May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.

Secularists celebrate first victory over Islamists in student union elections

Tunisian secularists are abuzz today over the apparent landslide victory of the UGET (l’Union générale des étudiants tunisiens) over the UGTE (l’Union générale tunisienne des étudiants). These came just a week after violent clashes between Salafists and other students at Manouba University. Jeune Afrique reports:

Symbolized by the blocking of the Faculty of Arts of Manouba, but also by various violent incidents in Gabes, Sousse and Kairouan, Islamic-Salafi pressure just suffered a crushing blow.

The Agence France Presse reports:

UGET [secularist] candidates dominated the elections, which took place Thursday, collecting 250 seats out of 284 in forty institutions, according to the official website of the union.
“This is a historic victory”, said Secretary General of Uget, Alaa Zaatour, 14 Mag site.”Academic institutions with more than 4000 students voted almost unanimously for Uget,”he said.

It’s difficult to put any student union election in a broader context. These elections have not been widely followed by the Tunisian media and it is unclear the impact it might have on the direction of universities, let alone society at large.

Jeune Afrique reports on reactions from UGET members:

Ennahda has been poorly served by the support it has given to the Salafists, said Meriem Belhaj, a law student at El-Manar [University]. By not taking a position, it [Ennahhda] suggested that it approved of the violence that has taken place this academic year, which could cause the year to be cancelled; this is not the will of the majority. The students have many concerns, of course, but they are not religious in nature and, especially, do not apply to teachers. “

While many quetsions remain unanswered, there are two lessons we can draw.

First, this was the first victory by secularists since the revolution. Despite continued protests and endless commentary since the uprising last January, Tunisian secularists have been consistently beaten in the polls and at the ballot box by Islamists. In that sense, this is at the very least a moral victory for them.

Secondly, while news reports have not focused on turnout or how the elections were conducted, the UGET seemed to be able to mobilize its membership in a way that secular political parties have been unable to do. Voter mobilization was one of the keys to Ennahdha’s victory in October and has been a major stumbling block for secularists in Tunisia.


More on Labor and Employment in Tunisia

I’ve written previously about how Tunisian labor unrest is a key risk to Ennahdha (see here and here). Two stories today suggest that problem isn’t going away, with demonstrations in Sousse and the government admitting that there are too many public sector workers.

Tunisia Live reports today of a large demonstration in Tunisia’s second city, Sousse.

A demonstration in support of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) was held today in Sousse, a city located in the central-eastern coast of Tunisia. Nearly a thousand protesters were holding up signs and chanting slogans in a massive show of solidarity with the union. The protesters directed their ire against the government and particularly Ennahdha – the dominant, Islamist party in the ruling tripartite coalition.

Today’s protest was in large part a reaction to Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s recent controversial remarks on last Saturday’s UGTT-led demonstrations condemning  a series of vandalistic acts against several of its offices.

Jebali stated earlier this week that “Ben Ali militias” – eager to see the new government fail – had infiltrated last week’s protests.  According to the Prime Minister, “businessmen” from Sousse and “Ben Ali militias” had coordinated their efforts and transported supporters by bus from the coast to Tunis in order to disrupt public order.

Meanwhile, Tunisie Numerique reports the Tunisian minister for administrative reform called for transparent recruitment into the civil service, while admitting that there are too many public sector workers.

Mohamed Abou,  Minister for Administrative Reform, said that the public sector can not absorb all the 750,000 unemployed Tunisians, underlining the government’s commitment that all competitive recruitment processes transparent and neutral.

…Mohamed Abou said that 580,000 public servants work in the public sector, a number greater needs of the Tunisian administration. He said that in the future promotions will no longer be more based on political party allegiance or nepotism, but according to a new system, primarily on a competitive basis.

The article goes on to talk (obliquely) about the corruption rackets common on Tunisian work sites:

Regarding the issue of workers’ sites, the Minister stressed that while 57 000 workers was the number provided to the Department, in 2010, the actual number does not exceed 16 000 workers.

Journalist Eileen Byrne “broke” the story of these worker sites last month in an excellent article in the Guardian.

Around 18,000 people are now estimated to be registered in chantiers across the Kasserine region. They are each paid about 250 dinars ($166) a month out of public funds. Corrupt foremen handing out the wages take upwards of 50 dinars ($33) off each person, local people confirm. If the worker stays at home, the foreman may skim as much as 100 dinars ($66) off the pay packet, and he also pads out the payroll with non-existent workers.

Government recognition of these problems is one thing, but amid growing labor unrest, they may prove difficult problems to solve.

Victimization without leadership – a new paradigm

It’s been a busy two weeks in Tunisian politics. In foreign policy, Tunisia hosted the Friends of Syria summit; on the domestic front, crippling strikes set off a wave of recriminations between labor and the government, the government and journalists continued their standoff, and the Constituent Assembly began debate over the role of religion in the new constitution.

A common theme throughout these debates has been the self victimization by political parties .

Take for example the labor unrest. To hear the government say it, recent strikes by the country’s largest trade union are anarchists trying to destabilize the country (according to the foreign minister) or former regime officials trying to destabilize the country (according to the prime minister. The anthem is that the UGTT (the main union) is trying to insert itself into politics – an area it doesn’t belong. The result, according to Ennahdha supporters, is that the country is destabilized and Ennahdha can do nothing to get the economy back on track – the country is being held hostage by these corrupt, rapacious syndicates. It could not be based, as the UGTT says, on the poverty level salaries (less than 2 dollars a day) being offered for labor.

Of course, from Ennahdha’s perspective, the sabotage against their agenda is largely encouraged if not outright supported by the anti-Ennahdha press. According to the Tunisian Interior Minister, the media are largely responsible for the decline in tourism and foreign direct investment. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s president, called on the media to be more objective. To the chagrin of Tunisian journalists, Ghannouchi seems to want the media to be less critical of the government’s work. Quite a sign only one year after the end of a dictatorial regime.

Of course, Ennahdha’s not the only group claiming to be a victim. To hear it from left-wing activists, Ennahdha’s victory (which was illegimitimate) is being supported by the colonial powers, mostly the U.S. and Qatar, who very well may have been behind the so called reovlution to begin with. To many Tunisians, the uprising was merely a short period of action in between being played for pawns by the world’s powers. In other words, they got played – and the country is paying the price.

On both sides, it’s an unfortunate discourse. Victimization, a brother of conspiracy theories, absolves one of responsibilities and makes one an object of one’s circumstances, rather than a subject.

There are signs of hope. Tunisian foreign policy, as Alex Warren points out in a recent article in Foreign Policy, has been increasingly assertive. While the Friends of Syria conference and President Moncef Marzouki’s efforts to revive the Arab Maghreb Union have been derided by many in Tunisia, they do show signs of leadership and a willingness to take risks. So far, however, the winning hand seems to go to the victims.


Is Tunisia labor unrest a threat?

[Today’s article is a follow up to last week’s piece: Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken]

Tunisian labor unrest continues to tear at Tunisia’s new social compact with municipal workers staging a four day strike. This week’s strike, called by Tunisia’s largest union, the Union Generale de Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), has already caused significant service disruptions for Tunisians. In particular, garbage collection has been suspended, leading to very messy (and stinky) streets.

This week’s events occur just days after a major disruption at one of Tunisia’s largest employers, Leoni, which shut down briefly over ongoing labor disruptions. Battle lines seem to have been drawn between the ruling party, Ennahdha, and the powerful Tunisian unions.

Tunisia Live reported yesterday  that UGTT offices had been targeted for vandalism, and one office was ransacked and burned in restive Kesserine. Tunisian blogger Mohammed Ali Charmi  reports: “The Echab (people) newspaper, voice of the UGTT, announced in its page in facebook that syndicalist militants arrested three militiaman who tried to attack UGTT office in Manouba in the west of the capital Tunis.”

Tunisia Live goes on to say that “Shems FM quoted Sami Tahri, a spokesperson for the UGTT, as saying “this is a political act, well organized by the Ennahda movement.”

While the retraction of inflammatory statements like Mr. Tahri’s seems to be commonplace in post-revolutionary Tunisia, his remarks point to a more open battle between labor and the new government. Ennahdha has frequently cited strikes and sit-ins as a principal reason for job losses since the revolution. According to Ennahdha spokeman, Samir Dilou:

les perturbations ont occasionné, depuis la révolution, des pertes de l’ordre de 2,5 milliards de dinars, ce qui aurait permis de créer 80 mille emplois.


[labor] disruptions since the revolution have caused losses in the range of 2.5 billion dinars ($1.66 billion USD), which would have allowed the creation of 80,000 jobs.

The party has two principal goals in bringing labor unrest under control. The first is their goal of kick-starting the economy through new investment, something which depends heavily on the stability of the labor market. The second goal is to show Tunisians that they are capable of governing. Had the Leoni factory ceased operations last week, it would have been a major blow to the former. The strike of municipal workers threatens the latter.

Charmi sees the threat of conflict between unionists and Ennahdha as an existential threat:

In absence of serious opposition to Nahda and his intention to include Islamic laws in the constitution, many Tunisians see the UGTT as an alternative opposition especially with its capacity to mobilize the Tunisian street. Note that UGTT played an important role the Ben Ali regime fall in January 14th after in successful general strike in different cities. It participated also a movement of protestation that pushed Mohamed Ghanouchi government to resign and lead to the constitutional elections that brought Nahda to power in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s secular elites have largely focused on issues that, while important, are not bread and butter issues (freedom of speech, women’s rights, censorship). Tunisia’s unions, however, have the ability to mobilize massive numbers of Tunisians. As of last year, the UGTT had a membership of over 500,000 workers, making it a formidable force in Tunisian politics.

While it has historically aligned with the ruling party (to the detriment of its workers), its statements this week show that it is showing its independence. And why not? Its membership demands it. A municipal garbage worker brings home 120 dinars per month (less than $80, or about $2.5 per day). Many workers are dismayed that the party that says it represents all Tunisians, especially the poorer class, seems to be ignoring substandard working conditions and pay.

Ennahdha has been the beneficiary so far of working class support. But as it is forced to take a stand on policy more and more, it risks alienating its constituencies. One can already see support for Ennahdha peeling off toward more conservative Islamist groups. It will need to tread carefully on the issue of workers rights – it may very well be its Achilles heal.

Decried by activists, Tunisian PM’s speech spurs parties to action

I wrote yesterday about the continuing disorder and violence in Tunisia over the weekend, provoked by activists attempting to reoccupy the Kasbah on Friday. The Tunisian Prime Minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi, responded to this violence in a speech on Monday that upset activists and placed the blame squarely on extremist political parties.

Essebsi had three goals in his speech, by most accounts he has succeeded on two of them, and the third is uncertain.

First, Essebsi wanted to create a cleavage between those who are mostly concerned with preserving the goals of the revolution and those that want to move on to the elections and getting the country back to work. Polls show that the vast majority of Tunisians are glad to have overthrown the regime, but they want to move on and the top priority should be jobs, security, and the economy. However, many activists have been upset at the slow pace of reforms, in particular in the security apparatus and over the weekend, attacks on journalists. Apart from the twittersphere, Essebsi wins this point easily with the masses.

Second, he wanted to bring legitimate political parties back to the table at the transitional commission (la Haute Instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution) in order to set the stage for the political campaigns and the elections. In tandem, he tried to exclude political parties that disrupt the process and call into question the legitimacy of the commission’s work. The latter point was aimed at Ennahda and other political parties who had recently withdrawn from the commission in an attempt to increase their representation.

The response today has been swift from all sides. Ennahda immediately held a press conference in which they lined up with the PM’s ideas about avoiding violence at all costs and making sure that Tunisia stayed on track for a peaceful and fair election. The main trade union (UGTT) also voiced its support for unity and non-violence. Meanwhile, the centrist party Afek Tunis smelled blood and subtly called out Ennahda and the far left parties for their lack of respect for the transitional commission and the trade unions and aligned parties for the continued sit-ins in the country.

Essebsi raised the stakes for those parties who could benefit by saying that on one hand they wanted the transition to go well, but on the other did not want to participate in the agreed upon forum in which to participate. With over 60 percent of Tunisians not having made up their minds on who to vote, this is another win for Essebsi among all except the partisans.

Finally, he wanted to prepare voters for a potentially tumultuous run-up to the October 23 elections by essentially telling them to stay the course, ignore the extremists, and let the police do their work. The question is how long Tunisians will accept the  economic and security situation.

The speech was well-timed and spoke over the cacophony of the political chattering classes. For the time being, he seems to have reached the Tunisian people and garnered support for the transitional process at its most needed time, and he has brought the political parties with him. The risk, as I mentioned yesterday, is that if at some point there is a true split between the government and centrist parties on one side, and Ennahda and perhaps the far left on the other, there could be an added destabilization of the political process leading to further unrest in the country. Furthermore, while his call for calm has been accepted by all sides, one minor event could set things back considerably. Only time will tell.