The democratic transition in Tunisia since the 2011 overthrow of long-ruling president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has been the one real success story of the Arab Revolution, and the Tunisian uprising was also the first that served to spark the subsequent wave. So the Tunisian pro-democracy forces have international responsibilities, seen as keepers of the flame. When the Syrian revolution started in March 2011 (by school-children who painted anti-regime slogans on a wall), it was directly inspired by the successes in Tunisia and Egypt. But while Egypt has slipped back into dictatorship, Tunisia continues to consolidate its new democracy. Holding special responsibilities are Tunisia’s progressive-left forces—and in particular, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). A leading force in the 2011 uprising, the UGTT was also a pillar of the Tunisia Quartet, which in 2015 won the Nobel Peace Prize for its effort to broker dialogue between various factions and save the country from following Syria, Libya and Yemen into civil war, or following Egypt into a new dictatorship. So it is distressing to read that the UGTT (or its leadership, at least) appears to be following the misguided Western “left” into sympathy for the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Assad.
Middle East Eye reported July 11 that a delegation led by UGTT general secretary Bouali M’Barki met with Assad in Damascus two days earlier. A statement from the delegation said the visit aimed to show solidarity with the “Syrian people” in their “war against terrorism.”
Now, the Tunisians have every reason to be concerned with jihadist terror. ISIS has repeatedly launched attacks within Tunisia, as well as cross-border raids from Libyan territory. But the Assad regime is just as much a genocidal entity as ISIS. Indeed, the Assad regime has actually killed more civilians than ISIS over the past years.
MEE notes that the UGTT has previously expressed opposition to foreign intervention in Syria—in April it condemned the US air-strikes on the Shayrat airbase, describing the Syrian civil war as “an internal conflict which can only be resolved by political means.”
Now, we have emphasized repeatedly that there is a difference between an anti-intervention position and a pro-Assad position. You can oppose US intervention (and, hopefully, Russian and Iranian and Hezbollah intervention) in Syria without loaning support to the Assad regime, explicitly or implicitly. But by actually meeting with Assad, and giving his campaign of state terror the absurd imprimatur of a “war against terrorism,” the UGTT leadership has utterly delegitimized their anti-intervention position.
But we also have to ask: at what point on the scale of barbarity does a conflict cease to be merely “internal” and start to demand a response from the world? At what point does is start to sound glib to talk about “political” solutions?
The UGTT leadership’s stance, we can hope, remains a minority position in Tunisia. MEE informs us that on July 20, Tunisia’s parliament voted down a motion to restore ties with the Damascus regime.
We thought that this error was a foible of the Western “left,” if a depressingly common one. Its leading lights have similarly joined pro-Assad delegations, and unabashed Assad regime propaganda is now heard regularly from The Nation, (the now ironically named) Democracy Now and (the also ironically named) Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Not to mention the (reliably reactionary) Counterpunch.
But we had hoped and assumed that actual progressives in the Arab world—those actually in the thick of actual social struggles with actual experience resisting actual dictators—were inoculated by their lived experience against such betrayals of solidarity. This is the first evidence we have seen to the contrary.
We await further clarification from the UGTT on this unfortunate episode.