Tension on the rise in Tunisia - GulfToday

Tension on the rise in Tunisia

Demonstrators carry banners and flags during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia. Reuters

Demonstrators carry banners and flags during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia. Reuters

President Kais Saied, a professor of constitutional law, who was elected on a popular vote, took drastic action when Tunisia was on the brink of economic collapse last year, dismissed the parliament, did away with the Supreme Judicial Council, and also dismissed 57 judges, blaming them for supporting corruption and terrorists.

He is planning to introduce a new constitution, whose draft will be submitted on Monday, and the referendum on the constitution is to be held on July 25.

Meanwhile, every one of the influential segments – the political parties, the trades union and the judges has taken to the streets. The judges have been on a strike for the last two weeks and extended it for a third week.

The Judges’ Association called it a politically motivated by the president. “The judges decided unanimously to extend the strike for a third week…to hold a day of rage in which the judges will protest in the streets in their uniforms,” said Mourad Massoudi, head of the Young Judges’ Association.

The opposition also disapproves the president’s appointment of a new election commission. Free Constitutional Party, led by Abir Moussi, helped a massive march in the capital, Tunis. Moussi said, “Tunisians are starving, public finances are collapsing, but Saied does not care…He only focuses on a personal project to impose his constitution…we will not accept that.”

There was another major protest march on Sunday, by other political parties led by the coalition, Salvation Front, including Ennahda Islamist Party.

Tunisia’s largest trade union, representing public sector workers, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) held a massive strike on Thursday, in which three million workers participated.

The union is opposing the wage free and the cut in subsidies as part of a $4 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The workers are opposed to it. Saied cannot ignore the UGTT because the IMF has made it conditional for the loan talks.

The UGTT has been supportive of Saied, but it seems to be getting disillusioned. Unlike other political opponents of the president, the trade union is willing to talk with him. “We are still trying to find a compromise with the government,” Hedia Arfoui, deputy secretary-general of UGTT dealing with external relations, said.

“The government went ahead with its reform plan without consulting the UGTT while we have social and economic questions that need to be addressed,” said Mongi Merzui, secretary general of the union at the National Office of Sanitation. “We had no choice but to strike. We don’t have people with authority within the cabinet who can negotiate, and the president doesn’t listen to anyone.”

Saied launched a national dialogue excluding his political opponents. The UGTT refused to participate in it. “We refused to take part in the dialogue because we don’t see it as a solution for Tunisia,” said Noureddine Taboubi, secretary-general of UGTT.

The unemployment rate in Tunisia is at 18 per cent and inflation rate is at 7.8 per cent. Saied is in a difficult position. He cannot oblige the IMF by implementing all their conditionalities without alienating the powerful trade union. The IMF of course has a standard bailout programme of privatizing public sector, of reducing the wage and subsidy bill.

In a developing economy like that of Tunisia with a large chunk of people living on subsistence wages, it would make things difficult for people to accept wage cuts and job losses. What the IMF ignores is the fact that privatization does not turn around the loss-making public sector enterprises into profit-making ventures overnight. And the private sector is not keen, and also not able, to create jobs. Saied cannot hope to solve the economic paradox by concentrating power in his hands.

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