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Saied's regime will certainly face unprecedented pressures as a result of the coinciding revolts by the political opposition.
This article was translated from Arabic.
Trade unions and the political opposition challenge the Tunisian government
The secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union, Noureddine Taboubi, has warned of an impending “great social flood” with unforeseeable ramifications as union leaders’ criticism of the Tunisian government and its president, Kais Saied, continues to mount.
In yet another stern speech, Taboubi vowed that the federation will organize massive protests to “occupy the streets” and protect the rights of the people.
Simultaneous political and union tensions
Taboubi’s statements are but a sample of the general stance taken by the trade union, which recently began to denounce economic policies adopted by the Tunisian government in a bid to secure a new financial rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Tunisia boasts an effective and influential trade union movement, including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the most prominent of the Tunisian general trade unions. With more than a million members, it is capable of paralyzing the state and economic activity by no more than staging a strike.
Furthermore, the UGTT has abandoned its prior conciliatory strategy in favor of a stronger rhetorical approach toward the government, ruling out any economic remedies until political concerns are resolved.
This position calls for the government to change its approach of forging ahead and taking unplanned risks.
The Union is expressing its stance against Saied and his monopoly by rejecting his use of intimidation and power politics.
In parallel to these developments, the regime is facing increasing political pressure from the opposition, which is well aware of the very low turnout of around 11.22 per cent witnessed in December’s parliamentary elections.
For the opposition, this low percentage illustrates the regime’s failure to increase its popularity after all major opposition forces called for a boycott of the elections.
In light of the low popular turnout in the vote, political opposition figures began calling for Saied’s ouster and the establishment of a democratic process that would restore constitutional institutions.
The IMF program and the trade union uprising
When Saied came to power in October 2019, the UGTT worked to avoid a direct clash with the new president in order to wrest some Union gains.
In fact the UGTT has been accused of implicitly supporting the July 25, 2021, coup, although it attempted to distance itself from the government by criticizing its policies and organizing sectoral strikes.
However, tensions between the various union factions and the president of Tunisia quickly developed over the last few months of 2022, resulting in a worrisome upheaval in recent days that raises the possibility of a future confrontation between the two sides.
The simplest way to comprehend the causes of this uprising is to examine recent discouraging developments for the federation, which had previously relied on coming to an agreement with Saied.
Tunisia struck an agreement with the IMF in mid-October 2022 to receive a new $1.9 billion loan in exchange for implementing a set of changes sought by the Fund.
These reforms include some onerous social reforms including reining in government spending, lowering the pay scale for public employees, and broadening the tax base. In other words, the fund is requesting a tax source rise as well as the implementation of an austerity program.
The Tunisian government is undoubtedly aware that this understanding will come at a cost of greater popular and trade union resentment. However, it also acknowledges that its options on the economic level are limited in light of the stifling financial crisis the country has been witnessing since late 2019 as a consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic and the global rise in commodity prices.
In addition, these financial difficulties were exacerbated in 2022 due to the repercussions of the war in Ukraine and the ensuing increase in the food and oil import bill.
For the government, the agreement with the IMF and commitment to its reforms affords it a “certificate of good behavior,” allowing it to continue borrowing from global markets and receiving aid packages.
Countries like Japan, France, Germany, and Britain have supported the Tunisian government in negotiations with the IMF. Their support is built on the premise that once Tunisia enter the IMF program loans and investment projects from said countries would be unlocked, yielding benefits.
In accordance with the terms of the agreement with the IMF, the Tunisian government must accept the financial measures outlined in the 2023 budget in order to enroll in the loan program. This budget anticipates a decrease in the deficit to 5.2 per cent of GDP in 2023 from 7.7 per cent of GDP in 2022.
In a bid to reduce the deficit to such an extent, the budget will impose increases in the value-added tax to range from 13 per cent to 19 per cent. Harsh additional fines of up to 20 per cent will also be imposed on some transfers and cash payments whose value exceeds 5,000 dinars.
As a consequence, the tax burden is anticipated to increase to 18% of GDP in the upcoming year from 15 per cent in 2022 and 12 per cent in 2021. Additionally, the government enacted a number of fiscal measures that support this course, including plans to increase potable water bills in 2022 and fuel prices in 2023.
The recent steps of the Tunisian government sparked outrage from sizable groups of the nation’s workers and independent contractors who are now feeling the impact of these policies. This clarifies the unions’ stance, forged in the wake of economic crisis caused by the regime’s poor financial management.
Political uprising following the parliamentary elections
The vast majority of Tunisian parties called for boycotting the vote after the date of the most recent parliamentary elections was made public in an effort to reduce turnout and quash the process.
The Ennahda party, which gained the most parliamentary seats in the 2019 election, was one of the factions who called for a boycott of the vote. The Workers and the Free Constitutional Party, the parties of the National Salvation Front, and the Liberal Heart of Tunisia party, which won the second-largest parliamentary bloc behind Ennahda in the 2019 elections, all followed suit.
These parties believe that Saied’s constitutional changes have stripped parliament of the majority of its authority, relegating it to the role of a powerless bystander, in favor of the president.
These amendments aim to marginalize large political parties while strengthening independent candidates, making it easier for the regime to control the new Parliament in the absence of large parliamentary blocs.
The political parties deemed these elections as just another step in a coup that Saied set in motion in July 25, 2021, when he suspended the work of the preceding Parliament and dismissed the prime minister, citing the emergency powers stipulated in the Tunisian constitution.
Previous exceptional measures carried out by Saied also included issuing a set of decrees, signed solely by the president, which organized a referendum on constitutional amendments that expand his powers, as well as dissolving the Supreme Judicial Council.
The large parties’ resulting massive campaign to boycott the vote left the regime unable to mobilize more than 11.22 per cent of voters to participate in the elections. This represented a blow to the credibility of the elections before both the international community and Tunisian public opinion.
The opposition therefore considered Saied as having had lost his legitimacy as a result, and felt it had managed – for the first time – to contain the coup at the popular level.
In the wake of these developments, the opposition began capitalizing on the election results by calling for Saied’s ouster, and wanting him tried for numerous violations since July 25, 2021.
To strengthen its position, the opposition began to search for political common ground with the UGTT in an attempt to benefit from the Union’s sharp stances against the government and its willingness to protest against its policies.
Tunisia is clearly heading toward a pointed confrontation between the regime and the political opposition. The trade union, meanwhile, despite its harsh rhetoric against the president, seems keen to build a space of its own to avoid being drawn into the feud between the government and its opponents.
In this context, the UGTT is looking to address the crisis by leading consultations with civil society groups, such as the Tunisian Order of Lawyers and the Tunisian League for Human Rights, to formulate a joint rescue initiative on whose basis negotiations could be concluded with the regime.
However, regardless of the outcome of this initiative, Saied’s regime will certainly face exceptional and unprecedented pressures as a result of the coinciding revolts by the political opposition. These pressures may put an end to the president’s monopoly on power that has been in place since July 2021.