From Tunisia to Tolpuddle
Tunisia's revolution earlier this year sparked off uprisings that continue to reverberate across the Arab world. Malika Achour from the Tunisian union movement told festival goers at Tolpuddle exactly how it all began.
The tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle might seem a million miles away from revolutionary upheaval in North Africa, but as the spark that led to hard won rights for working people in Britain, it resonates strongly with events in Tunisia in January this year.
Malika Achour from the Tunisian teaching union was a special guest at this year's Tolpuddle Martyr's festival to explain their own Tolpuddle moment. Sheltering from Dorset's soggy weather, I caught up with her on Saturday morning in the festival's coffee tent.
Malika is a member of the Tunisian teaching union and a representative of its youth committee in the Ben Arous region. Her union is affiliated to the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), effectively the Tunisian TUC.
Although Tunisia had been ruled by the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987, he would rarely be mentioned in the same sentence as say, Mugabe, Gaddafi or Ahmadinejad. So I asked Malika what conditions were really like in Tunisia before the revolution?
'When we talk about pre-revolution, we talk about no freedom of expression, no freedom of association,' says Malika. 'People could not organise a demonstration because the state would send security forces and break it up with violence.' Tunisia was also in the grip of high unemployment, inflation and corruption.
(Malika Achour addresses the Middle East and North Africa debate at the Tolpuddle Festival, Saturday, 16 July 2011)
The Tunisia revolution, the biggest wave of mass demonstrations throughout the country in three decades, kicked off after Mohamed Bouaziz, a 26-year old Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest against the confiscation of his goods.
'After he martyred himself ', says Malika, 'we realised that he was just like us - fighting for his basic rights and basic dignity. So every morning after that we went out on the streets, chanting 'Bread! Water! Ben Ali out!''.
As Malika explains, the unions helped to channel this popular anger and frustration into organised protests. The UGTT was vital in doing this, but it was the entire Tunisia people that came out: 'We organised marches from our region UGTT office, but when they started everyone joined: women, youth, everyone from the community.'
'The teaching unions also played an important role in the revolution,' says Malika. 'Ben Ali tried to stop us by closing down the schools, the universities and colleges during the uprising, but that just helped us to get more people out onto the streets.'
For Malika, Tunisian women face a double challenge: 'one is resisting the regime, but also conservative family attitudes that do not think that women should play a prominent role in their trade unions.'
'If one day, a people desire to live...'
Did they ever think that they would topple the regime? 'It is hard to pin down one moment', she says. 'We had the view that Ben Ali would never give up, and use everything against us. But we felt we had no choice anymore.'
As Malika later explains from the main stage at the festival: 'This line from our most famous Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi was a key rallying cry for us: 'If one day, a people desire to live, then fate will answer their call''.
This belief drove people forward but it came at terrible price for many: 'The State often used live bullets and this led to the death of many. On one occasion they used a poisonous killer gas on protestors.'
After weeks of protest, Ben Ali gave his third public address: 'He was confused, and afraid and said, 'I'm giving you everything, what more do you want?'. We knew then that he was vulnerable so we came out in numbers the next day on the 14 January.'
'People marched on the most heavily guarded street in the capital - Habib Bourguiba street - where the Ministry of the Interior is, and once we got it in, then we knew he was gone.'
'I said to a friend: 'remember the name of this street'. This day I cannot really describe. But we can never forget that many people were martyred, and thousands were injured.'
'Ben Ali tried to scorch Tunis, but the people had lost their fear. The police ran from their stations and then the army stepped in.' Ben Ali then fled to Saudi Arabia, to be replaced by an interim government.'
'Tens of thousands of ordinary people now want to join.'
The UGTT has been campaigning to hold this government to account ever since. 'The UGTT also played a historic role to defend workers' rights both before and during the revolution,' says Malika. 'It was one of the only places where we could express ourselves, our anger, our frustration with Ben Ali.'
'Post revolution there is a huge respect for the role of the UGTT,' she says. 'Tens of thousands of ordinary people now want to join. In our region alone we have signed up another 16,000 members.'
The UGTT has a clear sense of the challenges ahead of it. As Malika explains, 'Most workers in Tunisia and Egypt are young and we need to reach out to them. We need to end agency work. We've removed it in the public sector but now we need to focus on the private sector. And we need to strengthen our links with trade union youth networks around the work. Finally, we want to encourage greater investment in Tunisia.'
The transition to democracy is also critical for the UGTT as Malika explains: 'Politically, we are building a democracy ourselves. We don't want foreign intervention. We may take some time and make some mistakes but we are doing it ourselves.'
'This is the first time that we're able to vote in real, free and fair elections. Before, the elections were always cooked, always won by Ben Ali's party. And now we have 80 or 85 political parties that have registered to choose from.' National elections scheduled for late October
(Abdullah Muhsin from the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, Tolpuddle Festival, Saturday, 16 July 2011)
Malika spoke at Tolpuddle as part of the international debate on the Arab Spring. She was joined by Abdullah Muhsin, from the General Federation of Iraqi Workers and by Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, both of whom spoke of the impact across every country in the region, and just how fragile the gains of the Arab Spring are.
'It is not just about Tunisia. We express solidarity with the people of Palestine, of Iraq and of the entire region,' concludes Malika.
She also conveyed the UGTT's strong appreciation of the role of the TUC, in particular its twinning relationship with the Yorkshire and the Humber Region - as one of the few union movements able to support and circulate information from the UGTT as the revolution unfolded.
For more information about Tunisia, the UGTT and the work of the TUC see:
Issued: 28 July, 2011