A Dispatch from the Left (Tunisia)

Below is a translation of a statement from July 2013, from the leadership of the Tunisian Workers’ Party (POT, formerly the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party, or PCOT), a leading party in the leftist opposition coalition the Popular Front (Jabhat ash-Sha’abiyyah). It was part of a public exchange between POT leader Hamma Hammami and Minister of Finance Elyes Fakhfakh, prior to the current leadership crisis which began with the assassination of Popular Front leader Mohamed Brahmi at the end of July. Tunisian politics has been extremely polarised since 2011, though with the assassinations and terrorist attacks of 2013, the last year has been notably intense. The tone of leftist opposition groups in Tunisia shows greater urgency and radicalism than much the rest of the opposition in Tunisia, and on the Arab left in general. One of the dominant meta-narratives about Tunisia since 2011 — especially among westerners — has been its ‘moderation’: its political class reacted to a youth-driven revolution with a soft-coup by a mostly politically marginal military, which led to a negotiated transition and elections in which moderate Islamists were joined by moderate leftist-social democratic secularists. Tunisian Islamists were cast as being so moderate that even its Salafists were friendly. Indeed, many have looked at the mostly secular opposition as being more extreme than Ennahda in their description of their worldviews (which is frequently shockingly maximalist). Opposition to Ennahda has evolved into two broad camps, a ‘centrist’ bloc, with Bourguibian accents and roots in the old order, and a rather hardline left-wing bloc, made up of anti-revisionist communists, Nasserists and others; something often missed is how radical the Tunisian left is compared to leftist tendencies in other Arab countries. Even if they can only take third place by eyeballing and performed badly in elections, Tunisian leftists have more ground game than their Egyptian or Levantine counterparts and tend to use rhetoric and take stands on religious questions that would be impossible elsewhere; they are also more strident in general (which says something about the Arab left more broadly). These parties often have the same problems that face others of their persuasion in the region: a lack of constructive criticism of either government policy or their own failings in recruitment, propaganda or getting out the vote (insufficient self-criticism); a tendency to fragment over the most trivial internal disputes — whether driven by ideology or personalities — at exactly the worst time; a maximalist line that can alienate popular opinion; a tendency toward hyperbole (in which they are not alone); discourses about poverty and rural suffering that sometimes tend not to match with the actual substance of their campaigns, though when compared to others in the region on this front they look quite good, though they do not match up to their Islamist rivals, despite significant advances in popular opinion and ground game. Many of these tendencies are not simply ailments of the Arab or Tunisian left but of all leftist currents, especially on the far left — and Tunisia has perhaps the biggest concentration of far out there leftists than most other Arab countries today.

The passage below — a polemical piece by Hammami in his typically acerbic style — highlights some of this in action, a sort of snapshot of the feverish spectacle of Tunisian politics which seems to get only more and more intense, till one compares it with the horrors of Syria, Libya, Egypt and other places where people struggle in similar and also very different ways against different odds. This piece was posted on a variety of Popular Front outlets last July.

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Hamma Hammami replies to Elyes Fakhfakh: “Who is challenging who? People who live in glass houses…”

When I was on “Express FM” radio on Thursday, July 11 2013, I talked about how the Troika government is trying to find a legal escape to privatizing Tunisian lands regarding the operations of buying and investing and I pointed to the statements of some of this government’s members, including the current Minister of Finance. At that very moment, the latter called in, although it was during the working hours of the day and the minister was supposed to be working hard on his “numerous and difficult” files rather than listening to radio stations. The minister accused me of “spreading unfounded allegations” and threatened he would sue me if I did not present evidence for what I previously said within a “specific deadline.” The minister also talked using the first person saying, “I” did not declare anything, to exonerate himself as if it was not his fault and as if he was not a member of government who – as long he is in it – bears responsibility for the decisions and actions that he takes part in.

The minister should have known that all his threats were just hot air, because this kind of old-fashioned methods were not useful in the Ben Ali era, and surely will not be today.

The minister should have also known that I am not used to the frivolity and lack of seriousness that his government is accustomed to, saying one thing and doing the other.

It is also not my habit to fabricate statements or actions and attribute them to political opponents to make it easier to attack and defame them, as many websites defending the “Troika government” do, and which has polluted political and intellectual life by spreading lies and rumors and thereby increased the moral crisis that is eating away at our society. The minister should have also known that he is the last one to give moral lessons about “serving the country,” which he did not remember until Ben Ali had gone, not to return.

I did not make up what I said on “Express FM” and it was not an allegation I spread, but it was based on evidence. My words were not only aimed at the Minister of Finance but at the whole government. In addition, when I talked about him, I did not even mention his name but his position, because I do not care about his personality, but about his politics.

My words were in a deeper context of that of the peasants, it was about the government “selling the country” and all its bounties and riches, without thinking either about its independence or about the fate of future generations. And so I was careful in choosing my words talking about the peasants; I said that the government is trying to find a way out of privatizing Tunisian lands. I did not say that it already had.

I will demonstrate in the following the authenticity of my accusation toward the Minister of Finance and his government. Also, I will not stop at this point but I will mention some of the files that will prove to the reader the minister’s determination to “serve the country” — since in his comments, he claimed that all he does is “serve the country.”

1.     Privatizing Lands: Selling or Investing?

First of all, privatizing the land includes land allocated for construction or for the establishment of industrial and tourism projects, etc., and secondly, agricultural lands. Legislation issued after the “Declaration of Independence” (March 20, 1956) dealt with this matter. The law of May 12, 1964 forbids foreigners from owning agricultural lands. The objective was clear and that is to prevent a repeat of the peasant colonization that afflicted the country. The law of September 22, 1969 stated that natural persons –foreigners — could own land for their residence under a license issued by the President of the Republic. The law of February 28, 1959 issued ten years earlier, stated that in order for a foreign country to own land in Tunisia, it must receive a prior license issued by the Prime Minister. The emphasis on acquiring a piece of land for construction, for example, has no other purpose than to protect the country’s sovereignty, because any laxity or indulgence could gradually lead to the loss of sovereignty over the country.

The governor’s license in the current legislation is one of the administrative documents that must be obtained for the acquisition of land.

So how did the “revolutionary government” act on this issue? And what exactly was said in the statements of some members of the government on the disposition of Tunisian territory?

  1.  The statement of Mr. Elyes Fakhfakh, the former Minister of Tourism, on the website “Al Masdar” on December 10, 2012: The Minister of Tourism Elyes Fakhfakh said in a statement to “Al Masdar” that the government is not “against” foreign ownership of real estate in Tunisia, and then, he added that the government considers the issue with some reservations. He pointed out that the cancellation of the governor’s license imposed on foreign ownership of properties and lands in Tunisia is “debatable,” thereby revealing that this cancellation has “pros and cons.”
  2. The statement of Mr. Ridha Saidi, Counselor to the Prime Minister responsible for the economic file was given the headline˸ “Mr. Ridha Saidi does not deny the possibility of a law allowing foreigners to own agricultural land in Tunisia”; this statement appeared on the website of the radio station that published an interview with him: “Regarding investment in agriculture, the minister did not rule out considering new legislation allowing foreigners to own agricultural land, as is the case in Morocco.”
  3.  When the Minister of Agriculture spoke about privatizing agricultural land in a statement that appeared on November 8, 2012 in the Qatari newspaper Al-Arab, he meant investing in it and not selling it – even through foreign investors have the right to export their entire product. The statement also mentioned that the Tunisian authorities had confiscated around 80,000 hectares of land belonging to the family of Ben Ali, pointing out that this land is offered to foreign investors — including Qatar — whose rulers, according to the minister, supported the Tunisian revolution.

Although some may claim that these statements only reflect intentions and wishes, but things went beyond this and became official with the drafting of the “new investment code draft.” I do not think that the minister will claim that this project is a “rumor” because it was even discussed in France’s National Assembly this past March 5 in the presence of the President of the National Constituent Assembly and the Central Bank governor before it was discussed in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (so this is what they call “nationalism”!) or put before the Finance Committee of this Assembly. Also, the Minister cannot claim that this draft is not his responsibility because he is bound to it just like any minister in the government.

The code contained the following:

  1. Chapter 2, Article 8 on selling lands to foreigners, states:

“Foreign investors have the freedom to acquire or lease lands and shops built in industrial areas and tourist activity locations in order to accomplish economic projects, provided they maintain their character.”

  1. Article 10 of the same chapter on foreign ownership of agricultural lands states:

“Tunisian companies can own agricultural land with the purpose of completing agricultural projects regardless of the nature of the partners.
However, it cannot own these lands if foreign ownership of the capital exceeds 30 percent. ”

In other terms, the foreigner could officially own 30 percent of the land of the concerned company. To which someone may ask: what prevents this foreigner from owning more than this percentage with a local front, as has happened in other countries, now that the door of acquisition has been opened?

Some tried to rely on what was mentioned in Article 9 of this code concerning the fact that the foreign investor can invest in the agricultural sector “without the possibility of owning agricultural land,” but they ignored the malicious note in the margin under number 5 which states, “Cancel the current text in the issued law,” meaning that this article is cancelled.

Furthermore, a ministerial session on Thursday, April 25, 2013 was dedicated to the new investment code draft and was attended by the Minister of Finance. Among the recommendations of the session, “the Ministry of Development and International Cooperation called for coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture to study the alternatives to foreign ownership of agricultural land to ensure the development of investment in the agricultural sector…” (Recommendation 7, page 19). It is clear that the Troika government is determined to sell the country’s land and gradually back away from the decision to nationalize. It is worth pointing out that the Minister of Finance, who was present at the meeting, did not state any reservation or objection to this recommendation, contrary to his claimed opposition to privatizing agricultural land.

It is equally important to note that the government’s budget this year, which was under the responsibility of the minister, of course, contains as I recall, around a thousand million dinars in the form of Islamic bonds derived mainly from the Gulf countries. It is known that one of the conditions of these countries is to become an owner of each project in which it holds a share through these instruments, even if it is an agriculture project.

The data I have presented confirms that what I said on the radio station “Express FM” is not a question of “rumor, defamation or spreading false news” but is a statement based on clear arguments indicating that there is a trend toward privatizing Tunisian lands, including agricultural lands, to foreigners, which exposes the country to the many risks regarding its independence and the sustenance of the daughters and sons of the current generation and future generations.

The Tunisians peasants, especially the poor and the young, are entitled to Tunisia’s lands and they were supposed to benefit from agrarian reform since the colonizer left and to enjoy assistance from the state according to clear plans, in developing production in order to achieve self-sufficiency in food, whereas the foreign investor can export his entire product.

But the government does not attach importance to the suffering of the Tunisian countryside. Ennahda and its allies, including the Minister of Finance’s Party, have refused even to exempt small farmers from interest on small loans they obtained and were unable to pay. Meanwhile, in the “Constituent Assembly,” they voted for fiscal amnesty for the “large whales” that dodged taxes. So what is the relation between this behavior and the revolution that people sought as a opportunity to realize their hopes and aspirations?