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Generations of Tunisian leftists have suffered all sorts of security prosecution, imprisonment, torture and ban from performing any public political activity. Despite the repression, leftists have continued to participate strongly in various social and political movements since the 1960s, becoming one with the rising masses during the most critical moments of the country’s history, such as "Black Thursday" in 1978, the "Bread Uprising" in 1984, the uprising in the mining basins in 2008 and, of course, the Tunisian Revolution in 2011. All these uprisings “incidentally” happened in the beginnings of their corresponding years, in the month of January.
The fall of the dictatorship was expected to allow for the Left’s emergence from the shadows into the light, but years of oppression, covert action and “left-versus-left” ideological conflicts rendered it exhausted and divided, with no clear vision for the future in a “post-revolution” Tunisia. The emergence of Islamic movements, the successive disappointments and deviations of the various Arab uprisings and the fear of the dictatorship’s return all produced a state of uncertainty and distraction for the “radical” left, which found itself fighting on more than one front.
The Tunisian Constituent Assembly elections in 2011 were a humiliating shock for the “radical” left that ended up winning only two or three seats in the assembly out of 217, which is less than 1 percent, while the Islamists won nearly half of the seats. The elections’ results and the increasing presence of Islamists in Tunisia and elsewhere prompted a large part of the Tunisian left to acknowledge the need to unite all efforts and engage in a larger political structure. This was reflected in the formation of the Popular Front in October 2012, whose main backbones were the two longtime-opponent currents that most represented the Tunisian Left: “The Tunisian Communist Party” and “The Democratic Patriots' Unified Party", in addition to other leftist and Arabist parties, such as the Baathists and Nasserists. This new organization will be strongly present in most social and political protests during the Troika rule (the tripartite coalition led by the Islamic “El Nahda” Movement). However, the left became less and less interested in social struggles in the country after a series of terrorist attacks and political assassinations took place.
The fall of the dictatorship was expected to allow for the Left’s emergence from the shadows into the light, but years of oppression, covert action and “left-versus-left” ideological conflicts rendered it exhausted and divided, with no clear vision for the future in a “post-revolution” Tunisia.
The following is an overview and analysis of the ways in which the Tunisian left has approached some of the social issues in the country. I consider four main instances that are worth studying for their exceptional nature, longevity, importance, large number of protesters participating in them, or for all of these reasons combined. Given the difficulty of addressing the stances of all leftist parties, organizations and groups (some of which are “microscopically” small), I focus on the stances of the Popular Front in Tunisia, since it is the largest coalition of leftists in the country (partisan and independent leftists), including representatives of most of the historical leftist currents. All other leftist parties are either too “moderate” to engage in the social movements or too “radical” in their statements, yet without any realistic presence on the ground. I also choose to study a specific period; the years after the 2014 presidential and legislative elections, which is the period that saw the end of the “revolutionary flow” and the restoration of stability and strength to the state institutions, under the rule of the right-wing, with its two pillars(both the historic rivals of the left) in power: the old regime’s “recycled” men and the Islamists.
The Self-Management Experiment in the Djemna Oasis
“Hensheer Al-Muammar” or “Hensheer Stil” are the palm oases located in the town of Djemna in the far south of Tunisia (in the governorate of Kebili). They were tribe-owned lands which had been confiscated by the French colonial authorities and granted to French settlers. After the independence of Tunisia, the new government chose not to return the oases to their original owners, but to claim them as “state land” (known as “Miri”), initially placing the land under its state-owned company “STIL”, but later leasing it to private investors in return for a small fee, vastly disproportionate to the profits generated by these lands. In January 2011, and with the state’s confusion upon the unfolding events of the revolution, the people of Djemna finally had the opportunity to retrieve their rightful ownership of the land. They evicted the investors and their associates from the oases and reclaimed control over the land.
After “liberating” the land, an obvious question arose: what to do with it now? Some suggested that the land be divided among the people, while others called for safeguarding its unity and collectively investing in it. The majority of the people of Djemna approved of the second opinion. Then came the second question: how can the oasis be managed and farmed? The retired teacher and leftist activist from Djemna, Taher Taheri, then came into the picture. He headed an association that worked on collectively self-managing the oasis, improving the conditions for the workers/partners (increasing wages and reducing work hours), selling the harvested dates, distributing revenues among production inputs (wages, fertilizers, equipment, etc.) and improving public services and facilities in the region. However, after the 2014 elections, the state institutions started to re-stabilize and the authorities attempted to regain control over the Djemna oases. The minister responsible for the Miri territories (state-owned land) regarded this as a “personal issue”, turning it into a war in which the ruling party, liberal economists and loyalist media outlets supported him. In October 2016, the authorities even prevented the oases from selling their dates, froze their bank accounts and the accounts of the merchant who won the public bid. The public authority’s attempt to stifle the Djemna experience had been counterproductive, and resulted in its exposure as a matter of public concern.
During the first few years of the experience, it failed to receive much attention from the leftist circles, and many of them had never even heard about it, despite the fact that the president of the association managing the oases is a leftist who had tried to make the experience visible. It was actually the authorities fighting against the Djemna experience (backed by the majority of the media) that drew attention to the experience of self-management and provoked many leftist parties, including the Popular Front, to pay closer attention to the importance and uniqueness of what was happening there.
In October 2016, a delegation from the Popular Front, headed by their most prominent leader Hamma El Hammami, arrived to Djemna to attend the sale of the date crop that the government had tried to prevent. In an attempt to provide overdue support to the people of the oasis, one member of the parliament with the delegation signed the deed, even though the sale was considered illegal according to the laws of the state. The Popular Front also gave media and political support, defending Djemna on television, radio and in the parliament. Its leaders tried to discourage the government from pursuing its efforts to end the experiment, while its activists participated in political demonstrations in support of Djemna in the capital. Even though the Popular Front approved of the form and purposes of the self-management experiment, it did not go further than expressing its support and solidarity, and did not attempt to reproduce such an experience in other Tunisian regions.
“Petrofac’s” Sit-in on Kerkennah Island
In March 2011, the youth of Kerkennah mobilized to demand employment and called for the government to pressure Petrofac British-Tunisian company to contribute to the development of the island. After great pressure, the company yielded to the demands and allocated a budget to the construction and maintenance of some public facilities and the funding of sports and cultural activities. It also agreed to pay the wages of 270 young people assigned by the state to work in the company’s institutions on the island.
But in January 2015, the company's management decided to discontinue these young people’s salaries on the grounds that they do not really work in their jobs, to which these employees responded by picketing and preventing entry and exit to and from the company's premises. As a result, a new agreement was reached in April 2015, but for many months later, the company failed to implement its terms. The young employees hence decided to hold a new sit-in on January 19th, 2016 in front of the company's headquarters to disrupt its work. The sit-in continued until April 3rd, 2016 when the protesters were warned that the government had decided to send huge security reinforcements to disperse their sit-in. The protesters decided to relocate the sit-in to Mellita, using barricades to block the security forces from reaching them. Violent clashes erupted on the night of April 4th, and the issue was turned overnight from the cause of young protesters who demanded their salaries to the battle of an entire island and a case of public interest. The government, faced by the developing events and fearful of the reaction of the people of Kerkennah, who had a significant presence in work unions and in the political life, decided to withdraw all security forces and instructed the army to secure the island.
When the protests returned again, the company threatened to shut down and exist Tunisia altogether to pressure the government and turn public opinion against the protesters. In September 2016, after months of protests, an agreement was finally reached between the protesters on the one hand and the government and the company on the other. The company was to settle the status of the protesters, under the supervision of the Tunisian General Labor Union, and create a fund for developing the region and supporting young sailors.
The left – and mainly the Popular Front - was strongly present this time. The spokesperson for the sit-in, Ahmed El Souissi, was a member of the Popular Front and an activist in the leftist students’ syndicate. He was also one of the leaders of the “Union for Unemployed Graduates” (UDC), founded in 2006 by university graduates, most of whom are leftists. Likewise, many protesters were leftists or leftist sympathizers. The Popular Front supported the sit-in from the very beginning, both through its explicit political endorsement of the demands and indirectly through its influential presence in the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). The front mobilized on the ground among the protesters and the people of the island, and it took to the media to defend the protesters and condemn the police violence and government intransigence. With the unfolding violence, the front made one statement after the other, calling for supportive rallies and marches in front of the Sfax governorate headquarters and in Tunis, and backing the general strike on the island on12 April.
El Kamour Sit-in
El Kamour region is located in the heart of the Tunisian desert, in the marginalized province of Tataouine. Considered a gateway to the desert oil fields, it is mainly exploited by foreign companies. Since March 15th, 2017, a movement began to spread in several areas of the province (1), as people raised similar demands: development and employment. In addition to the demonstrations and protests, the protesters began disrupting the movement of trucks and cars to and from the headquarters of the oil companies, leading to a general strike on April 11th, 2017. The protests became a constant recurring event, until a sit-in was decided in the El Kamour region (150 km from the center of the city), aiming to block the only access to the desert oil fields (El Borma and Borj El Khadra’). On the 23rd of April 2017, protesters pitched their tents in a remote desert area amid high temperatures, relying on their own capacities and the solidarity of the tribes to provide for their basic needs. Their demands can be summarized in the following three points: 1- allocating 20 percent of the petroleum proceeds for the development of the province, 2- transferring the official headquarters of petroleum companies that exploit the fields in the province from the capital Tunis to the city of Tataouine, and 3- providing immediate employment to thousands of people in the province in public institutions and oil companies.
The authorities tried to end the sit-in with promises and threats. On April 27th, the prime minister arrived in Tataouine, with a stack of 64 proposals, most of which were actually ways to circumvent the three main demands of the people. The protesters responded to this with a second general strike and held on to their slogan: “no retreat”. At that point, the Tunisian President instructed the army to protect the oil plants and open the way for the trucks and cars that work for these companies.
Protesters took over the pump station on May 20th and closed its valve, halting the transportation of petrol. The government was quick to respond to this action, by sending massive security reinforcements to dissolve the sit-in by force and "free" the pump. Violent confrontations led to the killing of one person, who was run over by a security vehicle. After the withdrawal of the security forces, the protesters regained control over the pump once again, until the Tunisian General Labor Union finally intervened as a mediator between the two sides. The issue was resolved by signing an agreement on June 16th, 2017.
But, where is the Left amidst all this? The Left wing, supposedly the most concerned with social struggles, was -in fact- absent from the sit-in, including all leftist parties and groups, not just the Popular Front. There was no presence of the left on the ground, and some of its statements were more of a reaction to the violent security intervention than a real endorsement of the movement's demands. There are several reasons for this failure to act. On the one hand, the protesters themselves refused any interference from political parties fearing that these parties may “invest” in their struggles and exploit their movement for personal goals. On the other hand, Tataouine and the areas adjacent to it are considered “Islamist strongholds”, and the leftist presence (and even that of labor syndicates) is very weak, if not completely nonexistent.
The social movements in Tunisia are more advanced than the left. Several marginalized peripheral areas have fought significant and creative social battles without any ideological reference or support. In many cases, the leftist parties join in late and try to keep up with the movement without radicalizing it, in such a way that it seems the left is riding the wave of events or trying to use them to its own benefit.
The Popular Front’s statement, published on May 23rd, after the security intervention to break up the sit-in, clearly reflected its indifferent position: “It (i.e. the Popular Front) affirms its support to all peaceful social protests and movements based on legitimate demands, whether in Tataouine or elsewhere in the country. It calls on all democratic, progressive and popular forces to stand against all attempts to undermine freedoms and allow the return of tyranny. It observes positively El Kamour protestors’ condemning of the acts of arson and looting that targeted several public institutions, as they accuse outsider parties of inciting such actions. The Popular Front calls on all the Tunisian people to preserve the peaceful and civilian nature of their protests and movements, and to remain vigilant against all reactionary and populist actors that are plotting to redirect the movement so that it serves agendas which are hostile to the interests of our nation and people.” It does not appear that the Popular Front had fully grasped the uniqueness and quality of the movement in El Kamour, or perhaps its fears and political calculations pushed it to partially reiterate the rhetoric of the public authorities and their media mouthpieces.
Protests Against the Finance Law (Budget) in January 2018
In late 2017, the government of Youssef El Chahed presented the parliament with a draft finance law that drew up the 2018 government budget. Several chapters in the law imposed various substantial increases in taxes and royalties, which would automatically raise the prices of goods and services. The law, simultaneously, granted privileges to wealthy investors. Although the government acknowledged that the law was “harsh”, it fully defended it and considered it a “painful but necessary” measure to reduce the budget deficit and repay national debts. On December 9th, 2017, the Tunisian parliament passed the law by a majority in a session boycotted by the opposition.
Then came January, a month unlike any other in Tunisia, and the protests commenced in the early days of 2018, starting from some inland regions and spreading to the capital and other big cities. In parallel, on January 3rd, a youth movement called “Fash Nestanaw” (meaning “What Are We Waiting for?”) was formed, bringing together young partisan and independent activists, with a strong leftist presence, especially from the Tunisian Popular Front. The movement called for protest and action throughout the country to overthrow the new finance law.
The Popular Front also called on citizens to take to the streets and mobilize against the finance law and against the rising costs of living, which had become unbearable for most Tunisians. The leaders of the Front, including parliament members, participated in the demonstrations and tried to push the government to back from passing the law through media and political pressure. The protests were concentrated in major cities, especially in the capital, whose popular neighborhoods witnessed violent night clashes with the police forces. Hundreds of protesters (including leftists from the Popular Front and others) were arrested and a demonstrator was killed in the city of Tabarba, close to the capital.
From the third week of January, the clashes began to diminish and the number of protesters on the street decreased until the movement completely dissolved without the abolishment or the amendment of the Finance Law. The government had counted on the time factor and the exhaustion of the protesters, as the left had been unable to fortify the movement or raise more radical demands.
Even though it is certainly not sufficient to assess the role of the Tunisian Left in the “post-revolution” social movements through four events only, or based solely on the Popular Front’s stances, but there are some preliminary conclusions that can be drawn.
1. The social movements in Tunisia are more advanced than the left. Several marginalized peripheral areas have fought significant and creative social battles without any ideological reference or support. In many cases, the leftist parties join in late and try to keep up with the movement without radicalizing it, in such a way that it seems the left is riding the wave of events or trying to use them to its own benefit.
2. In the best-case scenarios, the left acts as an influential force. However, it often acts as a supportive force and sometimes it is nothing more than a sympathizer in solidarity. It rarely takes an initiative or assumes leadership. Whenever it takes part in a social movement, it fails to propose a wider horizon and merely demands reforms. It celebrates these distinctive successful experiences without even considering to reproduce them in other regions so they may become a reality that changes the pattern of economic production and modes of development.
3. The Tunisian left is present mainly in the cities, and is often unable to position itself in popular neighborhoods, rural areas and inland areas. For instance, the presence of a leftist person heading the self-management experience in Djemna does not reflect a leftist presence there, but is rather an individual effort of an activist who understood his micro-society, and accordingly built a creative experience that drew inspiration from the local cultural characteristics.
4. Upon studying how the Popular Front interacted with the four experiences mentioned, it becomes obvious that the left cannot mobilize or bring change except in the areas where there are politically active leftists or in the syndicates, i.e. in places that are within the left’s “comfort zones”.
5. Between 2011 and 2014, the left’s enthusiasm withered and its participation in social movements diminished to a great extent. There are several reasons that may explain this deterioration. The left gave priority to combatting the Islamist presence, engaged in the “democratic transition” and abandoned the revolutionary ways, while the Popular Front marketed itself as a moderate and realistic party with an agenda that seeks to gain access to power through the electoral ballots.
To this day, the left has not been able to use well the ongoing social upheaval in Tunisia. It has failed to catalyze or –at least- coordinate a national social movement that extends all over the country. However, it is not too late for it to take action, since the next stages will certainly be critical. But before it takes another step, the left must first resolve an “identity crisis” it has been going through for years and determine its position. Does it want to be a reformist left that operates under the existing political-economic system, or does it prefer to be a force of real pressure and change?
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Translated from Arabic by Sabah Jalloul
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 02/12/2018
1- For a chronological overview about the sit-in, refer to the detailed investigation by Inkyfada.