Tunisia is approaching a crossroads as President Kais Saied continues to clash with growing opposition to his proposed new constitution.
Tunisia’s powerful trade union, the UGTT, is boycotting a planned national dialogue and has announced a general strike on June 16 in protest at Saied’s refusal to comply with her demands.
On May 22, Saied met UGTT head Noureddine Taboubi in an effort to convince him of the merits of his roadmap for a new constitution, and to secure the UGTT’s support.
But despite the meeting reportedly lasting for hours, the UGTT’s board of directors quickly issued a resounding rebuke to Saied by voting unanimously to go ahead with the strike.
Saied seized power on July 25 last year after suspending the elected parliament and constitution and then announcing that he would rule by decree.
Since then, Saied has drawn up his own roadmap, which includes a referendum on a new constitution on 25 July this year, drafting new election laws and holding elections in December.
However, the differences between Saied and the UGTT, whose leadership was initially not against Saied’s measures last year, have grown in recent times.
“The UGTT sees itself as a primary partner in state-building, given its extensive history of fighting for basic rights and the sacrifices it has made to secure them,” journalist Khaled Hermassi told Al Jazeera.
“The clash between Saied and the unions is one in which each tries to break the other to rule. That is why the UGTT threatens a general strike on June 16. It’s about heavily arming Saied in [at least] share power with them.”
Lamine Bouazizi, a representative of the Tunisian Anti-Coup group that has staged a number of mass protests against Saied’s measures, agrees that “the UGTT is not satisfied with the way Saied has monopolized power”.
“The UGTT’s position has generally been one that supports Saied’s coup. However, there was also an expectation on the part of the UGTT leadership that Saied would be obedient and subservient to their goals of expanding their power and influence over the state, facilitating their politics aimed at eradicating their ideological opponents,” Bouazizi told Al Jazeera. †
He believes that “Saieed’s way of targeting the state institutions, the heavy blow he dealt to the judiciary and his successful infiltration and effective takeover of the farmers’ union means that the UGTT now believes Saied has a very real danger to them”.
Hermassi believes, however, that this does not suggest that the UGTT has changed its stance on its ambivalence regarding the suspension of parliament and the constitution.
“The UGTT is threatening strikes because they feel Saied is not giving them their share of power,” Hermassi said. “This makes it clear that the UGTT is not against the coup, but against their exclusion from the decision-making process.”
“The problem, however, is that this is a common thread for Saied, who has instead sought to overthrow the current UGTT leadership and develop a more favorable leadership by supporting his loyalists within the UGTT. These are the circumstances that led the UGTT to reconsider its support for the July 25 coup,” Hermassi added.
On June 3, UGTT head Taboubi denounced what he described as “attempts to infiltrate the organization”.
That was a reference to a lawsuit filed against the UGTT, which alleged that the re-election of Taboubi as UGTT head last November was illegal due to procedural impropriety.
The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who are believed to be loyalists of Saied, and forced the UGTT to appeal the decision in a hearing scheduled to take place this week, but which has been postponed due to a nationwide strike. judges against Said. moves.
Issam Bargougui, a member of the suspended parliament representing Sidi Bouzid province and the leader of the Popular Will party, told Al Jazeera that “the UGTT has finally come to realize that Saied is determined to subjugate or exterminate them.” . as he has done to the other institutions of the state”.
The most public of those state institutions is the judiciary.
In February of this year, Saied moved to dismiss the Supreme Judicial Council, an independent judicial oversight body, and replace its members with loyalists in what Amnesty International described at the time as “a serious threat to human rights”.
On June 2, Saied unilaterally fired 57 judges, accusing them of “corruption, suspending terrorism cases, conspiring with political parties to undermine the state and obstruction of justice”.
Judges across the country responded by announcing a weeklong strike that began Monday and has halted most judicial work in the country.
“The judiciary today is fighting for its independence and the principle of separation of state powers,” Bouazizi said.
Saied maintains that his intentions are to reform the judiciary.
In a televised address, Saied stated that he had “given opportunity after opportunity and warning after warning for the judiciary to purge itself”.
Still, Hermassi insists Saied’s reform talks are unfair.
“The main aim of Saied’s reforms is to remove all avenues through which he can be held accountable, especially in light of his numerous legal and constitutional violations since July 21, 2021,” Hermassi said.
Saied’s clashes with the UGTT and the judiciary, two of the most powerful institutions in the country, come at a crucial time for Tunisia. Tunisia remains in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund amid an economic crisis that shows no signs of abating.
The constitution remains on hold as Saied rules by decree and struggles to convince his allies to approve his new constitution and roadmap.
Still, Bargougui sees an opportunity in these clashes for the opposition to assert itself again.
“The clashes between Saied on the one hand and the judiciary and unions on the other is the main battle [since Saied seized power]† If these forces can transcend their ideological differences, especially their animosity towards Ennahdha and the Karama Alliance, then it may be possible to build a political front with enough popular support to resist Saied. [and force a genuine national dialogue]’ said Bargougui.
Ennahdha was the largest party in Tunisia’s dissolved parliament, while the Karama Alliance split from Ennahdha in 2019 after Ennahdha tried to distance himself from Islamist politics.
Even if the Tunisian opposition can unite across its political divides, Saied may still have enough to push through what he wants.
“Saied intends on his new constitution and referendum,” Bargougui said. “It may very well be that he will continue as he has for the past year where he just ignored everyone and went ahead with his will anyway.”