Supporters of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party yesterday violently attacked a protest by the country’s main labor federation, AFP reports:
Several dozen assailants assaulted members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) who were gathered outside the union’s headquarters in Tunis to mark the 60th anniversary of the assassination of its founder, Farhat Hached. The UGTT’s secretary general, said Houcine Abassi, blamed the “enemies of democracy” for Tuesday’s violence, and denounced what he said was an unprecedented attack against his organization.
“They want to assassinate the UGTT on the day that it commemorates the assassination of Hached, who sacrificed his life for his people and his country,” Abassi told private radio station Shems FM. He said such an attack had never been witnessed before, “neither during the time of (Tunisia’s first president Habib) Bourguiba, nor of Ben Ali.”
“The Islamists, thought to belong to the League for Protection of the Revolution, blamed union leaders for inciting anti-government unrest,” the BBC reports. Carrying banners, the Islamists chanted, “UGTT, you are thieves, you want to destroy the country”.
Analysts and democracy advocates say the Islamists are exposing an inherent authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent.
“This is a message from Ennahda to stop union activism. It’s the same method used by Ben Ali,” said UGTT figure Fethi Debek. The union has called a general strike for December 13 to protest the attacks, says the Solidarity Center,* the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
In a series of protests across Tunisia’s interior, demonstrators have called for the ouster of the Ennahda-majority coalition, echoing the revolt that ignited the Arab Spring two years ago.
The labor movement “has emerged as the main bulwark to Ennahda,” says David Ottaway, a scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center.
“The UGTT has a long history of confrontations and general strikes, and both Bourguiba and Ben Ali had showdowns requiring takeovers of its leadership,” he wrote in a recent paper. “Ennahda is not yet in a position to do this, while the union, with an extremely militant base, has been more assertive and demanding.”
President Moncef Marzouki last week acknowledged that the government had not “met the expectations of the people,” expressing concern that growing unrest could derail the country’s democratic transition.
“Tunisia today is at a crossroads,” he said. “Tunisia today has an opportunity that it must not miss to be a model because the world is watching us, and we mustn’t disappoint.”
The UGTT was instrumental in pacifying, politicizing and spreading the initially violent protests that followed the self-immolation of street vendor Muhamed Bouazizi in the interior town of Sidi Bouzid, the catalyst for the subsequent wave of unrest.
The country’s labor unions “played a critical role in sustaining the uprising and expanding it beyond the remote regions,” according to political scientist Amr Hamzawy.
Ennahda views the labor movement as a bastion of secularism with a nationwide network which enjoys a degree of popular support and legitimacy to that of the Islamists, analysts suggest.
“The tension is all the greater because the UGTT is taking the place of the opposition political parties, which are incapable of fulfilling their proper role,” says Hèla Yousfi, a senior lecturer at Paris Dauphine University.
The union has adopted a formal position to stand “alongside civil society and the Tunisian people in all their diversity, to defend not only the working masses but, above all, the republic and its institutions,” she writes, noting that it often prioritizes political issues above narrow economistic demands.
“The actions called by the UGTT to defend individual liberties and denounce the violence of small Salafist groups or the police occasionally take precedence over strikes and demonstrations over pay and conditions. The UGTT’s leaders systematically point out the historic legitimacy of their organization and warn that, in a crisis, they will not hesitate to assume a political role.”
There is evidence that organized labor “actually enjoys greater popularity than Ennahda,” writes analyst Joseph Braude:
Claiming a membership base of 850,000, its credibility with the population was born of history: it was a key base of resistance to French rule, which led to independence for the country in 1956. Since then, it has shared the challenge of unions elsewhere to aid its constituents without incurring the wrath of a dictator and his friends. But that influence has not yet translated into political power. In last year’s parliamentary elections, the UGTT made the fateful decision not to create its own party. ….Even so, labor candidates collectively won more seats than Ennahda, though not enough to block its governing coalition.
Labor’s emergence as a democratizing force goes against the grain in a region where union federations have historically been controlled by the state or ruling party, akin to communist-style “transmission belt” unions.
One of the principal reasons Tunisia is widely considered ripe for a more inclusive political system is “the existence of strong trade unions throughout the country,” said Nabila Hamza, president of the Amman-based Foundation for the Future, which promotes democratic reform across the Arab world.
“In a wider context, the regular attacks on the UGTT and the different social movements raise the question of the political elite’s attitude to Tunisia’s economic and social problems. This elite tends to label protest movements as criminal and has difficulty in focusing on economic and social issues, writes Yousfi, author of L’UGTT au cœur de la révolution tunisienne (The UGTT’s role at the heart of the Tunisian revolution, forthcoming January 2013):
The UGTT, as a force for national stability and a refuge for social movements (as its members like to call it), may, with luck, manage to set aside short-term political considerations and articulate the Tunisian people’s political demands in the form of a real economic and social project — one worthy of a revolution whose slogan was “Work, Freedom, National Dignity”. RTWT
*The Solidarity Center is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.