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Resign! Tunisia 's Largest Trade Union Tells Islamist-Led Government

By Countercurrents.org

31 July, 2013

Tunisia 's largest trade union called on July 30, 2013 for the dissolution of the Islamist-led government and the interior minister offered to resign as a political crisis deepened. Calls for the ouster of the government are continuing. Now , it's from members of the government and the National Constituent Assembly's (NCA) ruling coalition. Civil society and political parties joined calls for a new government in separate press conferences.

Media reports from Tunisia said:

The powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), which has about 600,000 members in the public and private sectors, said a technocratic government should replace the one led by Ennahda. The union called for the dissolution of the government and for the appointment of a committee of experts to examine the constitution.

"We consider this government incapable of continuing its work," Hussein Abbassi, general secretary of the UGTT, said in a statement.

Although endorsing demands for the government to fall, the UGTT has opposed dissolving the assembly – a measure which would throw the country's fragile transition process into limbo.

"We propose maintaining the Constituent Assembly but ... with a time-frame to speed up completion of its work", said Abbassi. The UGTT brought much of the country to a halt with a one-day strike on Friday.

The UGTT leader said that if this " terrorism is not uprooted, Tunisia will fall into a blood bath."

Softening its rejection of demands for the government's departure, the Islamist party Ennahda said it was ready for a new government, but opposed any move to disband an elected body that has almost completed work on a new draft constitution.

"We are open to all proposals to reach an agreement, including a salvation or unity government," said Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh. "But we will not accept dissolving the Constituent Assembly. This is a red line."

Along with political unrest the army is struggling to contain Islamist militants, who killed eight soldiers on July 29, 2013 in a mountainous region near the Algerian border in one of the bloodiest attacks on Tunisian troops in decades.

The secular opposition in Tunisia has stepped up pressure on the Ennahda-led government to quit.

Some opposition leaders were dissatisfied with Ennahda's offer to form a new government but keep the Assembly in place.

"The street wants to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, which is already dying politically and ethically. Its legitimacy is over," said Mongi Rahoui, a leader in the Popular Front. Rahoui also said Ennahda must relinquish the post of prime minister in any deal.

Opposition leaders criticize the Assembly for far exceeding the one-year deadline it set in December 2011 to complete its tasks, which include drafting a constitution.

Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, a judge and political independent from the Al Qasreen area near where the troops were ambushed by militants, said in a radio interview Tuesday: "I am ready to resign. A salvation government or national unity government must be formed to get Tunisia out of this bottleneck. I am trying to see the implications of my resignation. Once a salvation government is formed, I will give up my position to the new government."

" Parties should gather, put their differences aside, and form a national salvation   government," said Jeddou.

Earlier, the secular party Ettakatol threatened to withdraw from the ruling coalition unless a unity government was formed to defuse widespread and often violent protests.

In their  statement , Ettakatol has call ed for the dissolution of the government . However, the party has urge d the NCA to finish the constitution and electoral law and to approve the Law of Transitional Justice and the Independent Board for Elections (ISIE) before October 23.

The opposition, angered by the assassination of two leftist leaders – Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi – has rejected several concessions and power-sharing proposals from the Ennahda-led coalition in the last few days.

The ruling coalition headed by prime minister Ali Larayedh has begun to fray in the last few days as political turmoil and street unrest grip the North African nation of 11 million.

The demand for a national salvation government was echoed by current members of the government.

The Democratic Alliance, an opposition political party,  called  for a national salvation government. T he Alliance suggested a committee of leading political figures be formed to support and advise the independent members of the proposed salvation government.

The initiative is also calling all parties to sign an agreement that sets October 23 as a deadline for the NCA, and to dissolve Leagues for Protection of Revolution, a group that many say promotes violence to support the Islamist Ennahdha.

“There is no legitimacy that is higher than the interest of the country and the security and blood of Tunisians,” said Mohamed Hamdi, member of the Democratic Alliance.

“As for the NCA, we don't really cling to it but we don't also believe its dissolution is imperative. We are being pragmatic. This is the democratic path we started and chose and people were enthusiastic about. These deadlines that are not respected are making things worse. We need the NCA to be restricted to a date and limit his work to getting Tunisia to the elections,” Hamdi said in a press conference .

“We are with the call for consensus and for the idea of an expert committee to examine the constitution so that it is not discussed in the plenary sessions until it is scrutinized by these experts,” he added.

Gilbert Naccache, a leftist Tunisian politician and activist, denounced the demand to dissolve the NCA in an interview with Express FM.

“We have no interest in dissolving the NCA since the [aftermath of the assassination] shows the weakening of Ennhadha, which now needs to make concessions when it comes to the constitution. It is not the time to dissolve the NCA. I might not trust certain political movements but I do not trust [a committee of independent] experts on this.”

“Politically, it is madness to put the constitution under the scrutiny of a committee of experts. We either dissolve the NCA and find a way to write the constitution or keep the NCA and continue pressuring them to make the constitution as democratically as possible. Here, it is the constituent assembly members who decided and not experts. Experts can only intervene when it comes to formality aspect of writing the constitution, not the contents,” he added.

“Islamists and Troika will not leave power unless they are forced. Is it necessary to get them to leave? What is the alternative to the NCA? ” ,   he asked, referring to the ruling coalition.

A T unis datelined Reuters report said:

More than any threat of military force, the power of Tunisia 's main trade union may be what pushes the Islamist-led government to accept opposition demands for it to quit.

T he secular opposition in Tunisia has taken to the streets to demand a new government. Thousands of its supporters have been joined by ordinary Tunisians fed up with rising instability and economic stagnation.

All this had seemed to leave the ruling party Ennahda unmoved - until Tuesday. Then the Tunisian General Labour Union, courted for days by the opposition, came out in support of creating a new technocrat government. Ennahda later said it was willing to consider that plan.

Whereas in Egypt military power decided the Islamist government's fate, in Tunisia the economic muscle of the union may prove decisive . J ust one day of strikes can cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars.

"It is the force capable of influencing the street and its leaders can topple the government," said opposition activist Sofian Chourabi. "The UGTT can reshuffle the political cards because of its manpower and its political and economic weight. It can play the role that the Tunisian army can't."

The UGTT has been a major political player since it staged regional strikes in 2011. These helped protesters to force out autocratic ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, setting off a wave of uprisings across the region.

On the cost of strike the report cited economists:

More recently economists estimate a one-day strike, called by the UGTT to protest against the assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi, cost up to $422 million last week.

Economist Moez Joudi told local newspaper Assabah that the stoppage caused a stock market dive and pushed the Tunisian dinar to its lowest value ever against the dollar and euro.

Such influence gives the union a forceful hand to play in a country suffering economic stagnation and rising unemployment - problems which are already increasing frustration with the government.

A leftist workers' body, the UGTT is ideologically already close to the secular opposition that has been on the offensive.

Brahmi's killing drew further support to the opposition's cause.

The Tunisian army may have played a role in Ben Ali's overthrow by refusing to shoot demonstrators. But unlike the Egyptian military, which helped protesters to topple fellow autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, it remains politically weak.

It has few strings to pull and, unlike the Egyptian military, little economic privilege to protect.

"The Tunisian army is neutral and won't force its will... It has no established custom of playing a political role," said a source close to the military.

Though most opposition leaders publicly deny wanting military intervention, average supporters make no secret of their desire for an " Egypt scenario".

Young activists have even copied the Egyptian campaign group Tamar o d (Rebel!) by organizing their own petition calling for the government to quit. Their movement (also called Tamar o d) says it has collected more than 200,000 signatures.

In a face-off on the streets, it is unclear whether the opposition could force Ennahda to accept its demand to dissolve not only the government, but also the transitional Constituent Assembly - which is weeks away from finishing a draft constitution.

On the role of the internal security forces the Reuters report said:

Some observers suggest internal security forces could play a more influential role. Under Ben Ali, Tunisia was a police state where Interior Ministry forces had influence and power, but they are now as divided as the general population.

At recent protests in Tunis , Reuters reporters heard some security force members arguing about whether to fire tear gas at demonstrators.

"The Interior Ministry is a mess of divisions. Some departments are now in the hands of Ennahda, others are holdovers from the former regime," said Tunisian analyst Youssef Welati. "I don't think they have any kind of decisive role. And neither does the army. The most they can do is decide not to suppress protests."

Citing s ources close to the opposition the report said:

Opposition leaders trying to form a rival "salvation government" are proposing security force members, such as Rachid Ammar, the former army chief, and former defense minister Abd Elkarim al-Zbidi.

On the role of trade union the report said:

But the institution the opposition is best poised to benefit from is the UGTT. Historically, the unions have been a powerful force and the UGTT organized against French colonial authorities before independence in the 1950s.

"We are a national organization whose role it is to rescue the country," Sami Tahri, the assistant secretary general, told reporters on Monday.

The union has hinted it may consider more strikes if the political situation doesn't improve but is also trying to create for itself a more unifying role. It has rejected opposition calls to dissolve the constitutional assembly, apparently aware of complaints that this would be destructive and could lengthen Tunisia 's transition to democracy.

That stand seems to have eased Ennahda's fears and allow it to open up to the possibility of a new government.

"The UGTT can find a deal that guarantees the continuity of the state but at the same time meets some of the demands of angry protesters," activist Chourabi said. "It may be the one who can create a consensual exit plan from the crisis."







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