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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 November 2011

Tunisia: Elections mask the growing anger from below

Following the revolutionary events at the start of 2011 in Tunisia, in which the country's youth, unemployed and workers overthrew the 24-year long dictatorship of president Ben Ali, elections have recently taken place for a constituent assembly. The assembly is supposed to rewrite the constitution, choose a new interim government, and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections.

The elections saw the victory of the Islamist party Ennahda, which opens a new, complex situation, against the background of a continuing crisis in the economy, and a deep thirst for social change among the masses. The following edited report is from a CWI reporter. The full report can be read on www.socialistworld.net

After decades of dictatorship, and the farcical polls that have characterised all the past elections under Ben Ali's rule, these elections were for many Tunisians the first time in their life to vote in the framework of 'real elections'. This gives an important explanation for the large electoral turnout.

It is clear that the Islamist party Ennahda comes through by far as the first party, leading in almost every region, winning around 90 seats in the 217-seat constituent assembly, with 40% of the vote.

At first sight, this may appear surprising as, at the start of the year, this party was hardly visible in the mass protests, and its role in the revolution has been non-existent.

However, the party has benefited from the lack of a challenging alternative on the left, giving the opportunity for Ennahda to fill the political vacuum.

Relying on a network of charitable organisations active in the poorest neighbourhoods and towns, and on huge financial means allegedly pouring in from the Gulf monarchies, Ennahda has campaigned all over the country exploiting people's frustrations by playing on their religious sentiments and on a populist social rhetoric.

"I voted Ennahda because the other parties want 10% of the population to live in luxury while the rest of the population remain in poverty," explained an elderly man interviewed in a French-speaking newspaper.

Fears of a 'hidden' agenda by Ennahda have been reinforced by the fact that some groups of Salafists have flexed their muscles in the recent months, attacking a cinema and a TV station over material they considered blasphemous, demonstrating to demand an "Islamic revolution", and physically attacking left activists and women.

However, Ennahda will lack an absolute majority in the new assembly and will find it difficult to impose a hardline agenda, especially in a country that has just experienced a revolution.

Riots

There was an unexpected breakthrough by the list El Aridha (People's Petition Party). It is led by a millionaire, Hechmi Haamdi - a former Islamist, who then became an open ally of the former Ben Ali regime before turning against him - who owns a TV station, broadcasting by satellite from London.

With a populist programme, he also exploited the fact that he came from Sidi Bouzid, playing on regionalist resentment against the relatively higher living standards of northern coast cities. All this without even putting a foot inside Tunisia during the whole electoral campaign.

However, because of the number of obvious irregularities of his campaign, Haamdi's lists have been cancelled in six regions, which has pushed him to cancel all the other lists in the aftermath, denouncing the 'rotten' character of the assembly.

The cancellation of seats led to protests and riots in Sidi Bouzid on 27 October, involving the burning of the regional Ennahda's headquarters. It was in Sidi Bouzid that fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed university graduate, set himself on fire on 17 December last year to protest against abuses under Ben Ali's 23-year-old regime.

"The ruling class will now try to use the 'success story' of these elections in an attempt to close the revolutionary chapter, to bring back politics from the streets to the institutions, from the creative energy of the masses towards a caste of professional politicians, the majority of them having played no role in the revolution whatsoever. But the 'people of the assembly' are not 'the people of the revolution'," comments Dali, a Tunisian activist.

The impression of relative stability and the hopes of a smooth, orderly democratic transition could be short-lived. Sporadic protests and strikes have continued on a regular basis and a national postal workers' strike to demand wage increases has started.

Tunisia faces a deep crisis, and remains marked by profound social contradictions. Indeed, the daily lives of the Tunisian masses have hardly changed. If anything, they have got worse.

The revolution is far from finished. New outbreaks of struggle are inevitable, as a restoration and stabilisation of the existing economic system can only be done by blocking the masses' aspirations for a new life, that have been awakened by their revolution.

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