The Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci once described the disarray in Europe after World War One in this way, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.
The Islamist attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis is a “morbid symptom” of the political deadlock in Tunisia in the years after the fall of Ben Ali. In a political climate increasingly dominated by rightwing political Islam, where the workers’ movement is fighting battles in the streets but without being able to offer a strong political alternative, the Islamist far right, bolstered by its strongholds in Libya (where the killers trained), will continue to be a powerful pull over many young people.
Since the October 2014 election, Tunisia has been ruled by a coalition of the secularist Nidaa Tounes party (which is dominated by former Ben Ali regime figures from the old RCD party) and the Islamist Nahda party. Unlike in Egypt, where old-regime secularist forces crushed the Muslim Brotherhood’s clerical fascist party, in Tunisia the old regime and the Islamists are working hand-in-hand to carry out neoliberal policies, plundering the public sector to line the pockets of the cronies of the ruling parties.
The previous Nahda government had come to grief. The Tunisian working class, mobilised around the UGTT union, had mobilised against the corruption and anti-democratic, anti-secular policies of Nahda, resulting in a long period of social tension. Militias (whose links to Nahda were an open secret) called the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, and far-right Salafist groups (not formally linked to Nahda but supporting them against the labour movement), led a campaign of street violence which culminated in the murders of Popular Front politicians Chokri Belaid (February 2013) and Mohammed Brahm (July 2013).
In January 2014, under the pressure of protests, and the loss of confidence in Nahda by the Tunisian bourgeoisie, Nahda’s government was replaced by a technocratic government.
Nahda is back in power but its wings have been clipped: Tunisian feminist and Trotskyist Ahlem Belhadj has described this as a victory which is “bitter, very partial, but real”.
But despite the limiting of their power, the forces unleashed by Nahda are still present.
Salafist and rightwing Islamist militias are still active; the general shift towards Islamism in the political atmosphere is undermining of secularism; networks of Nahda supporters (and Salafists) with access to state and political power have created a powerful base of support for far-right religious ideology.
On the other hand, the only viable political alternative to Nahda is Nidaa Tounes, a re-alignment of old-regime, neoliberal forces, under the ancient Bourguibist veteran President Beji Caid Essebsi. To Tunisian workers, Nidaa Tounes is hardly an alternative at all.
Strikes and workers’ protests have continued since the election, against the corruption of the new government and its failure to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Revolution Day (January 14) saw wildcat transport strikes and in February a general strike was called in the region of Tataouine following the murder of protester Saber El Miliane by rightwing thugs (suspected of being police, or in the pay of the police).
The movement in the streets lacks political representation, and has little perspectives to take political power. The Popular Front, which unites the far left with left Arab nationalists, Ba’athists, Maoists and Hoxhaists, is politically hesitant, and although it does not support the Nidaa Tounes-led government, has failed to offer a strong working-class political alternative.
In this context, the Islamist far right exerts a strong political attraction for young people. 5,000 young Tunisians are estimated to have travelled to join ISIS and the Al-Nusra front in Syria. 9,000 have been prevented from travelling by the authorities. In a country with a population of 10 million, this is a big number.
Research conducted by the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad on a sample of 150 returned jihadists found that they were not, in the main, from the most oppressed layers of society. They came from families which had occupied comfortable positions in the middle ranks of the state bureaucracy under Ben Ali, but had been shaken out of their relative comfort by the destruction of the RCD state machine.
The thing that can end the deadlock in Tunisia, and sweep away the foul fumes of far-right Islamism and obscurantism that incubate terrorists like the Bardo killers, is a political offensive by the workers’ movement, to transform the struggles in the streets into a fight for a workers’ government and socialist politics.