Bread, the stuff of repression : Arabia

Bread, the stuff of repression


 February 1984

More than 200 dead, 500 injured and serveral hundred arrested – such was President Bourguiba’s New Year’s gift to the Tunisian people who protested against the Prime Ministre Mzali’s sudden announcement of the doubling ot the price of fread and basic doodstuffs. People took to the streets in what was described as the most violent and bloody demostration since those of January 26, 1978.

Rioting bean in the improversihed areas of southern Tunisia on December 29. At Douz, El Hamma, El Mareh, El Kef, Thala and Kebili people burned everything that represented governement property. The police were not prepared for violence of such a magnitude. News of the riots spread gradually north and two days later the uprising reached Kasserine, an agglomeration near the Algerian bordre in central Tunisia. There the police were assisted by the army and repression claimed its first victims. On New Year’s Day people in Gafsa, already known for uprising in Junuary 1980, took to the streets and the violence there was directed against luxury shops, banks and government buildings. On Junuray 2, Gafsa, an industrial seaside town in the south, rose too.

While the government issued warnings and angry statements mixed with woreds of appeasement, agitation spread to the country’s second city, Sfax, to Monastir (Bourguiba’s home town), to Kairawan, the holy city, and to Tunis, the capital, where students and schoolboys jointed in the demonstrations. At this stage it became clear that the slogans raised by the demonstrators were not of an economic nature, Rioters referred to their repressors as «dogs of Wassila» (the latter being President Bourguiba’s very influential wife) and chanted angry words against Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali. Banners said « There is no God but Allah and Bourguiba is His enemy ». In Sfax, eyewitnesses said that the Tunisian flag was burnt and Bourguiba’s statue toppled. The president’s car was stoned as the motocrade left Bourguiba’s place in Monastir to take him to the airport to fly to Tunis.

On January 3, the government decided to play it tough : a state of emergency was declred and a curfew enforced between 6 pm and 5 am. Premier Mazali went on television to tel the people that he stood by the enormous price increases.

In the meantime the only Tunisian trade union, UGTT, continued to back the Bourguiba regime. Speaking to a French reporter, UGTT Secreatry-General Bacouche said the state of emergency was necessary. Once a courageaous union, the UGTT lost a lot of its prestige when it allied itself in November 1981 with Bourguiba’s ruling Socialist Destourian Party (PSD) – in spite of the opposition of several of its leaders – which enabled the PSD to maintain its grip on parliament and on the country as a whole.

Fearing workers’ backlash, Bacouche announced a general strike for Junuary 5 – but the cancelled the decision. It was not until the authorities themselves aounnouced, on January 6, the postponement of the price increases, that Bacouche stated that negotiations were under way with the government to otain wage increases. These salary rises, some observers believe, are only meant to prepare the wah for further price increases.

Interior Minister Driss Guiga was desmissed, being held responsable for the unprecedented violence and his post was given to Mzali who spoke of a deliberate move to destabilise the country and mentioned « hostile elements ».

A source from the Tunisian semi-underground Islamic Trend Movement (ITM) in Paris told ‘’Arabia’’ that their movement, which identifies with the impoverished people, had in fact planned a «peaceful demonstration» when the price increases were to be announced.

However, the source insisted that the Islamic Trend’s aim was a peaceful one and that the movement was not responsable for the violence that ensued, even if demonstrates continued to chant Islamic slogans. The demonstrations against the price rises were shifted from their « bread » goal by some elements with vested intersts, the ITM member maintained. He said « We condemned violence in the past and condemn it now ».

Asked whether i twas the legal opposition parties which had used the demonstrators, the source replied negatively. He said that the violence was orchestrated form within the ruling party, scene of a struggle over the succession to the 81 year-old president. Driss Guiga, who was tipped as a possible successor to the ailing Tunisian leader, and who was in a « race » with Bourguiba’s other favorite man, Prime Minister Mzali, was named as the culprit. He is said to have encouraged rampage and havoc by deliberately neglecting the security of private property, stores and government buildings. The Islamic Trend Movement holds him responsible for the 200 dead and the 500 injured, victims, the Trend says, of a power straggle.

The idea of Guiga’s culpability is given cerdibility by the dismissed minister himself who, according to the ITM source, left for France lest he be tried for all the destruction that had taken place.

In the light of this it is significant that Premier Mzali’s accusations were deliberately vague « Attempts at destabilisation » and « hostile elements » were soon interpreted as referring to « Islamic extremists » by a world press accustomed to seeing Muslim activists behind all violence. Mzali has not so far incriminated the Islamic Trend Movement, contrary to some press reports, which in istself is quite telling.

On the other hand, Arabia’s ITM source said that after the riots, the prime minister contacted the movement’s secretary-general, Abdelfettah Moro, for talks, but that the ITM was not ready for parley, Moro is still under house arrest since he was released from prison a few months ago, and its president, Rashed el Ghannoushi, is still serving an 11 year hard labour sentence in spite of his deteriorating health.

Despite the harsh repression of the Muslim activists in July 1981, the Tunisian authorities now acknowledge that the Islamic Trend Movement does enjoy support from large sections of the people and that it is a pressure group to reckon with in the long run.

Asked what could be he outcome of negotiations with the Mzali government, the ITM official replied that they would certainly lead the authorities to allow the re-emergence of the Islamic Trend Movement as e semi-clandestine party as it had been before July 1981, along with the now legalised secular socialist and liberal parties.

Most of the demonstraters came from deprived areas and were unemployed. They did not expect the tame trade union UGTT to voice their grievance. They succeeded in postponing the price increases for three months : for the first time the president himself intervened to put off these rises, which has created a dangerous precedent for the regime. What will happen when « realistic » price rises are announced in March remains to be seen.

Immediately after the riots a four-man commando squad blew up, on Tunisian territory, a section of the Algerian pepeline carrying oil to Italy. Although the commandos were not arrested, the Tunisian defence ministry said it had evidence that they were Libyans.

Algeria sided with Tunisia during the riots. As soon as the trouble started the Algerian prime minister, Mohammed Abdelghani, phoned his Tunisian conterpart repeatedly to express support for the regime and to offer help. The Algerian premier told Mzali that his country’s troops were « patrolling the border ».

The Algerian move was to quieten Tunisien fears that Algeria was behind the rioters, as was the cas during the Gafsa troubles of Junuary 1980. Algeria wanted also to demonstrate willingness to cooperate in countering a growing Islamic movement that threatens the regimes of the Maghreb. As to the Libyan action, it is difficult to interpret. Tunisian Prime Minister Mzali has lodged a complaint to Libya and is waiting for the answer.

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