Tuesday Apr 07

Historical Background for the 2019 Organizers’ Forum in Tunisia: SPECIAL REPORT Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue – Tunisia

Editor’s Note: The Organizers’ Forum, a project of Labor Neighbor Research & Training Institute, which is also the home of Social Policy, conducted its eighteenth international dialogue by returning to Tunisia, a decade after the Arab Spring, to assess progress in the one country still attempting to fashion a democracy. Late in the year of the Arab Spring, the largest Organizers’ Forum delegation over these almost two decades visited Egypt. We could tell then as we visited a wide array of groups and individuals including three of the presidential candidates, that the revolution was slipping away, activists were dividing, movements were splintering. The reports that follow give a good snapshot of progress and problems in Tunisia as they struggle to maintain their stance as the beacon of democratic reforms in the critical Middle East North Africa region of the world.

Photos for the special report by: Chaco and Wade Rathke

When I heard the 2019 Organizers’ Forum was in Tunisia, I was immediately excited to attend for several reasons. First, it would offer comparison and contrast of the Arab Spring uprisings between Tunisia and Egypt, where the Organizers’ Forum visited in fall 2011 (nine months after the revolution toppled the dictator Mubarak). From a distance Tunisia appeared to be more successful transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. As the following articles will show, the depth and breadth of community, labor, women’s rights, and student organizing, both before and after the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, have created by far the most peaceful and productive democracy of all the Arab Spring uprisings.

Second, I have been a huge admirer of Tunisia ever since seeing the segment on Tunisia in Michael Moore’s film Where to Invade Next. Moore visits one of the thirty-six government funded Women’s Health Clinics, where women have access to birth control and abortion at no cost. The impression given from the film is that a woman’s right to government funded abortions and reproductive healthcare in Tunisia is light years ahead of the United States. A review of recent literature suggests Moore’s depiction of universal, unrestricted access to government funded abortion, was maybe a bit rosier than current reality (but still ahead of the USA in terms of free access). Learning how women organized to win and continue the fight to protect these rights and freedoms is worth enduring 16 hours of flying across the pond to attend the 2019 Organizers’ Forum in Tunisia!

Moore also interviewed the first post-revolution democratically elected President Rached Ghannouchi, who resigned from office after women protested the new draft constitution’s attempt to roll back women’s rights from equal treatment under the law to women playing a “complementary” role to men in family life (old Article 28). The women led organizing campaign against the draft constitution resulted in the newly elected President Ghannouchi (from the Islamic leaning Ennahda party) resigning and being replaced by the more secular president Essebsi, and a rewriting of the constitution making equal treatment of women under the law an explicit constitutional right. Again, Tunisian law is more progressive than in the United States, considering the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass in 1970’s. For all of the above reasons, organizers in the USA clearly have much to learn from our Tunisian sisters and brothers!

The remainder of this article very briefly describes the political history of Tunisia before and after the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. The primary reference is the highly recommended book The Political Economy and Islam of the Middle East: The Case of Tunisia (2010) by Hayat Alvi.

With 713 miles of stunning Mediterranean coastline facing east and north in North Africa the geography of Tunisia has been a prime target for invaders and imperial powers, ranging from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Ottomans and French, for over 3,000 years. The Romans were so obsessed with the area that is now Tunisia they fought the three Punic wars over almost a century to finally establish imperial power over the city of Carthage (Carthage is just a 30-minute tram ride from downtown Tunis).

While the French ruled Tunisia as a colony/protectorate starting in 1881, after WWI with the British they drew up the Sykes-Picot Agreement to draw boundaries and divide up the MENA region according to their own imperial interests. Tunisians won independence from France in 1956. Since then Tunisia was governed by two dictators Habib Borguiba (1956-1987) and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (1987 -2011). According to Alvi (2019), while there was a brief period of optimism after independence in 1956, most historians describe rule under the two dictators as neo-colonialism or internal colonialism. While these two rulers might have been home grown, they did not embrace a turn toward democracy. Rule under the Ben Ali regime was particularly oppressive, authoritarian, rife with corruption, and well-known for arresting and torturing political opponents or anyone expressing dissent. Government officials at all levels seemed to have disrespect and in some cases contempt for average citizens.

For Mohamed Bouazizi this came to a head on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi supported his mother, uncle and six siblings selling vegetables from a cart on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a town in central Tunisia. On this day a police woman gave Bouazizi a ticket for selling vegetables without a license, insulted his dead father, did not accept him paying the $7 fine for the offense, and spit in his face. Later that day, Bouazizi tried to file a complaint with the local municipal officials and get his vegetable weighing scales returned to him, but they refused to hear his complaint. An hour later outside the municipal building, Bouazizi poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire. He did not die for several weeks. While clinging to life in the hospital news of this incident spread across multiple social and mainstream media platforms and literally sparked the entire Arab Spring. Over the next year, tens of millions of protestors took to the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Morocco. The MENA region has never been the same. Dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were ousted. The democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, governed for only a year before being ousted by a military coup. Libya and Syria dissolved into chaos and civil wars, and only Tunisia seems to have transitioned to a peaceful (albeit fragile) democracy.

While Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the spark, Alvi makes clear that there were three issues that had been simmering for decades and provided the kindling for the conflagration that toppled the Ben-Ali dictatorship: 1)widespread corruption of the ruling family, Ben-Ali and his wife reportedly owned or had stakes in over 650 privately run businesses (some acquired illegally) resulting in the ruling family being worth upwards of $10 billion; 2) high rates of unemployment, particularly for college educated youth (estimates suggest college educated males with 20% unemployment and females 40%); and 3) drastic and increasing inequality between the urban coastal cities and the rural Tunisian interior. Bouazizi lived in Sidi Bouzid located in central, interior Tunisia. While the massive street protests in Tunis capture the most media attention, the Arab Spring started in central Tunisia, and the uprisings in non-coastal cities and towns played a critical role in the revolution’s success.

Following the Jasmine Revolution there was a scramble for power and a period of conflict, political assassinations, and instability. The combined strength of organized labor and Tunisia’s civil society organizations rose up and prevented the country from dissolving into civil war. In particular, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT, with whom the Organizers’ Forum met), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade & Handicrafts (UTICA), along with the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers came together to form the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The Quartet mediated the conflict between various political and religious organizations fighting for power and is credited with organizing the consensus and compromise to allow a democratically elected constituent assembly to form and create a relatively peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. The Quartet’s efforts were recognized internationally and were awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. As the following articles will show, while numerous challenges remain, community, labor, women, student, environmental organizers and activists are working hard to get the economy back on track, ensure that women’s rights continue to move forward, and that economic wealth is more widely shared.

Fred Brooks is a Professor of Social Work at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a former organizer.

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