Relief as Tunisia strike ends peacefully, dispels spectre of decades past

Much of the credit for the peaceful nature of the 2019 strike went to the changed behaviour of army and police and the new security doctrine they have adopted.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Peaceful protest. A Tunisian woman shouts slogans in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labour Union as part of a general strike, January 17.      (DPA)
Peaceful protest. A Tunisian woman shouts slogans in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian General Labour Union as part of a general strike, January 17. (DPA)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s political elites expressed relief after a nationwide strike over wage raises ended without violence. Although the 1-day work stoppage paralysed the country, its peaceful outcome quelled fears of upheaval voiced by many Tunisians, including Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

The fears stemmed from a general strike 41 years ago that resulted in bloodshed and plunged the country into a political crisis.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which has more than 500,000 members, called a strike for January 17 to protest economic conditions. It said it had near 100% participation in the work action.

“Thank God. We lived long enough to experience a democratic regime in which a civilised and peaceful general strike occurs without chaos, bloodshed, torture, imprisonment and other torments suffered by Tunisians during the Black Thursday of January 26, 1978,” said parliament member Sahbi Ben Fredj, a leading figure in the group supporting Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

The strike showed deep changes in Tunisian society and government, including the behaviour of its once-feared security apparatus four decades ago.

In 1976, “protesters erected barricades as they were attacked from unmarked police cars. I was a witness,” recalled Salah Horchani, who was then a university student. The official toll was 46 dead and 325 wounded. Independent estimates put the number of those killed at more than 400.

At that time, President Habib Bourguiba saw an existential challenge to his rule by UGTT leader Habib Achour. Many union leaders were jailed amid the crackdown.

The night before the latest action, Chahed said there was a “constitutional right” to strike and such a move was a normal event in a democracy. He said he looked forward to the resumption of dialogue with the union after the strike.

UGTT negotiators had sought pay raises of as much as $90 a month for civil servants and the government had offered increases of about $60 a month. Reining in civil servants’ pay is key demand of international lenders to get Tunisian economic problems under control.

Much of the credit for the peaceful nature of the 2019 strike went to the changed behaviour of army and police and the new security doctrine they have adopted.

After the strike, Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Fourati exhorted security forces “to safeguard the trust that has been built on the security establishment as a force dedicated to serving the citizens and the nation.”

Commentators said the alarm raised about risks inherent in the strike was politically motived. Political analyst Zied Krichene argued that “some people wanted to exploit the current crisis and create a mood of fear among citizens.”

Other experts said wariness about unrest is a legitimate concern, considering social tensions connected with high unemployment and deteriorating standard of living of the poor and middle classes.

Such concerns are likely to endure with the trade unions promising an “escalation” of protest initiatives, including a new public service strike on February 20-21, while the government struggles to create economic growth and balance the budget.

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