Tensions high in Tunisia’s Tataouine, Islamists skirt responsibility

The war in next-door Libya has compounded the Tunisian south’s difficulties, adversely impacting employment and trade opportunities.
Wednesday 24/06/2020
Tunisian demonstrators in Tataouine demand the release of detained protesters, June 23. (AFP)
Tunisian demonstrators in Tataouine demand the release of detained protesters, June 23. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tensions remain high in Tunisia’s deep south, three days after protesters demanding jobs and the release of an activist clashed with security forces who responded with tear gas.

For the third consecutive day on Tuesday, hundreds of protesters gathered to demonstrate in favour of the release of Tarek Haddad, a key figure in the protest movement.

Massed peacefully in front of the city’s court where police forces were deployed in large numbers, the protesters demanded the release of Haddad, who was arrested on Saturday.

According to his lawyer Abdelaziz Ayeb, Haddad is being prosecuted for “contempt of a public official in the performance of his duties,” “participation in a gathering likely to disturb the public order,” “incitement via social media networks” and “obstruction of road traffic by force.”

Haddad will appear before court on July 2, Ayeb said, adding that he has filed for release.

Soon after the violence escalated in Tataouine on Monday, Defence Ministry spokesman Mohamed Zekri announced that the deployment of the army outside state establishments aims to contain the situation.

Protesters in the region have been demanding authorities make good on a 2017 promise to provide jobs in the gas and oil sector to thousands of unemployed.

For weeks they have blocked roads and sought to prevent trucks from delivering supplies to the remote El-Kamour pumping station, but the protest had been largely peaceful.

Saied, in the Crosshairs

Earlier in January, Tunisian President Kais Saied received activists from Tataouine, where the unemployment rate is about 30%, twice the national average.

Commenting on the latest flare up of violence on Tuesday, the Tunisian president said that “the security approach is not a solution. It can trigger other protests and hot spots.”

The comments came after Saied was taken to task in Paris, where he was on a visit, by supporters of the Tunisian protesters, chanting “Tataouine, don’t give up.”

He offered to receive representatives of the demonstrators at the presidential palace upon his return, according to video released on the official Facebook page of the Tunisian Presidency.

A protester in Tataouine talks to a police officer during a demonstration for the release of detained activists. (AFP)
A protester in Tataouine talks to a police officer during a demonstration for the release of detained activists. (AFP)

“There is no garden in Tataouine,” Saied said later in an interview with France 24, calling on the young unemployed Tunisians to “present their ideas of development projects” to the state.

However, the clash that involved the Tunisian president and so-called supporters of protesters in front of the Tunisian embassy in Paris was widely blamed on the Islamist Ennahda Movement by social media users who suspect that Islamists are attempting to evade responsibility by laying blame on the president, in a new bid to embarrass him in front of the public.

Suspicions grew when the man who took Saied to task, leading the crowd in front of the Tunisian Embassy in Paris, released a video in response to those criticising his actions, saying, “I belong to Ennahda. Belonging to Ennahda is a source of pride… and an honour.”

Ennahda’s Manoeuvres

Ennahda, which led negotiations with protesters in 2017 and took credit for “resolving” the crisis, is now accused of attempting to embroil Saied and the government of Elyes Fakhfakh in the thorny file, knowing that a solution is not possible under a parliamentary system in which no political player bears direct responsibility for the unresolved social and economic files.

Last March, Ennahda, along with trade union organisations and political parties, signed a statement blaming Chahed for the current stalemate, failing to mention that it was a majority party in his government.

The move was deemed by critics at that time as an attempt by Ennahda to evade responsibility instead of working to resolve the crisis as an influential and popular political party in the south.

In mid-January, Ennahda’s leader and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi met with representatives of the sit-in, bringing the issue back to the fore.

This drew suspicions about Ennahda’s intentions as it looks to embarrass Saied, destabilise Fakhfakh’s government and bring in the Qalb Tounes party to a future coalition.

On late Tuesday, the Islamist party released a statement about the developments in Tataouine, in which it said that it is following with “great concern” the ongoing confrontation between security forces and protesters.

Ennahda also expressed “its regret” over the recent developments, condemning the use of force to disperse protesters and calling on the government to pursue dialogue as the only way to appease tensions.

Ennahda’s most recent statement, however, fails to mention the responsibility that the Islamist party, as a member of the ruling coalition, bears in the current stalemate and the failure of its representatives and political figures to forge solutions to the problem of regional disparity.

Since 2011, Ennahda has emerged as the main political player and unmatched kingmaker in the country, frequently forming, breaking and reforging alliances and coalitions in order to maximise the party’s influence in state institutions.

Unkept Promises

A special ministerial council on the situation in Tataouine will be held on Friday, according to the government.

“The protesters’ demands are legitimate… as long as they do not obstruct state institutions,” Employment Minister Fethi Belhaj said in a radio interview.

The government was committed to respecting the 2017 agreements, he added.

In 2017, protesters blockaded a gas station in El Kamour, demanding jobs in the gas and oil sector.

Three months later, the sit-in ended when then Employment Minister Imed Hammami signed a deal with representatives of the protesters.

The deal, brokered by Tunisia’s powerful labour union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), pledged to invest 80 million Tunisian dinars a year (almost $28 million) in Tataouine.

The deal also pledged to hire 1,500 locals into oil companies by the end of 2017; the recruitment of 3,000 people in public service; and the ending of prosecutions against demonstrators.

However, a number of these promises have not been kept, fuelling anger over a lingering development gap between major coastal cities and less developed interior and southern regions, from where the 2010/2011 uprising started.

None of the socioeconomic problems of underdeveloped areas have been resolved or alleviated since 2011 due to political instability and a lack of budget resources. The war in next-door Libya has compounded the Tunisian south’s difficulties, adversely impacting employment and trade opportunities.

The cash-strapped government is hard pressed to fulfil the previous government’s pledges at a time it is trying to freeze all public hiring and cut spending as it expects GNP growth this year to drop by about 7% and unemployment to soar to a national average of 21%.

On Monday, the UGTT branch in Tataouine complained that some of the government’s promises had not been kept.

In its statement, the labour union stressed that the work stoppage was meant to denounce the “excessive and unjustified use of force” against protesters.

Another statement by the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) on Wednesday called on the government to urgently start “serious” negotiations with representatives of the protest movement, “in compliance with the agreement concluded in 2017.”

The LTDH also expressed willingness to provide the necessary support to solve all pending issues, urging the current government to honour the 2017 agreement and “all agreements concluded with the social partners, including the Tunisian General Labour Union structures.”