No to fake new regime

London-based Tunisian socialist Nadim Mahjoub looks forward to an Arab revolution. Ben Lewis spoke to him

It is said that there are decades when weeks happen and weeks when decades happen. Clearly in Tunisia we are witnessing a shift from the former to the latter - not that the BBC initially had much to say on it ...

The role of the media has been in keeping with imperialist plots. I say ‘plots’, not ‘plans’, because I do not think the imperialists have many plans at the moment - any they did possess have been clearly undermined by the explosion of social unrest in Tunisia.

It is not simply that it took the BBC 26 days to come up with a headline story on Tunisia: its role has constantly been to distort the reality of what has been going on. On January 18, for example, its main story spoke of a “new regime” in Tunisia. It is clearly not a new regime at all, as the thousands of people on the streets will tell you. So it is quite interesting - initially the BBC ignored what was going on, but now it is clearly throwing its weight behind the new ‘national unity government’. Look on the BBC’s Arabic service, for example, and you will find many ‘intellectuals’ and others whose opinions are respected by the establishment using the pretext of security to argue that change must be moderate and the so-called “new regime” must be supported.

Actually the “new” regime’s supporters are more than willing to send in the security forces to suppress the protestors. But all this actually misses the point - the pro-Ali security forces and armed gangs have been faced down and replaced by the army. In my assessment the army will not shoot at the protestors. On the contrary, we have seen instances of fraternisation between the army and the people.

This media picture reflects some sort of ‘colour revolution’ agenda then?

Absolutely - similar to those in eastern Europe, where the CIA played a major role in supporting bourgeois forces within the countries concerned.

What is your perspective on the current situation?

My perspective is to fully support the people who have been on the streets in their thousands - especially those in Tunis who have suffered sustained repression at the hands of the so-called security forces. I do not believe that the halfway measure of the new coalition government will solve any of the fundamental problems which sparked the protests: namely institutional corruption, lack of democracy, economic hardship and so on.

I also want to point out that we are not only dealing with Tunisia here - it is not only in Tunisia where there is a wholly corrupt and dictatorial regime which rigs elections. We see numerous monarchical, autocratic, bourgeois regimes in cahoots with western imperialism - particularly French imperialism in the case of Tunisia. So when I look at these events I do so from the perspective of the whole region of North Africa and the Middle East, with Tunisia as the spark for change everywhere. We have already seen food riots in Algeria, unrest in Egypt and even protestors in Yemen singing the Tunisian national anthem!

Your assessment of Tunisia as a spark seems to be echoed by commentary in the media, particularly in relation to Egypt.

It is quite clear that the imperialists are most fearful of a similar explosion in Egypt. The thing to remember is that in some ways the workers’ and students’ movement in Egypt was more advanced than in Tunisia. The strikes of textile workers, tax-collectors and so on a few years ago were very strong, with slogans surfacing about toppling the whole regime. Egypt is an extremely important ally of the US and, indeed, Israel. Quite clearly this is a very delicate situation from the standpoint of the imperialists.

I have heard you talk about the slogan of ‘the Arab revolution’. How widespread is this sentiment?

I think that it is becoming more rooted in society, partly because the economic crisis is affecting huge swathes of the population - not just in North Africa, but right across the world. I have seen economic statistics on eastern Europe, for example - the time is certainly ripe for social explosions. The world is far more unstable than it was five years ago.

People are bound to draw inspiration from events unfolding in a country that was supposed to be one of economic prosperity: sun, sea and sand, etc. So, although the idea of an Arab revolution might not be in the consciousness of the majority at the moment, this situation could change quite quickly, given the nature of the crisis and the similar effects it is having in and around Tunisia. Hopefully people beyond the region - in Britain in the struggle against cuts, for example - can be empowered by the events in a small country like Tunisia.

In 2003 we also saw large-scale demonstrations of students and trade unionists against the regime, but these were suppressed. What has changed now?

Something deeper has happened - I have never seen such determination from people on the streets. For them it is not about Ben Ali, but about toppling the whole regime. The current protests can certainly be seen as a continuation of the opposition organised by, for example, the leftwing coalition of trade unions in 2003. These demonstrations were organised independently of the UGGT (Tunisian General Union of Labour), which really has been a tool of the state in maintaining social peace. Just like in 2003 it is the trade unions that organised the protests and demonstrations, but what we are seeing now is on a different scale - the army has sided with the protests, for example.

What about the student movement? What explains its relative strength?

The student movement has always played an important opposition role. The regime made a big mistake because, although it tried to clamp down on all currents in the student movement, its focus was on the Islamists. So leftwing students had more leeway and continued to organise. Now that the universities have been closed down, thousands of students are on the streets, alongside workers and a section of the middle class and intellectuals.

What about the role of the Islamist opposition? For example, Mohammed Ali Harrath, CEO of the Islam channel, has been on the BBC (he also spoke at the AGM of the Labour Representation Committee). What do you think of his analysis?

I disagree with him. When he said there was a revolution in Tunisia, I disagreed with him. When he claimed that the regime was toppled I disagreed with him again. He is from the wing that claims to be moderate and not for an Islamic state. This is in contrast to other groups which are openly for the Tunisian caliphate - ie, no capitalism, but no democracy either. I am not sure how he comes to the conclusion that the regime has already been toppled. What was taking place was a revolutionary movement aimed at toppling the regime.

What is the Islamist movement’s relationship to the protests and to the national unity government?

The Islamist movement is certainly for the toppling of the regime and supportive of the protests. However, this movement has never been of one colour - it consists of different groups with different aims - some would certainly be tempted by the prospect of a seat in government, for example, but this would depend on the broadening of the ‘national unity’ administration.

We have seen in some Arab countries how the ‘moderate Islamists’ have been invited or made their way into parliament, but not to topple dictatorships. A famous quote that is still reiterated is the one by the leader of Tunisian Islamist movement, 'Al-Nahda’, after he was released from prison in 1987: “I have faith in Allah and Ben Ali.” The head of the movement that publishes the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which is based in London, still faces the prospect of life imprisonment if he returns to Tunisia. He has publicly stated that if this is lifted then he will return. Again, this could happen. Indeed, a few years ago the Islamists joined with other parties in a coalition.

Of course, all of this really depends on the opposition movement and how far it goes. If it shifts even further to the left and deepens its support, then this might make those forces both inside and outside Tunisia currently talking about a broad government opt for more desperate measures. One of the problems faced by the movement is the absence of a large workers’ party which can provide leadership and quickly seize the initiative.

A problem, of course, that is not confined to Tunisia. What are the main forces on the left?

I will not speak about those supposedly ‘left’ groups who joined the coalition government. Of the rest, the Workers Communist Party of Tunisia is the biggest and has been dominant in the student movement for quite a long time. In addition there are various Trotskyist groupings which are very small in size - it is very difficult to assess their relative strengths without being on the ground, but they too were largely confined to the university campuses. The WCPT is in part successful because it combines underground activity with open work in the media - it has appeared on Al-Jazeera, France 24, etc. But they are not a large force across the country as a whole, and tend to be concentrated in particular areas amongst students and union militants.

The WCPT’s call for a constituent assembly is finding some resonance amongst the trade union left: ie those leading the marches and demonstrations currently. With such agitation there is a good chance that they can spread this message and even influence the army. This is crucial actually. As long as the army is on the side of the protestors then there is a real possibility of the movement spreading. But all this is very difficult to predict at the moment.

What can the British workers’ movement do in order to support its brothers and sisters in Tunisia?

I am involved in the Tunisia Solidarity Campaign (although I am giving you my personal view). We are holding our second meeting this week and one of the things we will be discussing is how to link the British workers’ movement with trade unions in Tunisia. We will also discuss how we can raise funds for Tunisian trade unionists. Another way to support the Tunisian people is to get in contact with the forces on the ground and do all that we can to counter the lies of the media - with all its talk of a “new regime” the BBC is effectively treating the Tunisian people as idiots, and we should not stand for it.

What is your own political background?

I left Tunisia legally in late 2000, having previously been deprived of a passport for seven years. I was tortured in 1991 for distributing a tract. I was banned from teaching in state schools because of my political activities in the underground Communist Union of Tunisian Youth, which is linked to the WCPT and is very active in the universities. I am no longer involved, but I am pleased the party refuses to join the ‘national unity’ government coalition.