Tunisia: economic pressures threaten the regime‘s survival

A general strike will take place on Thursday, December 13, across Tunisia, a rare call, actually the third to be made by the powerful UGTT since its foundation in 1946.

Recent protest in the town of Siliana has destabilized the government and triggered a nationwide criticism of the performance of the new rulers - the brutality of the police was the only immediate answer to the grievances of the protestors. As many as 200 demonstrators were injured at the hands of the police during protests held last week over poor living conditions in Siliana which is about 120km (75 miles) south of Tunis. The UGTT (the General Union of Tunisian Workers) Tunisia's main labour union, which has a membership of 500,000, led the protest in the impoverished town of Siliana.  The police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot to disperse the angry protestors, shaking the faith of some Tunisians in the government’s genuine commitment to a rupture with Tunisia’s brutal past. 

Pro government groups clashed with the labour union leaders in retaliation for the latter‘s backing of riots and strikes in the interior regions, on the day of the annual commemoration of the assassination of Farhat Hachad, founder of the (UGTT) Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail.  The UGTT ‘main union headquarters in the capital were targeted by an angry mob calling for “the cleansing” of the Union from the corrupt figures. "UGTT, you are thieves, you want to destroy the country," the protestors chanted.  On the other hand, hundreds of labour Union adherents chanted slogans calling for the downfall of the government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party.

This clash echoed the May Day demonstration that took place in Habib Bouguiba avenue, a symbol of the revolution, when the Ennahda supporters chanted “with our soul and blood we will defend you, our government” and opposing demonstrators chanted slogans and held banners which reminded the government of the core demands of the revolution, “bread, freedom and social dignity”. The only difference between the two dates is that the May disagreement was bloodless. The colours red and white, symbols of the Tunisian flag embellished the streets of downtown.  A few days ago, the disagreement between the two camps turned violent and The UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) has now decided that a general strike will take place on Thursday, December 13, across Tunisia, a rare call, actually the third to be made by the powerful UGTT since its foundation in 1946.

The discontent with the poor regional development programmes surfaced in several Tunisian towns before exploding in Siliana. A few months ago the town of Sidi Bouzid went on strike to denounce the incompetence of the local governor and the arrest of protesters demanding the improvement of their economic conditions.  Disenchantment over the slow pace of progress is a common thread that weaves through this transition period in Tunisia. The inability of the troika government to restore security and deal with such crises has further complicated the situation.

In the opinion of some government supporters, targeting the leaders of the UGTT and intimidating them will mute protests against the authorities. Ironically, they have miscalculated the consequences of such a "show of strength" and regional calls for protests on Thursday in the town of Sidi Bouzid(where the wave of protests started 2 years ago, Sfax (the capital of the South) and Gafsa have since received a huge support from the people of those regions. The success of the general strike called for next Thursday will be very telling: it may very well be considerable.

The event will take place at a time of deep disillusionment among the Tunisian people with those they entrusted and voted for in the elections. Will the position of those who govern us be intact after the strike? The president Moncef Marzouki seems to be favouring a cabinet reshuffle in response, whereas the Prime Minister is reluctant to make any concessions to the widespread anger in the Tunisian streets. At the very least, the general strike will be a wakeup call for the government and a reminder that the people have their own demands, demands which have been called for repeatedly.

About the author

Meriem Dhaouadi is a youth activist working to promote civil and human rights in Tunisia.

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