'Heads are just dogs who obey their masters'

4th March 2011 at 00:00
Tunisia? Having helped oust the Ben Ali dictatorship, teachers are taking the fight to their own politically appointed bosses

Tunisia's revolution is being fought in workplaces as well as on the streets, as people demand better conditions and an end to corruption.

One of the most important battles is between Taieb Baccouche, the minister of education and a pillar of the old regime, and thousands of highly politicised secondary school teachers. In 23 years of dictatorship, many teachers helped place pressure on the regime as activists of the country's only trade union federation, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens. Teachers played a central role in ousting former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and now they want Baccouche out.

Ben Ali made sure that every headteacher in the country was a member of his ruling RCD party, and as political appointees their competence is in question. The role of heads has included reporting on teachers and students to the police.

Baccouche - also the provisional government's spokesperson - is still attempting to undermine the teachers' movement, which is calling for his resignation, by turning students against them.

He asked headteachers to select student representatives - inevitably RCD sympathisers - to meet him in a recent televised debate. During the discussion, Baccouche urged students to bring any of their complaints against teachers to headteachers and to him.

Many teachers had offered extra classes to pupils to make up for time lost during the protests and a subsequent school holiday. But Baccouche claimed teachers would charge for the catch-up lessons and offered them a derisory 1.5 dinars (about 70 pence) an hour for their services. Teachers insisted the classes were free and in some cases have been able to offer them.

The wider picture in schools remains mixed. Some have returned to a regular timetable, while others remain disrupted, with students refusing to go back to their studies.

Ridding the country of Ben Ali was only the first step for Tunisians. What is happening in education shows that dictatorships survive by spreading tentacles into every institution in society.

Tunisia's teachers, bloodied by long experience of fighting authoritarian rule, are at the forefront of the battle to root out corruption because opposition political parties barely exist.

Bouali Rabeh, leader of the teachers' union in the southern Gafsa region, where the revolution began, said: "Heads are just dogs who obey their masters. The union made a wall. When we strike, it is always more than 80 per cent, but we still fear the police."

Teachers are now demanding that all heads leave their posts and teachers in each school elect one of their number to take over.

Mr Rabeh once hit a headteacher because "he tried to sow anarchy and stop the strike. That head then left his job". The same head has now registered with the union, believing it will offer him protection.

"It is hypocrisy," said Rabeh. "The union is a place where you can come to wash away your past."

But the union will still attempt to integrate any teacher, regardless of political affiliations or past actions. It includes leftists, nationalists, Islamists and now even former government stooges.

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