The role of labor unions is one of the most striking aspects of the dramatic wave of protests in Tunisia, writes Christopher Alexander, author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.
“The government worked very hard, and with great success, to domesticate the Tunisian General Labor Union,” the country’s sole union confederation, he writes. But “activists in some unions have succeeded in taking a more independent and confrontational stance.”
Liberal opposition groups in Arab states have often been criticized for their elitist preoccupation with individual rights or constitutional issues, neglecting the socio-economic grievances of ordinary citizens.
In Egypt, the upsurge in labor militancy and emergence of independent unions is a particular threat to the regime as it represents the potential for the democratic opposition to integrate the political/constitutional priorities of metropolitan dissidents with the socio-economic demands of the majority of poor or marginalized Egyptians.
The unions’ involvement in the Tunisian protests, alongside human rights groups, journalists, lawyers, and opposition parties, means that “a broad coalition of civil society organizations has connected bread-and-butter employment grievances with fundamental human rights and rule of law concerns,” Alexander notes.
A coalition of labor and human rights groups from the Middle East- North Africa region, including grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, has expressed “deep concern over excessive use of force” against peaceful protesters by the Tunisian authorities.