Tunisian strike looms as rift between government and trade unions deepens

After weeks of demonstrations and clashes between protesters and police, labour leaders have called for a nationwide strike.

Tunisian Ennahda party supporters clashed with union members and demanded that cronies of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali face corruption charges.
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A bitter rift between Tunisia's Islamist-led government and its national trade union is threatening the North African country's stability and highlighting chronic problems of poverty and unemployment.

After weeks of demonstrations and clashes between protesters and police, labour leaders last week called for a nationwide strike, despite a plea by the government to the Tunisian General Labour Union to "listen to reason to spare the country tensions".

In the run-up to the strike, set for Thursday, hundreds of supporters of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which dominates the government, rallied in the streets of the capital on the weekend, clashing with union members and Tunisians disillusioned with the government's failure to provide jobs.

Almost two years since uprisings in the poorest parts of central Tunisia sparked protests that felled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the democratically-elected government that succeeded the autocrat is struggling to solve the economic problems that prompted the upheaval and has been unable to contain the roiling unrest.

The weekend clashes that rocked the capital were seen as an escalation of violent unrest that began last month with demonstrations in Siliana. This rural town of 25,000 people, south of Tunis, is far from the richer coastal areas and close in geography and circumstance to Sidi Bouzid, where riots that became 2011's Arab uprisings began with mourning for a frustrated fruit-seller who burnt himself alive.

In Siliana, thousands of people protesting the lack of jobs marched to the local governorate building on November 27, where they were met by police who fired birdshot - small lead pellets - into the crowd, wounding more than 200 people, including 20 now at risk of permanent damage to their sight, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The organisation also reported unconfirmed claims that 72 members of the security forces were injured by protesters throwing rocks.

"We asked the government to invest more and create jobs here, they answered by shooting us. It is like a war, police vehicles crossed the city while shooting at us; we are not animals," said one of the protesters, in footage shown on Tunisian television.

The incident highlights the tension between demonstrators and police, known for their brutality under Ben Ali, but also the miserable state of the economy. Analysts blame the government's lack of experience, the gravity of the problems and the readiness of the ruling coalition to become distracted by political spats.

"I think the government has made a valid effort to improve the economy, but there have been shortcomings," said William Lawrence, of the International Crisis Group. "The Arab Spring happened in Tunisia because of lack of jobs for rural and remote populations and for young people...and it happened because of corruption and nepotism."

Neither of these problems, he said, have been addressed adequately either by the government or by a plan by the World Bank, which last month announced a US$500m (Dh1.8m) loan designed to support good governance and job provision.

According to a report by the Bank issued in October, there have been some improvements in the Tunisian economy. Although it contracted by two per cent in 2011, it is predicted to recover overall this year - largely due to tourism regaining much of its momentum - and poverty levels has decreased from 32.4 per cent in 2000 to 23.3 per cent.

But these figures mask rising unemployment, which soared to 19 per cent in 2012, and is at 35 per cent among 15- to 29-year-olds, and particularly the stubborn inequality between urban and rural areas. Only about nine per cent of people in the capital are without work, according to the report, but the figure is as high as 32 per cent in parts of the central west of the country.

A sharp rise in the international prices of food and fuel have hit poorer Tunisians hard, said Lachen Achy, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, while the financial crisis in Europe, a key partner for Tunisian trade, has affected exports. But, he argued, while the margin for the government to solve the problems was limited, it could have done more.

Much of the focus of the debate among lawmakers, most of whom have never been politicians before and lived in exile or prison for years, has centred around issues such as the role of Islam in the constitution and the tensions between religious, ultra-religious and secular political factions, rather than on the economic heart of the country's problems.

"This is due to the absence of management of economic issues," Mr Achy said. "There is more focus on political issues, but not economic issues....There is no comprehensive road map on how to address regional imbalances and youth unemployment."

For years, the government has invested heavily in education, meaning that many young Tunisians have college degrees. But they often lack the skills that employers need, meaning that numbers of unemployed graduates are high.

These educated people, said Mr Lawrence, are humiliated by their unemployment and poverty and believe they are treated with contempt by the government.

"That's what the people in Siliana feel - it was the dignity revolution," he said. "They need jobs and they wanted to be treated with dignity by their government."