of the “January 14 Front”, a popular front including bourgeois formations such as self-proclaimed Nasserist or Ba’athist groups that was set up following Ben Ali’s ouster. Failing that, and having also failed to obtain its full legalization, the LGO issued a statement on October 9 calling for a boycott of the elections and complaining of “the absence of the necessary conditions for a democratic election” (Tout est à nous! Web site, 22 September and 22 October 2011).

Meanwhile, the PCOT, in its post-election declaration, dedicated itself to fighting “for the installation of a truly democratic, patriotic and popular change” (Tout est à nous!, 3 November 2011). Despite the occasional rhetoric about “revolution”, none of these reformists goes beyond a struggle for “democracy”—that is, they hold to a program explicitly limited to a capitalist framework.

Women’s Rights Under Threat

Compared to the rest of the region, Tunisia boasts relatively broad rights for women, most of them gained under President Bourguiba immediately following independence of Tunisia from France in 1956. These rights were specified in a Code of Personal Status (CPS), which, as we wrote more than two decades ago, represents “an awkward, fragile and reversible compromise between Islamic law and bourgeois ‘modernity’” (Le Bolchévik No. 79, January 1988). That explains why Ennahda considers the code acceptable. It includes formal equality under the law; polygamy is illegal and civil law governs divorce. Abortion rights exist and contraception is available. However, these are not free, which restricts their availability to workers and the poorer layers of society. In addition, single women are still subordinate to their fathers under the law, arranged marriages are frequent and a man must pay a dowry for his future wife. Magic rituals called the tasfih are performed to supposedly protect the virginity of pubescent girls, while hymenoplasty (surgical restoration of the hymen to give the appearance of virginity) is performed among petty-bourgeois layers of society. Sexual harassment is commonplace, and women are very much discriminated against in inheritance laws.

In the recent election, parties were not allowed to run unless half their lists were made up of women. The number of women actually elected was just 49 out of the 217 seats—including 42 for Ennahda, many of whom are veiled women who believe that women should live according to their view of sharia law. The parity clause helped Ennahda present itself as pro-woman. As Marxists, we are opposed to the state dictating whom a political party, including a revolutionary party, is allowed to put forward, whether male or female, “citizen” or “foreigner”.

Women comprise nearly 30 percent of the country’s workforce, including among the working class (one-third of UGTT members are women). In addition, the majority of university students are women, and among the petty bourgeoisie 31 percent of lawyers, 40 percent of college professors and 42 percent of doctors are women. This layer of highly qualified petty-bourgeois professional women has generated numerous women’s rights groups acting largely as watchdogs for the maintenance of the CPS. Many of these women are now understandably worried about what the electoral victory of Ennahda will mean for women’s rights.

Rached Ghannouchi has been careful to insist that Ennahda intends to safeguard the rights of women that currently exist under Tunisian law, and he maintains that women will not be forced to wear the veil. He regularly cites Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as his model for the future of Tunisia. But as our German comrades wrote following the AKP’s reelection in 2007 (see WV No. 916, 6 June 2008):

“New constitutional amendments were announced scrapping the longstanding ban on the headscarf in colleges and public institutions and replacing a clause in the current constitution that obliges the government to ‘ensure equality for both men and women’ with one that describes women as a ‘vulnerable group in need of special protection”. Meanwhile, the emboldened forces of Islamic reaction are starting to change the political and social landscape of Turkey, including in cities like Istanbul. Some government offices are organizing work schedules according to prayer times, and boys and girls are being separated in high schools, a wholly reactionary measure.… Today, some form of veiling is worn by more than 60 percent of Turkish women.”

Today, some four years later, conditions are even worse: Turkey has one of the worst records in Europe concerning widespread violence against women (Economist, 12 May 2011).

We are opposed to the veil, no matter what its form, as both a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression. At the same time, we are equally opposed to state bans or restrictions on it. As Marxists, we stand for the separation of religion and state and call for free, secular education for all. But we also recognize that Islamic fundamentalists will use any easing of the ban on the veil to pressure women to cover themselves. This is exactly what is happening now in Tunisia: there are reports that female teachers not wearing the veil have been heckled to prevent them from giving their class, have had their classes boycotted and have even been physically attacked. Women working in stores are approached by men telling them that they should be at home and not working. At Gabès University in the southeast of the country, Salafists succeeded in having the cafeteria divided into separate areas for men and for women. An article in La Presse de Tunisie (7 November 2011) noted that “harassment of women in the street, at the university and in certain workplaces began, in fact, as early as last February, some weeks after the revolution of liberty and dignity. But this harassment has intensified since the October 23 election that gave Ennahda a relative majority in the constituent assembly.”

Ennahda declares that it has nothing to do with these attacks on women’s rights, but its spokesmen have been widely criticized for saying different things to different audiences. One of the most prominent Ennahda representatives during the election campaign was one Souad Abderrahim, a 47-year-old businesswoman and pharmacist who does not wear the veil and who is often described as embodying the “glamour” of the modern Tunisian woman. During a radio debate, Abderrahim announced that unmarried women who have children are “a disgrace” and “should not expect a legal framework that protects their rights”. She disgustingly added that “ethically, they have no right to exist” (Libération, 10 November 2011).

For Abderrahim and her ilk, only married women within the confines of the family have the “right to exist” and to have children. This goes to the very heart of women’s oppression, which is rooted in class society and in the repressive institution of the family. The family is essential to capitalist society. It cannot simply be abolished. Rather, the social functions that it fulfills, such as housework, child rearing, preparation of meals, etc., must be replaced by social institutions. But the perspective of replacing the family requires a tremendous leap in social development, which can be achieved only through sweeping away capitalist rule on a global basis and replacing it with a rational, democratically planned economy. Because the oppression of women is integral to capitalist property relations and is ideologically bolstered by religion, women’s oppression cannot be eradicated in capitalist society. At the same time, without a struggle to end women’s oppression, which reinforces all forms of social backwardness, there will be no proletarian revolution.

For Permanent Revolution in Tunisia

Tunisia is a neocolonial country whose bourgeoisie, including after the fall of Ben Ali, is tied by a million threads to world imperialism. France, the former colonial ruler, continues to benefit from the deep oppression of Tunisia’s masses. Indeed, the subordination of Tunisia to imperialism serves to ensure the brutal exploitation and oppression of its people. In order to win real national and social liberation, the proletariat must be mobilized against both the imperialists and the domestic bourgeoisie, the deadly enemies of Tunisia’s workers and oppressed.

In countries of belated capitalist development like Tunisia, the inherent weakness of the national bourgeoisie ties it so strongly to imperialism that even the most elementary democratic tasks, such as legal equality for women, complete separation of religion and state and agrarian revolution to give land to the peasants, cannot be achieved without the overthrow of the capitalist order. Moreover, the consolidation of proletarian rule requires its international extension to the imperialist centers, particularly France, the former colonial oppressor. This is at bottom what Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is all about.

In an October 29 statement (La Forge, November 2011), the PCOT whined that the dismal results of the left in the recent elections were due to the role of money in the form of corruption, vote-buying and partiality of the mass media, as well as voting instructions given in the mosques. The truth is that bourgeois elections serve to bolster bourgeois rule; they cannot actually express the will of the masses, particularly in a period of social turmoil and upheaval. This was once again proven in a spectacular fashion in the Tunisian elections.

The call for a constituent assembly was a popular demand following the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. It was argued that this was the way that democratic demands could be addressed. In fact, only proletarian power can satisfy these demands. We insisted in our propaganda on the need for the working class to establish “factory committees, organs of dual power at the point of production, and from there setting up workers militias, drawing in the urban poor and unemployed, for self-defense against the state’s thugs” (supplement to Le Bolchévik, 4 February 2011 [see “Tunisia: Dictator Flees, Protests Continue”, WV No. 973, 4 February 2011]). However, we also raised the call for a revolutionary constituent assembly in the immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s removal, as well as in Egypt shortly thereafter. In examining this question more deeply, we in the International Communist League have changed our position. While we have called for a constituent assembly numerous times in the past in other circumstances, as did our forebears in the Trotskyist movement (including Trotsky himself), we felt it necessary to question whether, in light of historical experience, this call is valid or principled from the standpoint of the proletarian revolution. A resolution recently adopted by the International Executive Committee of the ICL pointed out:

“While the Constituent Assembly played a progressive role in the great French bourgeois revolution of 1789, historical experience since has demonstrated that this ceased to be the case thereafter. Beginning with the revolutions of 1848, in every situation where a constituent assembly or similar bourgeois legislative body was convened in the context of a proletarian insurgency its aim was to rally the forces of counterrevolution against the proletariat and to liquidate proletarian power. This was evident in the Paris Commune of 1871, the October Revolution of 1917 and the German Revolution of 1918-19. Though never subsequently codified by the CI [Communist International] as a general statement of principle, the thrust of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership following the October Revolution was to treat the constituent assembly as a counterrevolutionary agency.”

The ICL has thus rejected on principle the call for a constituent assembly. We have insisted in our propaganda on Tunisia on the need to address the burning democratic demands of the masses after decades of dictatorial rule, as a lever to mobilize the working class and the oppressed behind it for socialist revolution. Such demands include freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, a real separation of church and state, etc. However, the call for a constituent assembly is not a democratic demand but a call for a capitalist government. Our rejection of such a call reflects both the historical experience of the proletariat and the extension of the Marxist program over the years. (This is a different question than that of running candidates in such elections with the aim of using the electoral campaign, as well as parliamentary seats if elected, as a platform to call on the workers to organize as a class for itself—that is, to struggle for their own class rule.)

Marx drew on the experience of the revolutions of 1848, in which the European bourgeoisies made common cause with the forces of aristocratic reaction, to propound the “revolution in permanence”. Pointing to the treachery of the democratic petty bourgeoisie, Marx argued that the task was to “make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power” and the revolution spread internationally (“Address of the Central Authority to the Communist League”, March 1850). Trotsky extended this understanding to tsarist Russia in his writings of 1904-06 and then, at the time of the Second Chinese Revolution, generalized the program of permanent revolution to countries of combined and uneven development globally. Our understanding of the reactionary character of the bourgeoisie, in the semicolonial countries as well as the advanced capitalist states, means that there can be no revolutionary bourgeois parliament. The call for a constituent assembly consequently runs counter to the permanent revolution.

In the revolt in Tunisia, the anger of the masses, as well as their hopes for real change, were channeled into calls for elections that would simply change the names and faces of the capitalist oppressors. In fact, from its inception, the Tunisian bourgeoisie has always wrapped its rule in the envelope of a (bourgeois) constitution. That has been the case from the demand for a constitution against the colonial-feudalist beylicat [Tunisian monarchy prior to independence] to the constitution later crafted by Habib Bourguiba, the strongman of the early years of the Tunisian republic, and to the recent efforts to prevent a proletarian upheaval. The historic party of the Tunisian bourgeoisie was long called Neo-Destour (“destour” means “constitution” in Arabic). The full name of the party was the “New Tunisian Constitutional Liberal Party”; it was renamed the “Destourian Socialist Party” in 1964. Years later, Ben Ali renamed it…the “Democratic-Constitutional Rally”.

A workers revolution in Tunisia, tearing state power from the capitalist class in an Arab country, would have tremendous impact throughout the region. It would immediately reverberate in the imperialist countries, notably in France, where several million people of North African origin live, concentrated in the proletariat and the most oppressed layers of the population. They constitute a living bridge for socialist revolution on both sides of the Mediterranean. To fight for the overthrow of the capitalist order, the working class needs a proletarian revolutionary party, which can be built only in an intransigent struggle against all bourgeois forces. We fight to reforge the Fourth International founded by Trotsky on the basis of the legacy of the October Revolution.