Coup in Tunisia: questions and answers

28 July, 2021

Celebrations of the coup in Tunisia
Celebrations of the coup in Tunisia

There has been a coup in Tunisia. After a day of anti-government demonstrations across the country, Tunisian President Kais ben Said, backed by the military leadership and trade unions, suspended the parliament, recalled Prime Minister Mechichi and stripped the ruling party of immunity.

The islamists, who have been ousted from power are denouncing a coup d’état and the closure of the local branch of the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera is being used as proof of repression. Qatar, Turkey and the European media owned by Qatari capital, such as El País in Spain, are calling on Said to restore the Parliament. France and its press, on the other hand, support the President and welcome the opportunity. What is behind the coup in Tunisia? What does it mean for the workers?

Table of Contents

Is the coup in Tunisia a reaction to the workers’ strikes and struggles?

General strike in Tataouine, Tunisia in July 2020
General strike in Tataouine, Tunisia in July 2020

No. Although the wave of struggles of July 2020, which surpassed the terrain of struggle of the mobilizations of 2018 was a key factor in causing the political crisis of the Tunisian bourgeoisie.

Then the difficulties of the government and the unions to control the struggles gave the opportunity to Ennahda –local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – to threaten a motion of censure in alliance with Karama’s Salafists.

The move, universally understood as part of the encirclement of the state by the Islamist organization supported by Qatar and Turkey, was then contained by President Said with the nomination of Mechichi, interior minister for five months. Mechichi was tasked with forming a “technocratic” government that would raise funds in order to reach an agreement with the oil workers

.

Meeting of Ennahda months before the coup in Tunisia. Women attend in a separate part of the stands.
Meeting of Ennahda months before the coup in Tunisia. Women attend in a separate part of the stands.

It is difficult to describe Ennahda as an opposition party. It controls Parliament and to the horror of President Said and the “old-time” Tunisian bourgeoisie, it has conditioned Mechichi’s government to the point of co-opting it.

But if the coup in Tunisia has been able to coordinate itself on the basis of mass demonstrations, it is because Ennahda, like all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its clericalism, its extreme conservatism and its Francophobia, has a stronghold in the most conservative, angry and backward sectors of the petty bourgeoisie: small landowners, village chieftains, shopkeepers in the capital city…. But it unnerves the university, corporate and civil service petty bourgeoisie, generally imbued with French republican values and remnants of the nationalist rhetoric of Bourguiba and his FLN protégés.

These sectors have not been worried about Ennahda’s role in the repression of the workers, but they feel threatened by the party’s power. That is why they are today applauding the coup in Tunisia. And the fact is that the enjoyment of power by Ennahda has been a typical example of the functioning of the Muslim Brotherhood in the institutions of the state wherever they reach them. In addition to taking the lead in repression against workers and promoting at various levels discriminatory measures against women, they have not spared causes of scandal for the secular and urban petty bourgeoisie.

This very month Ennahda defended and provided cover for their Karama allies (a Salafist, i.e. right-wing, split) when they beat up the leader of the opposition. But what hurts the petty bourgeoisie the most is always corruption and looting of public funds. Ennahda has certainly not been a model of integrity and has only slipped out of the courts by brazenly using the parliamentary immunity that is now being taken away. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the demand by Ennahda’s leadership of an astronomical sum to the state in compensation for the repression suffered during the years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

What does Covid have to do with the coup in Tunisia?

Tunisian public hospitals, generally considered the best in the Maghreb, are now bankrupt, overcrowded and with workers on grueling shifts for more than a year.
Tunisian public hospitals, generally considered the best in the Maghreb, are now bankrupt, overcrowded and with workers on grueling shifts for more than a year.

In a country of just over 11.5 million people, Covid is causing more than 200 deaths a day. The health system has been collapsing for months as denounced by health workers and their struggles. But the state says it has no funds to increase care capacities. So Tunisia is now relying almost exclusively on international humanitarian aid to deal with the pandemic.

Even worse is the attitude of the government and Ennahda toward vaccines. Only 8% of the population is vaccinated and there is not even a real procurement policy outside of presidential diplomacy. The state claims financial incapacity and Ennahda is suspicious that the few vaccines that have arrived or have been promised in the short term from the Emirates (half a million doses) and especially France (1 million), generate dependence on states -the same ones now supporting the coup in Tunisia- in direct conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and their Turkish and Qatari allies.

What’s imperialism role in the coup in Tunisia?

President ben Said surrounded by military, bureaucratic and trade union leadership presents coup measures in Tunisia
President ben Said surrounded by military, bureaucratic and trade union leadership presents coup in Tunisia

Some European media financed from Qatar, such as El Pais, are now repeating the hypocritical message of the Ennahda leader: Tunisia would be seeing threatened “the democratic transition initiated after the triumph in the country of the Arab Spring in 2011, a political evolution until now considered an inspirational beacon for the Arab world.”

Such account renders invisible the fact that the so-called Arab Spring – the prelude to the wars in Syria and Libya – was in reality an uprising of the angry petty bourgeoisie under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, who in addition to money and weapons made Al-Jazeera available for them.

But today’s imperialist situation is very different from back then. The Egyptian intervention stopped the Turkish offensive in Libya, and the struggles on both sides of the front pushed the local bourgeoisie to end the war. Unsurprisingly, the peace agreements in Libya that have reconstituted the unity of the ruling class under Egyptian patronage have left the Muslim Brotherhood out of the army and the government. Turkey no longer aspires to more than negotiating the departure of its mercenaries and soldiers in exchange for continuing recognition of its territorial ambitions in the Mediterranean.

Qatar, the other defeated side, is in the midst of a “reconciliation” with its Gulf rivals and Egypt and has even had to grudgingly accept of the illegalization of the Muslim Brotherhood (and thus its Palestinian branch, Hamas) in Jordan.

With their international sponsors in retreat and with the other branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in North Africa suffering ostracism and purges, it was certainly the time for Macron and Said to strike a blow in Tunisia. It should not be forgotten that France is waging a long-running battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and their sponsors inside and outside French borders.

Will the coup in Tunisia degenerate into a military dictatorship like Egypt or a civil war like in Syria or Libya

Peasant woman is given the vaccine in Kesra
Peasant woman is given the vaccine in Kesra

For the time being Ennahda has responded meekly, displaying democratic commitment. In reality, it fears the arrest of its leaders – already stripped of parliamentary immunity – and the outlawing of the party at the slightest violent response. It is the bet of the army and the unions.

But the security forces take another view. According to a repressive source quoted by the French press: “The Islamists will not accept defeat: they have arms stockpiles in the south and allies in Libya.”

What can workers expect from the coup in Tunisia

Manifestation of striking health workers last December
Manifestation of striking health workers last December

Nothing. The battle between the military and bureaucratic core of the state on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists on the other is Alien vs Predator: two monsters with long track records of bloody repression of workers with nothing to offer but more death and exploitation. Workers in Tunisia have only one way forward: extend the struggles already underway, apply the lessons of last year’s massive strikes and impose the primacy of meeting human needs.