Islamists versus workers, art and freedom in Tunisia

Submitted by Matthew on 20 June, 2012 - 7:42

Tunisia has seen a series of Islamist outrages against the labour movement and freedom of speech in recent weeks, while workers’ struggles for jobs and public services heat up.

On 26 May, Salafists started riots and fights in Jendouba — a provocation which began with attacks against alcohol vendors but quickly became a confrontation with the police.

On the following day at dawn, Salafists raided the premises of the al Hilwar television station – other attacks also took place against Sfax regional radio and there was a sit-in protest in front of the national radio station in Tunis. The Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) trade union condemned these attacks as outrages against freedom of the press and called for a civil society mobilisation to defend media outlets.

Significantly, it was widely reported that these attacks were not only carried out by members of Salafist or far-right religious groups like Ansar al-Sharia or Hizb ut-Tahrir — but also rank-and-file members of the ruling Nahda party. National leaders of Nahda, which rules in coalition with two smaller secular parties, try to project an image of secularism. But the participation of Nahda activists in joint attacks with religious fascists against unions and the media shows their true social function and ideology.

By 30 May rumours were spreading that Salafists were planning an attack on UGTT offices. Across Tunisia, union officials barricaded themselves in and made preparations for the attacks. In the end none came — but gangs of young men wearing T-shirts reading “Salafist Police” roamed Tunis suburbs attacking bar-keepers and “immodestly” dressed women; and a journalist was assaulted by religious thugs at a metro stop.

Two weeks later, on 12 June, the violence reached a new peak when Salafists burned UGTT offices in several different cities simultaneously, burning down offices in Bengarden, Jendouba and Bousalam. Offices of secular political parties which have aligned themselves with the UGTT were also targeted. At the same time, an art exhibition in Tunis, which showed nudity and sacrilegious images, was invaded and smashed up.

These attacks come at the moment that the labour movement is asserting itself against the new government’s economic policies. With unemployment at 18% and the new government trying to implement neoliberal medicine to re-start the economy, workers are engaged in constant low-level local battles over employment and union rights. At the same time, health workers launched a general strike on 31 May, to oppose privatisation of health care.

The international left must make solidarity with the UGTT and the Tunisian labour movement, which is the defender not only of workers’ rights but also of freedom of speech, art, and culture.

That solidarity must recognise the dangers of Islamism in the region — even its “soft”, “respectable” suit-wearing variants, who open the doors for the kind of violent, sword-wielding Salafist bigots who attacked women and trade unionists in Jenouba.