Tunisian protests block oil production, complicate government’s task

Indicators show a drop in energy self-sufficiency levels as the country still needs to import about 72% of its total energy needs.
Monday 14/09/2020
A man shuts down a valve as Tunisian protesters block an oil production site in El Kamour, in Tunisia’s southern governorate of Tatatouine, on July 16, 2020. (AFP)
A man shuts down a valve as Tunisian protesters block an oil production site in El Kamour, in Tunisia’s southern governorate of Tatatouine, on July 16, 2020. (AFP)

TUNIS- Protesters at El Kamour oil and gas plant in Tunisia’s southern governorate of Tataouine increased pressure on the newly-confirmed government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, sending a letter to the ministry of industry, energy and mines and representatives of petroleum companies stating that production will only resume if the terms of an agreement signed with the government of former Prime Minister Youssef Chahed are immediately implemented.

“To the Ministry of Energy and representatives of the petroleum companies …the pipeline pump will not be turned on till the immediate implementation of the agreement,” wrote the El Kamour sit-in “coordination committee” on its Facebook page.

The protesters entered El Kamour oil pumping station on July 16 and closed the oil pumping pipeline. They are demanding that nearly 2,000 young people from the region be employed by petroleum companies and other local enterprises and for some 80 million Tunisian dinars ($28 million) in development aid be allocated, as per the terms of an agreement reached between protesters and the government three years ago.

Political analyst and writer Youssef Oueslati told The Arab Weekly “there is (a) need to differentiate between the legitimate demands of the protesters and their right to work and dignity, on the one hand,  and the extent of the government’s credibility in its decisions and promises towards the protesters, on the other.”

However, he said that “blocking production is an assault on the public sector that provides the country with revenue. This deepens the crisis and makes it difficult to find solutions at a time the country is experiencing an energy deficit.”

“It seems that the coordination committee of El Kamour sit-in is no longer functioning as it used to in the past and is now guided in its demands and orientations by regional powers,” Oueslati said, without specifying. “The solution is not to block production.”

The prolonged production stoppage highlights state institutions’ inability to strictly enforce the law and confront urgent contingencies given the growing frequency of protests and escalating tensions.

According to Oueslati, “the state’s weakness is starkly posed and is especially noted by people who deal with arrogance and break the law, given that the political parties that took first and second in the last legislative elections in the south did not help solve the problem. The other factor was the disrupted role of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) as an established organisation that used to play a mediating role in finding solutions.”

The Tunisian analyst called on Mechichi’s government to more quickly come up with ways to resolve the conflict in El Kamour.

Stopping production in the oil and phosphate industry and other fields will hinder the state from fulfilling its energy and resource needs, as well as add to the burden of the incoming government.

Political analyst Abdelaziz Kotti said “Mechichi’s government faces a great challenge to resume production after the disruption in the oil fields and phosphate mining, which have come under the control of the protesters because the agreements have not been implemented.”

“The government needs to implement the rule of law in light of the current financial crisis and the worsening unemployment situation issue under successive governments,” he added. “We fear that we will reach the point of no return.”

El-Gotti pointed out the need to create “new methods and visions to solve the crisis and develop strategic plans for it.” According to official figures, Tataouine’s fields contribute 40% of Tunisia’s oil production and 20% of its gas production.

Three oil companies operating in Tunisia’s Tataouine desert previously sent a letter to President Kais Saied asking him to intervene to resolve the problem in El Kamour, which they warned could push them to stop production entirely if unaddressed.

On August 21, oil companies operating in the Nawara field in southern Tunisia announced they are considering activating their furlough scheme for the next three months due to a production stoppage in the field because of protests.

Their announcement coincided with the release of energy sector indicators showing that domestic energy production had declined for both petroleum and gas products.

The decline in production also led to a lower self-sufficiency rate and an inability to provide for the country’s consumption needs. Despite a decline of all economic indicators and a drop in demand for energy sources, Tunisia still needs to import some 72% of its total energy needs.

On Saturday, the ministry of energy and mines announced that Energy Minister Salwa Sghaier confirmed during a meeting with the Anglo-Tunisian Oil and Gas company (ATOG) “the government’s utmost keenness on the need to find solutions to resolve El Kamour crisis within the framework of a comprehensive participatory plan.”

Sghaier highlighted in a release published on the ministry’s Facebook page that “the British company seeks to expand its investments in Tunisia” and mentioned”the need to involve all actors in the sector to improve the investment climate in the hydrocarbon sector and encourage research and exploration, especially in the oil and gas sectors.”