As the landless poor from rural Tunisia organised in a “freedom caravan” defy curfews and teargas, the movement to drive all of the country’s old leaders from power has assumed a revolutionary momentum which is shaking the Arab world.
The forces of the state are deeply divided. Soldiers have refused to attack the protests and some police marched through Tunis on Saturday. “The police is a people's party,” some officers chanted. “We no longer want to be a tool for the repression of the people by the authorities,” one policeman said. On Monday, however, some police tear gassed the “freedom caravan”.
One of the most amazing events was at Tunis airport, where hundreds of people came to greet an Internet campaigner. Tarek Mekki, who arrived from Canada, had led a Facebook/YouTube campaign to oust the old regime. Mekki told the gathering the "Jasmine Revolution" was not over. "What the government is doing is not enough, it's a new way of seizing control of government."
But it is not only the unemployed who are besieging the streets and challenging the police and military. Highly-educated professionals were united with the poor and trade unionists in bringing down the 23-year dictatorship of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.
As those seeking the complete downfall of the government and a total purge of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Party (RCD) and his accomplices dig in for the long term, a “Salvation Government” is being cobbled together by three politicians. They are Ahmed Mestiri, leader of the liberal Social Democratic Movement, plus Ahmed Ben Saleh and Moustafa Elfilali who are deeply compromised by their involvement with the old regime.
Shaykh Rachid Gannouchi (not to be confused with current Prime Minister Mohammed Gannouchi) who has been in exile in London is now expected to return to Tunis to a hero’s welcome. The Ben Ali regime has viciously persecuted his moderate Islamic Nahda party since the 1990s.
Gannouchi has spoken about the Jasmine revolution and how Tunisians have scorned all the existing political parties: “It is the people who made this revolution. This revolution was not made by an angry, out-of-control mob. There are 250,000 university graduates who are in fact the basis for this revolution. It is not angry, uneducated people. They were the base of this revolution with their creative ways of using the Internet and other media.”
Gannouchi’s role will be crucial since he is viewed as an opponent of the old regime. In addition, Abid Briki, deputy head of the General Tunisian Workers Union (UGTT) has said that a collegial national government should be set up, “in accordance with the demands of the street and political parties”.
The UGTT played a contradictory role in the uprising: in the north and in the capital its leaders negotiated with the regime, while in the south they opposed it and played a key role in organising and spreading the revolution from one town to another. But it is now weighing in to protect the political compromise being cooked up.
The “salvation government” is intended to provide a democratic smokescreen by embracing all political currents and associations. There will be a 50-member transitional council, which will be dissolved after free elections in 2012. The council will have the task of developing a new democratic constitution. Clearly this is not enough to satisfy the masses.
Arab leaders throughout northern Africa and the Middle East are fearfully watching the scrambling to cap the revolutionary upsurge while young people throughout north Africa are inspired by the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man who immolated himself, sparking the revolutionary upsurge last month.
Even far away Yemen has caught the fever. This morning demonstrators forced the release of Tawakul Karman, a young woman journalist who had organised anti-regime protests. And there street actions in Algeria too.
Events in Tunisia are creating an unprecedented crisis for the Arab ruling classes and their Western backers. They mark a new stage of the revolutionary upsurge that led to independence from colonial powers like France only to see dictatorships assume control.
A World to Win secretary