On Monday, Noureddine Taboubi, the head of Tunisia’s most powerful trade union, the UGTT, went to Carthage Palace, where President Kais Saied resides, with a proposal to help bring an end to a series of protests and labour strikes that have rocked the country in recent weeks. The proposal was gloomily titled: “A delicate and ominous situation posing grave dangers to the state and the nation”.
Since November, judges, doctors, engineers, taxi drivers and journalists, among others, have launched industrial action, citing a host of grievances. Protesters have conducted sit-ins at industrial sites for oil and phosphate, two resources critical to the economy, and halted production.
Mr Taboubi explained to Mr Saied that Tunisia needs a “committee of elders” made up of men and women of national repute who could coax the country’s fractured political parties towards conciliatory dialogue. Only then, according to Mr Taboubi, could faith in Tunisia’s political system be restored and its economy be brought back from the brink of disaster.
Whatever the efficacy of Mr Taboubi’s plan, few doubt the situation is dire. Last month, Tunisia’s central bank governor, Marwan Al Abbassi, told Parliament that he expects a contraction in GDP of up to eight per cent this year – the largest in the country’s 62-year history. Much of that will be the result of the ravaging of SMEs and the tourism sector by the coronavirus pandemic. But things were bad even before that. Unemployment is nearly 20 per cent.
All of this poses a problem for Tunisia’s recently formed technocratic government, led by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, a long-time ally of Mr Saied. Mr Mechichi was appointed by the president in the autumn in an effort to depoliticise a government torn apart by partisan polarisation. He is also expected to revive Tunisia’s case for assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Talks between the IMF and the previous government collapsed in July.
Fitch, the global ratings agency, revised Tunisia’s economic outlook from “stable” to “negative” at the end of November. It cited “a fragmented political landscape and entrenched social tensions” as obstacles to much-needed economic reform. It is understood that the renewal of discussions with the IMF hinge in part on the government securing an endorsement of those reforms from labour unions – namely, the UGTT. Mr Taboubi’s visit to the Carthage Palace is a part of that process.
Mr Saied’s response to Mr Taboubi’s proposal was lukewarm. Cryptically, the office of the President issued a statement shortly afterwards stipulating that “there can be no dialogue involving the corrupt”. Mr Saied has built his entire presidency around rooting out corruption. But that, too, is a difficult challenge, created largely by the Islamist Ennahda party. Although Ennahda’s influence has waned in recent elections, it remains considerable enough that it is difficult to see a genuine national dialogue taking shape without its participation.
Mr Saied’s distance from Ennahda, and the ostensibly apolitical nature of his office, is the reason the UGTT approached him with the proposal in the first place. Mr Taboubi’s justification for hand-delivering the proposal to the Carthage Palace was that he wanted to be sure it got to “the right address”.
The UGTT has played a key role in national dialogue before. In 2015, it was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for doing just that in the aftermath of the country’s mass uprising exactly 10 years ago. Thus far, however, Mr Saied’s cold response signals that a different approach might be in store. The government appears to lean towards dispatching law enforcement against protesters.
The uprisings of a decade ago were brought about by the plight of Tunisia’s working class. One of the lessons learned from that experience was that if workers have something to say, the government in Tunis perhaps ought to listen.