Tunisia: another Egypt?

Away from the continuing drama in Egypt, Tunisia's Islamist-led government is also in trouble. In many ways the developing conflict in Tunisia is similar to that of Egypt: protests have broken out against a government which seems more interested in pursuing its religious agenda than solving the country's problems – and a government which is beginning to display some of the high-handed arrogance that characterised the previous regime.

Towards the end of last month, trouble broke out in Siliana, an obscure and economically marginalised town 90 miles from the capital. Stone-throwing youths clashed with riot police who hit back with teargas and birdshot. More than 250 people were reportedly injured – 17 of them blinded by birdshot. The initial battles lasted for five days (see reports by Reuters and AFP).

The protesters were demanding jobs and removal of the local governor appointed by Ennahda, the Islamist party that won the largest bloc of seats in last year's parliamentary election, but they also reflect a more generalised disaffection with the government. A wave of strikes has also hit Kasserine, Gafsa and Sfax.

"The government is reproducing the behaviour of Ben Ali's regime," Iyad Dahmani from the centre-left Republican Party told Reuters.

"It's an arrogant government that thinks its election victory means it can use tear gas and birdshot on people instead of giving them jobs and investment."

Reuters continues:

One protester, a teacher who did not wish to be named, said she had voted for Ennahda last year but felt the Islamists had let people down.

"This is the paradise of Ennahda that we elected," she said, grasping an empty tear gas canister. "This is what Ennahda has to offer us. We won't make this mistake again."

Meanwhile, Ennahda doesn't seem to have learned much from the mistakes of the Ben Ali regime. Although it "temporarily" removed the governor of Siliana, it has been generally dismissive of the protesters, accusing them of driving away investment and showing little interest in their demands for jobs.

Tunisia's main trade union, the UGTT, has now called a one-day general strike for 13 December – a move which Rashid Ghannouchi, Ennahda's leader, denounced as purely political and not based on social aims. Some of Annahda's supporters have been more conciliatory, saying they "respect" the UGTT's decision to hold a strike even though they disagree with it.

On Saturday, pro-government demonstrators took to the streets, opposing the UGTT's strike call, and various religious figures have weighed in too. One of them, a hardline cleric called Basheer Bin Husein said the strikes were not permissible because they would harm the economy and the society. 

He told al-Arabiya his ruling was based on the Quran and the prophet's teachings. If he were a business owner, he added, he would dismiss any employee who went on strike.

Tunisia, like Egypt, has a long history of labour activism which Ennahda can ill afford to ignore. Last Wednesday was exactly 60 years since Farhat Hached, regarded as the father of Tunisian trade unionism, was assassinated by agents of French colonialism. 

Recalling Hached's legacy in an article for Open Democracy last week, Rob Prince wrote that the recent outburst in Siliana was much more than an expression of anger and frustration:

"It was a reminder that massive youth unemployment, low wages combined with classic 'structural adjustment take-ways' were among the key contributing factors to the revolt which brought down Ben Ali ...

"It was a protest against the government’s dilly-dallying, its fixation with shifting Tunisian society in a more religious direction while coming up empty (or almost so) in efforts to address the country’s appalling poverty and unemployment. 

"It was a protest against the social polarisation between rich and poor, between the urban centres and the more rural areas, which again has hardly been addressed since Ben Ali fled the country ...

"Siliana was a warning to the transition government – nothing less: get serious about dealing with the country’s genuine problems, or face the consequences ..."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 December 2012.