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Tunisia two years on: From hope to despair and back again

Two years ago Western backed dictator Ben Ali was removed from power in Tunisia.

Hope replaced desperation and ordinary Tunisian’s looked ahead to a new dawn of democracy and prosperity.

But fast forward to 2013 and hope has given way to despair with splits within political Islam, between the ruling “moderate” party and the extremist Salafists, widespread rioting, rising unemployment and multiple strike actions by trades unions with a general strike only  recently adverted after an 11th hour deal.

7,000 people poured into the capital Tunis yesterday calling for the ruling Encharda party to be removed and a new democratic constitution to be enacted.

The political uncertainty since the uprising has led many to question the direction of the original insurrection and others to call for a second uprising to complete the “process of the revolution.”

One advocate of a second uprising is trade unionist and political activist Hatem Laouini.

The toppling of Ben Ali for Hatem has acted as a catalyst elsewhere helping to foment change.

Labeled the “Arab Spring,” it has now been ” hijacked” by what he calls “Islamist” groups who are displaying the same dictatorial trends and “failed” economic policies that directly contributed to the first insurrection.

Brave, forthright passionate and wounded, Hatem has seen comrades fall at the hands of the old regime.

As a result, etched in his face is the solemn acceptance that his activities might result in serious injury or even his own death.

All the more reason why he is over in Britain at the behest of the Unite union, desperate to get the message out that a second revolution is now required in Tunisia.

“After the success of the insurrection… we got rid of the head of the regime (Ben Ali),” he tells me.

“He was the head of a corrupt system. It was a coalition of 3 classes – the Tunisian middle class, those who own the land and the aristocracy.”

“Ben Ali and his regime represented that alliance serving the capitalist system in the region.”

Hatem describes Ben Ali as a “pupil” of the International Monetary Fund and following the uprising, democratic elections were held where the Islamist Ennahda party swept to power on the promise of change.

But Hatem is in no doubt the Tunisian public were lied to, so much so that the government is now facing active resistance.

“After the election on October 23rd in 2011 – the Islamists won those elections,” he says.

“People were hoping for change – but nothing has changed. People have discovered that they (the Islamlists) are preserving the same system – they are serving the same imperialist powers.”

Unemployment in Tunisia has jumped to 18 percent with the ruling party seemingly unable or unwilling to break with the economics of the past.

“They have done nothing for the demands of the people – in relation to unemployment, it is getting higher. They are carrying out the same economic policies as Ben Ali,” says Hatem.

“Tens of thousands of people were on marches over the last year asking for their right to decent work and economic development.”

Last month the government sent troops into Siliana, to crack down on protests for jobs and more government investment.

Thousands participated but hundreds were injured in clashes with the police.

Much of the civil unrest is portrayed in the mainstream media as an argument between “extremist Salafists” and a “moderate” transitional administration that will sort itself out eventually.

But for Hatem the situation is more complicated and requires immediate political action.

There have been multiple workers actions including journalists in the state run media leading the fight after ministers attempted to interfere with their editorial independence.

“The national strike by all of the journalists last year was for freedom of the press,” Hatem says.

“They were protesting against intervention from the government in the affairs of journalists and the newspapers.”

Yet the government remains unmoved and has merely acknowledged that they have not “met the public’s expectations.”

Resistance however always takes new turns when initially curtailed.

Now a powerful grouping of 12 political organisations has emerged.

A broad alliance of Greens, nationalists and Hatem’s own Patriotic Democrats (Al-Wated) have vowed to oppose the ruling Islamists with a programme based on economic and social justice.

Hatem, like 98 percent of the population is Muslim. But he is adamant that the Tunisian people do not want religious fundamentalists or Western backed dictators running their affairs.

“We have had a rise of violence. Salafists have same ideas as Al Qaida,” he claims.

He is equally critical of Encharda adding: “They are government to service the Islamists not the poor.

“This revolution was for economic and social purposes not for religious purposes.”

Hatem says the opposition is calling on the government to end its policies of privitisaton and sell offs.

“They [Encharda] have been selling public companies to capitalists from the Gulf previously owned by Ben Ali’s family,” he says.

“There are huge areas of fertile land. Those lands instead of making being used as an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of people are being sold to companies in Qatar Saudi Arabia and UAE.”

So with such a negative perspective of how things have turned out, was the Arab Spring worth it?

To my surprise, Hatem rejects the concept of an all embracing “Arab Spring” adding that Western powers have a divisive agenda in the region.

“There were revolts in Tunisia and Egypt but what happened with foreign interference in Libya and now in Syria, we are now certain that there is a regional project of domination by imperialist forces such as the US, for natural resources and to maintain the interests of Israel within the region.”

What happened in Tunisia two years ago  was merely the start and the revolution must now be completed, he insists.

He sees Tunisia as part of a global struggle against injustice and encourages workers in Britain to rise up in a similar fashion.

“The working class is ready to fight and resist – we support you against austerity and the new capitalist policies of the EU,” he adds with a smile.

“We think our struggle is the same. Our values and objectives are the same, our struggle must be global.”

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