Tensions rise as leftists call for Tunisian government’s ouster

The political climate of Tunisia is increasingly reminiscent of the 2013 polarisation between secularists and Islamists.
Thursday 07/02/2019
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) and Prime Minsiter Youssef Chahed attend a swearing-in ceremony of new ministers at the Carthge Palace in the capital Tunis on November 14, 2018. (AFP)
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) and Prime Minsiter Youssef Chahed attend a swearing-in ceremony of new ministers at the Carthge Palace in the capital Tunis on November 14, 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s leftist Popular Front party called for the ouster of the government, increasing pressure on embattled Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed ahead of elections late this year.

“Ongoing developments… in Tunisia underscore that the current cabinet is one of the most dangerous governments since the fall of the dictatorship (in 2011),” said a Popular Front statement, which criticised Chahed for his alliance with the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

Tunisia could face “collapse” unless the “Chahed-Ennahda government” is forced out of office, added the statement read out February 4 by party spokesman Hamma Hammami.

“The Popular Front calls on Tunisians in their various classes and social quarters who are suffering from the current crisis and all democratic forces with all their political parties, national organisations, civic and societal movements as well as protest groups to agree on a minimum common denominator action plan to impose the resignation of the current government and its replacement by another one,” the statement added.

Chahed has been embroiled in a dispute with the country’s leading Nidaa Tounes party, which was founded by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Last year, Nidaa Tounes tried to remove Chahed as head of government but did not have enough support in parliament to push him out. Chahed, a former member of Nidaa, relies on parliamentary backing from Ennahda to stay in power.

The split intensified divisions in Tunisia’s secularist camp, fuelling concern among anti-Islamists that Ennahda could emerge victorious in November’s parliamentary elections.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and his allies have moved closer to the Popular Front, a coalition of 14 leftist and pan-Arab nationalist groups with ties to the country’s trade unions and civil society organisations.

Hammami said street protests were planned to “force this government out of office.”

The demonstrations are likely to be tied to general strike planned for February 21-22 by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), a strong ally of the Popular Front. Some 700,000 employees of state-owned enterprises and civil servants are expected to take part in the strike.

Last January, the UGTT called a civil service general strike to protest economic conditions.

The walkout this month is intended to force the government to agree to wage increases. UGTT negotiators sought raises of as much as $90 a month for civil servants but the government countered with an offer of $60 a month, citing problems large wage increases could cause the overall Tunisian economy.

Reining in Tunisia’s public sector wage bill is a key demand by international lenders to address the country’s increasing foreign debt.

The Popular Front’s protests, which are likely to be supported by Nidaa Tounes, recalls a similar political confrontation in 2013 when secularists took to the streets and besieged parliament to protest the Ennahda-led government.

With protests regarding the killing of leftist opposition figures Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid and demands for transparency on the alleged involvement of Islamists in a “secret apparatus” accused of illicit intelligence activities, the political climate is reminiscent of the 2013 tense polarisation between secularists and Islamists.

Violent confrontation was avoided then when Ennahda agreed to step down and be replaced by a “cabinet of technocrats.” The ouster in Egypt of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi after a military-supported uprising contributed to convincing Ennahda to accept compromises.

Ennahda’s leadership is divided over the future of Chahed, whose supporters recently formed a new political party, Tahya Tounes, with which he is expected to run for president.

While some Ennahda leaders indicated they were open to joining a coalition with the nascent party after parliamentary and presidential elections, others warned against the party’s strong “anti-Islamist” base.

Ennahda leaders also warned the Popular Front that Ennahda “does not fear opposition in the streets,” claiming: “We are stronger than you in the streets.”

Selim Azzabi, a former top aide to Caid Essebsi who is now general coordinator of Tahya Tounes, said the new party has more potential than Nidaa.

“We are born big, very big and much bigger than Nidaa Tounes,” said Azzabi.

“The new project is in a position of strength when compared to NidaaTounes… (It) will compete in the elections with the support of representatives in 350 municipalities and ministers in the government, which is headed by Youssef Chahed.”

The Popular Front said the statement proved the government was politically motivated and needs to be replaced.

“This confirms that this government cannot be a means to ending the ever-deepening and multiplying crisis and preparing for free and fair elections, especially when its head and ministers recently launched a party to compete in the elections in which they will use their power and the state means under their watch to further their political and election interests repeating the dark experience of the ‘state party’ of the past,” said Hammami.