Tunisia Islamists, unionists tense

2012-12-06 22:13

Sidi Bouzid - Strikes and protests hit volatile areas of Tunisia on Thursday, including Sidi Bouzid where the Arab Spring began, as tensions rose between powerful unions and the ruling Islamist party.

Workers went on strike in Kasserine, Gafsa and Sfax, whose eponymous capital is Tunisia's second city, as well as Sidi Bouzid, where the uprising started on 17 December 2010 that unseated former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The closure of the largest private and public employers in those areas was called by regional branches of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), AFP journalists reported, with only small shops and cafes open for business.

Hundreds of protesters also marched in the Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid regions, chanting slogans denouncing the Islamist party.

"We demand the resignation of the government," "Ennahda has sold Tunisia," and "Long live the UGTT, the country's biggest force," the activists shouted.

The UGTT, Tunisia's main labour union, said the strike achieved a 95% observance rate in Gafsa, a mining region prone to social unrest.

The action was seen as a prelude to a nationwide general strike called for 13 December by the UGTT to denounce an attack on its headquarters this week that it says was carried out by Islamist militants close to the ruling party Ennahda.

Weeks of escalating tensions between the union and Ennahda, seen as the two dominant political forces in Tunisia, culminated on Tuesday when UGTT members demonstrating at their head office were attacked by pro-government activists.

The Islamists in turn accused the UGTT of orchestrating the confrontation.

3rd strike

Just days earlier, intense clashes between police and disaffected youths in the town of Siliana, southwest of Tunis, left some 300 people wounded, after a strike and protests over poor living conditions degenerated into violence.

The call for a nationwide strike next Thursday is only the third by the UGTT, which has a membership of 500 000, since its foundation in the 1940s.

The first was in 1978 and the second on 12 January 2011 - two days before the fall of Ben Ali's regime.

The office of Islamist Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on Thursday urged staff on strike to return to work and called on Tunisian organisations "to advocate a mollifying language [that enables us] to overcome these difficulties."

Ennahda's veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi strongly criticised the UGTT, calling it a "radical opposition" group, and charging that its calls to strike had "political and not social motives."

Clashes, strikes and attacks, including by hardline Islamists, have multiplied across Tunisia in the run up to the second anniversary of the revolution, plunging the country into a political impasse.

Many Tunisians feel bitterly disappointed by the failure of the revolution to improve their lives, especially in the country's marginalised interior which suffers from a chronic lack of development and high unemployment.

During last week's violence, President Moncef Marzouki said the Islamist-led coalition government was not meeting the expectations of its people and called for a cabinet reshuffle, but Jebali did not respond.

He warned that Tunisia was at a crossroads between "the road to ruin and the road to recovery."