Two interviews with Tunisian left activists

Submitted by cathy n on 12 April, 2011 - 6:19

Ed Maltby recently visited Tunisia and interviewed a number of Tunisian left activists.

"Thank-you Facebook" (graffiti on wall in Tunis)

Maher is a facebook activist and blogger.

The role of internet activism in the fall of the regime began before the revolution. We organised a collective online called "anti-ZBA" [ZBA are the initials of Zinedine Ben Ali]. That group's role was to support the demonstrations and prepare people for action.

We were in a dictatorship which blocked information from people. It closed all the doors of expression, especially of the internet.

For people in Tunisia, facebook is a fundamental part of life. The majority of people use it daily. When the dicatorship censored facebook, that touched everyone in Tunisia. Everyone felt it.

In 2008 we organised bloggers on facebook and twitter to struggle against the dictator. We used pseudonyms and proxy servers. Internet technicians found other ways of connecting us to the internet after connections were shut down. We called ourselves anti-ZBA. Facebook was the only platform for expressing yourself, sharing information, as all the media are controlled by the state and oppositional newspapers are suppressed.

Our method was to attack Ben Ali and his family, distributing information about their corrupt practices and hypocrisies. It was an organised attack. We could only use facebook, as youtube and dailymotion were blocked.

Our page was attacked by censors. The joke name for internet censors in Tunisia is "Ammar 404". When a page is censored, it brings up the 404 Page Not Found error message; and 404 is a kind of van. The stereotypical image in Tunisia of this van is that it's driven by a guy called Ammar. So the internet censor's name is Ammar. In 2009-2010, we orgniased an event on facebook called "Sayyib Salah Ya Ammar" - meaning "let Salah go, Ammar". That slogan meant "let us use the internet freely". That slogan was also turned into a satirical internet video.

After this, we used the internet organised a demonstration in summer 2010, where hundreds of people marched in the streets in white T-shirts to symbolise our anonymity. It was the first time we encountered the state face-to-face. It was the start of open struggle. The political police were there the whole time: we finally met Ammar in person!

The police terrorised the demonstrators and there were arrests. One blogger, Aziz Amemou, was arrested, and he has now been given a high-ranking post in the ministry of youth. Now, after the revolution, so much has changed, because many bloggers, like Aziz, have now got a little something for themselves and they've dropped out of activity. But we have carried on. We have created new pages which call for the continuation of the revolution.

Just after the 14 January, plenty of Americans came to Tunis to set up organisations and they enlisted journalists and bloggeres who were active among us. Now these journalists and bloggers are not with us any more, because they are busy setting up these stupid associations on American money. I view this as a form of colonisation. It is not an apolitical or an innocent move. As a blogger, if you are not with the people, behind the people, what are you doing? There is a revolution going on, and these people are setting up politically naive festivals, naive events and groups, instead of taking part in the struggles of the people.

Facebook was a unique source of information in the revolution. Even Al-Jazeera used facebook videos prepared by our bloggers. For example, the second sit-in in the Kasbah, 22 February 2011, we used facebook propaganda to promote it. And in 2010, we used our network to defend the persecuted dissident writer Boukadous - we also had photo galleries of pictures of people wearing t-shirts bearing the image of Boukadous.

At the beginning of the revolution, it was events that were called on facebook that wound up getting many people in the street. In 2008, during the [mining] strikes in Gafsa, we said, "it's now or never", given so many Tunsians use facebook, we made an arrangement with Al-Jazeera to get pictures and reportage of the Gafsa uprising to them.

We made the video in Gafsa, with people who live there. It's a risk, like smuggling drugs. We took the video, on a flashdisk, edited it into a montage with revolutionary songs and so on, and in order to post it on the net we had to go to a different town, use a different proxy server, a different facebook account, in order to be safe. It was necessary to do this many times with many different accounts.

In this way, we were replacing the role of the media. When people had died in demonstrations, the state TV would just show songs, as if nothing was happening.

In the beginning, with anti-ZBA, it was 5 or 6 of us in 2008-9. But the "404 Not Found" demo, with white t-shirts in 2010 was just normal students. We anti-ZBA were fighting against Ben Ali; they just wanted freedom of expression. The fight for free expression was then a part of the fight against Ben Ali, so we worked together.

But whereas for us, freedom of speech was only one part of the struggle, for many of them, it was the whole deal, mission accomplished. So now they are dropping out, some taking posts in the new establishment, and so on.

But we have carried on fighting against the remnants of the regime. Because Ben Ali is not the whole regime. We are fighting for true freedom for the judiciary; real freedom of expression. My friends run a radio station called Kalima, which struggled against the dictatorship, and he doesn't have the right visa to get a radio frequency, so he is still confined to the internet. Various sites are still being taken down. We want freedom of expression and freedom to organise; and the freedom of the media is the freedom of expression. There are bloggers who right now are being beaten by the secret police after participating in agitation around the Kasbah. After the attempted third Kasbah sit-in, which demanded that the government ban the new RCDist parties, to put the people setting up these new parties on trial - people like Friaa. We demand the imprisonment of the secret police.

Some internet activists are well-knwown, but most only present themeslves on the net. So there is now a page called "Front of Progressive Pages for the Protection of the Revolution", which unites the admins of all pro-revolutionary websites - we want them to all be united with the same demands and slogans, and doing the same united work.

Now what we will do is work to be on the same wavelength as the people. We had that in the revolution, via school students from working-class districts who used facebook.

The internet was useful in the fight against Ben Ali, but it must not stop on the internet - the role of facebook is to organise real life events. It is a media support for real-life action. People go to the internet to get real information.

Disinformation exists, sure - but it is disproved by the videos and photos that people take on demonstrations. We send activists onto demonstrations with cameras, who stream footage of events. It's the collaboration between internet and real-world activists which is on the order of the day now.


The revolutionary struggle must continue

Majid Hannachi is a member of the Gauche Independante, a group of critical ex-members of the Communist Party of Tunisia, within the "Front of 14 January".

I'll commence with a classic reflection: the revolution always poses the question of power. One cannot imagine a revolution without considering what alternative power it might put in place. So the fundamental question for the revolution in Tunisia is power. How can we find the road to a popular, representative, democratic power for the people? If we can't do that, there would be no point in the revolution, or rather it would only be a passing uprising aimed at extracting small reforms from the regime. No — we must look at the question of power.

All observers and commentators agree that the Tunisian revolution was not guided by a political party or leadership: that it was spontaneous.

I say: nevertheless, the Tunisian revolution was profoundly political!
It was not run by a political party, but its political content was clear.

There are advantages in its spontaneity and its not being organised through parties, but there is the problem that it leaves the ruling regime with great room for manoeuvre in order to reorganise, keep hold of power, and "save the furniture". That is what the regime is doing now.

The counterrevolutionary forces are sufficiently organised to usurp and steal the revolution. The governments put in place since 14 January have all had one common origin — the RCD and the state apparatus in the hands of the political class.

But the fact that the Tunisian revolution was not directed by any party has the advantage that no-one can accuse it of having been manipulated or duped.

The revolutionary forces, independently of political parties, knew to be vigilant, they had the reflex of knowing to elaborate alternative solutions, and to counteract the three successive governments and their manoeuvres.

What's more, these forces could raise revolutionary demands of a high political level — on the basis of their own experiences, without having been influenced by any political parties.

So, very quickly, the two Ghannouchi governments and the new Sebsi government were put to a harsh test, of popular revolutionary demands, driven by a massive popular determination. The masses demanded the dissolution of the RCD. They rejected the nomination of high-level administrators. They demanded the dissolution of the secret police. They demanded more freedom of association and more media freedom.

Finally, they demanded the creation of the the Constituent Assembly, which summarises the whole programme of demands, and which will create the constitution. At the same time the social demands of the movement — jobs, pay, conditions and regional development (regional underdevelopment was the injustice which started the revolution) show they substance and the content of the revolution.

But on the other hand, the successive provisional governments have continued to manoeuvre in order to stop the revolutionary process: in several ways. I mean, they grant demands in form, but not in content: they grant demands in a way that allows them to wriggle back.

So, the priority for the political struggle in this extremely important and decisive stage is this: the revolutionary forces musy continue to struggle against the government and push it back and force it to submit to the minimum programme which will create the best conditions under which to fight the elections. Because this transitional phase is at the same time a *pre-electoral* phase.

If we succeed in clearing up this situation by sweeping out the remnants of the RCD and state machine that was tied up with it; and if we succeed in creating press freedom and granting free speech to all; if we succeed in creating an electoral law which is representative of the whole people; our movement will be able to rise to the coming,
historic elections. That's the game. It seems that the political parties of the left are in the ascendant and they are joining together and having a better interaction with the mass movement.

At the beginning the revolutionary movement had a spontaneous character, independent of all the political parties. The first reaction to the Ghannouchi government was the first Kasbah sit-in. At that first sit-in, the protestors who camped in front of the governmental palace, refused even to discuss with political militants who were trying to get debates going. The sit-in was horribly repressed by the Ghannouchi government. But the second sit-in had a better communication between the militants and the masses. It was at that moment that the slogan of the Constituent Assembly was first seriously raised.

On 25 February, a historic date, there were 200,000 protestors with those two slogans: the fall of the second Ghannouchi government and the Constituent Assembly. That is to say that between the two sit-ins there was a great political advance made by the masses. This did not happen by a happy accident: it was the result of the better inroads made into the movement by the political parties.

There was a gap between the movement and the parties: has it been fully bridged? I still think we are not at that level yet, there remains much to do. We must tap our revolutionary faculties, strength, imagination, to have better communication with the masses. That means we must be better organised and have a better collective
approach. That means that the left must leave behind its old internecine rivalries and squabbles over obscure questions and rise to the challenge of this revolutionary moment. But that is not all. We need a great work of reflection, imagination, to pierce towards a
deeper understanding of the soul of the revolution. We must drop tired phrases and formulas and come to a deeper understanding of several things.

One of these things is youth. The revolutionaries of my generation must renew themselves and address the youth and bring them to place themselves in political organisations, in order to take charge of their destiny.

The second item is the question of regional development, which is not fully understood. Many people think it's just a question of a better balance between regions. But it is more complex than that, it is an issue that binds up political, economic, cultural, scientific and historical questions.

Back to the question of power, which the revolution not only poses at the central but also at the regional level. We must have regional power, so that those regions which were the home of the revolution can impose changes — not demand or beg for them, but actually impose them. They need real power to do that.

The separation of powers and the spirit of democracy do not just mean the separation of power between the legislative and executive branches: it means a separation of powers between the centre and the regions. For example: on some issues, in France, local mayors have more say than ministers in Paris. This must be addressed in the leftwing political parties' programmes.

The Constituent Assembly must look at all the laws relating to questions of political democracy, social democracy and separation of powers. The debates in the Constituent Assembly must be rich and profound. They are decisive!

That is why we are launching an unprecedented mobilisation for the elections and it is why we are calling for the elections to be moved back so we can have a real debate, not a parody of a debate, on the most crucial questions relating to the fruits of the 14 January revolution.


The creation of Councils to Safeguard the Revolution was at the outset an almost spontaneous initiative. Immediately after 14 January the old regime started organising terror and sabotage. Inhabitants of working-class neighbourhoods armed themselves and got organised in order to defend their streets and lives and their revolution. Men and women, young and old, acted as one body, took up arms and formed committees. It took hold among the youth and the trade unionists.

These Councils to Safeguard the Revolution (CSRs) were set up in every region and this acheivement was crowned by the creation of the Supreme Council to Safeguard the Revolution (SCSR). The SCSR was in initiative of the UGTT, the Front of 14 January, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and pro-revolutionary lawyers. The idea was to assemble those organisations in order to create a government on a conventional basis. This would be a provisional government, as the existing provisional government didn't have any legitimacy. The idea was that a government would emerge from that council. That posed the problem of power.

The reaction of the government was to refuse this idea. Then there was a power struggle: one could even say a situation of dual power. At this point, the government started to manoeuvre to supplant the SCSR with a parachuted-in committee which was appointed without any popular legitimacy and its sole task was to replace the SCSR. Unfortunately
its birth was difficult. There were many protests, but in the end it was created, this spectral committee. This committee was charged with preparing the electoral law to set up elections to the Constituent Assembly and in a formal sense to supervise the provisional government [it is called the Instance Superieur Pour La Realisation des Objectives de la Revolution, and many parties, including within the 14 January Front, are represented in both this Committee and in the SCSR - EM]

We are struggling in part against the legitimacy of this committee, and seeking to re-establish the legitimacy of the SCSR and its project of a government based on consensus, in order to provide a more legitimate basis and conditions for elections to the Constituent Assembly.

Now, I say "a government based on consensus" would issue from the SCSR. But obviously, pro-RCD and obsolete, counter-revolutionary parties would be excluded from that consensus.

The SCSR is composed of the UGTT (trade union federation), the 14 January Front, and local and regional delegates from local and regional CSRs - but FIDH, Ennahdha and some other liberal parties have let the SCSR to join the government's committee [again, many parties are represented in both - EM].

Why are these Arab revolutions happening now? This needs more thought, but here are some generalities which occur to me.

For 200 years, thinkers have observed an anachronistic fact in the world, which they call the "Arab exception". That means that at a time when democracy exists in many countries, self-determination of nations and so on, including in many countries which are similar to the Arab world, such as for example Latin America, the Arab world has stood apart, under dictatorships, despotisms, totalitarian and even theocratic regimes. It has been a black period in the Arab world. Pro-democracy forces had lost the historical initiative. People counselled despair, saying the Arab world was out of history and only possibly foreign intervention could shake things up. Well: history has surprised everyone!

[at this point, a young comrade from the Left Workers League (LGO), Osama, cuts in]
Osama: We cannot dissociate these movements in the Arab world from the economic crisis of liberalism.I think that in dictatorial countries in the world, liberalism shows us its most atrocious face. So, see for example, here and in China too. I think the revolutionary wave will have echoes elsewhere in Africa and Asia as well as the Arab world. Those places where liberalism expresses itself in the most atrocious forms cannot remain in place in the face of these movements.

Majid: The precise terminology used is "voyoucracy" - mafia states. These revolutions have laid bare the mafia practices of Mubarak, Ben Ali, it's not just liberalism, it's also their mafia system.

Osama: A few years ago, George W Bush said approvingly of China that it was an exemplary vision of liberalism working perfectly.

Majid: From this wave I do not exclude the industrialised countries, which globalisation has made interdependent - economically but also on the level of information - with the rest of the world. A greater level of communication between the oppressed is the result of the information revolution.

It is not out of the question that the exploited classes will make a chain reaction. For example, Sarkozy was very clearly the accomplice of Ben Ali. It is such links that create an interdependence of oppressed classes.

From these revolutions and these links, we can conclude more firmly than ever before that society revolves around the struggle of class against class and not of nation against nation.

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