Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Tunisia at a crossroads

Arguments within the ruling coalition government and the threat of a general strike may be bringing Tunisia closer to the brink of chaos, writes Lassaad ben Ahmed in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

After the painful blow dealt by the country’s president, Monsef Marzouki, to the government of Islamist Prime Minister Hamad Al-Jabali in response to its handling of the disturbances in Siliana province last month, the leaders of the three parties making up Tunisia’s troika government sat together for an extraordinary meeting of the Constituent Assembly on Sunday to mark International Anti-Corruption Day.

By then, the vying politicians had adjusted their tone in order to bring their comments more into line with each other, particularly since Tunisia has now dropped 16 places on the international anti-corruption index, reaching number 75.

However, a further crisis erupted between Tunisia’s main labour union, the UGTT, and the Islamist Al-Nahda Party, one of the parties in the coalition government, that deepened the atmosphere of crisis within the ruling troika.

Tensions escalated on 4 December, when activists from committees set up to protect the achievements of the 2011 revolution that had ousted former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and Al-Nahda supporters gathered in Mohamed Ali Square in the capital Tunis to demand the purging of the UGTT of members of the former regime and an end to its infiltration by what they said were far-left elements that were deliberately inciting strife in the country. 

The day also marked the anniversary of the assassination of UGTT leader Farhat Hashad on 5 December, 1952.

The protest quickly descended into violent clashes between union activists and members of the committees. Reports vary about who initiated the violence, the UGTT claiming that the activists provoked UGTT members, a version of events supported by the Tunisian Ministry of Interior.

However, committee members deny this, saying that their supporters were at the demonstration by chance, where they were attacked by union supporters. The committees demanded that the UGTT be purged of leftist infiltrators and former regime members and that all weapons should be confiscated.

Rashed Al-Ghannoushi, chair of the Al-Nahda movement, also demanded that the UGTT should be purged and eliminated from the political process.

In a third version of events made available on social-networking sites, some eye-witnesses said that the protests had been infiltrated by troublemakers who had ignited violence between the two sides.

Reactions were divided between supporters and critics on both sides, with the UGTT holding an emergency meeting that concluded by the calling of a general strike on 13 December across the country.

The union also demanded the dissolution of the revolutionary protection committees, asking the Al-Nahda Movement to join an earlier initiative, signed by all the country’s political parties apart from Al-Nahda in October, to save the country from further violence. 

The call was linked to an agreement between the UGTT and the government on 1 December to increase wages by six per cent. However, instead of calming social tensions, this agreement has itself led to higher expectations.

The call for a general strike marks a turning point in recent events and may indicate that the country is entering a deepening crisis. In particular, Al-Nahda has described the union of committing a “historic mistake” by calling for a strike that will paralyse the country, saying that it is engaged in “revenge and muscle flexing”.

 The call has triggered an online campaign on the social networks in which various people have accused the UGTT of complicity with the former regime, urging people to ignore the calls for a strike that could deal a devastating blow to the country and the revolution.

Economic analyst Ezzeddin Saadidan said the strike could cost the Tunisian economy hundreds of millions of dollars if it went ahead and that it would damage the country’s image in the eyes of investors.

There have been campaigns urging Tunisians not to go on strike, such as the demonstrations sponsored by Al-Nahda and the revolutionary committees in several cities, including Tunis, Sfax and Gafsa.

The demonstrations, notably in the southern city of Sfax, the second largest and most economically active city in Tunisia, have seen crowds numbering hundreds of thousands gathering to protest against the UGTT.

The protesters have demanded the purging of the UGTT and the advancement of a draft law that aims to protect the country’s revolution from any return of the former ruling party and raise awareness of national interests.

Demonstrators have carried banners declaring “13 December is a day of free work” and “no retreat and no freedom for the constitutional mob”.

Civil society organisations and the media have called for calm and have urged all sides to limit disputes to the political arena and not to use threats of violence to drum up support or encourage armed confrontations. 

The demonstrations have put pressure on the UGTT to cancel the strike, but Hussein Al-Abbasi, the union’s secretary-general, has not responded to persuasion, insisting that the revolutionary protection committees be dismantled and that Al-Nahda sign the October initiative.

However, there have been reports of differences within the UGTT over the strike in a challenge to Al-Abbasi’s authority.

Analysts believe the country may now be at a crossroads, since if the 13 December strike is successful, it will be a key victory for the UGTT at the expense of the government and other political players in the country. It may also lead to new outbreaks of violence.

 If on the other hand the strike fails, it could be interpreted as showing that people realise that the country cannot move more quickly towards greater prosperity, investment and the trust of economic partners.

Even if the strike takes place, it is expected that no more than 50 per cent of the workforce will support it. However, even this partial success would show that the UGTT remains a force to be reckoned with in the political and economic arena.

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