In Tunisia, the underprivileged are still not heard

UGTT Nobel Peace Prize award comes short without challenging the unequal economic structure of the country and a reconciliation with its recent past

My take on Tunisia 5 years after Bouazizi immolation and how the major social force left almost unchallenged the model of economic inequality, here below and on The National page:

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On October 9 Seifeddine Khardani, a cigarette peddler, burned himself to death in the Southern Tunisian city of Sfax. Like Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring, Khardani’s last gesture showed the powerless condition of those at the low scale of the economic structure of the country, their continuous frustration and persistent economic inequalities.
Khardani’s immolation came just few days after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, of which the most prominent member has been the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), who claims to have more than five hundred thousands affiliates. The prize celebrated the Quartet political activity, and helped too reinforcing a somehow misleading narrative propagated by the current syndicate leadership of its impeccable behavior and prominent coordinating role in the uprising.

But beside the union direct involvement in the political arena and its continuous collective action to improve workers wage, the Khardani’s self-immolation highlights also the lack of more comprehensive policies of the syndicate toward different strata of the population. The union seems indeed to have missed the opportunity, deliberately or not, to address the grievances of those unemployed and informal workers who have been the real social basis of the uprising.

UGTT pragmatic historical political role and its bicephalic character

Since its establishment in 1946, the UGTT managed to merge its social duties toward workers’ rights with a strong political role in the country’s internal affairs. In the decades after independence it managed to survive thanks to political pragmatism and an awkward balance of objectives between the central national leadership, regional bureaus and local militants.

The national leadership became more and more entrenched with the arrival of Ben Ali in power. The union abided to the defense of collective contracts, but it almost let pass unchallenged Tunisia economic liberalization and privatization’s process, along with the wide implementation in the country of work flexibility, in contrast with the will of the ranks of the union.

Ben Ali neoliberal economic model, the “bon élève” for European and international organizations, as political economist Béatrice Hibou told us for years before his fall, shaped a Tunisia with two faces; on one side the relative wealth of coastal towns and the capital, and on the other side underdeveloped rural areas where, like in Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi town, unemployment could reach the average point of 40% of the population. It was no coincidence that the 2010 uprising and major social unrests before that date always came from underdeveloped regions, mainly in the South.

That was the case of the Revolt of the Gafsa Mining Basin in 2008 and of the events at the end of 2010. In both cases regional bureaus and local trade unionists and militants, acting as citizens and not in name of the syndicate, played an important role in the organization of the unrests, while the national bureaucratic executive committee and the secretary general were cautious in backing their demands.

Leadership change, but continuity in practices
Tabarka congress at the end of 2011 lead to an effective change in the leadership, mainly promoting militants coming from lower ranks, but without considerable structural changes. The union maintained its political role and focused in continuity with the past on the increase of workers wage. The new UGTT leadership took important political stances against the assassination of leftists figures, and it helped establishing a national dialogue, even if the fight of the union was predominantly against the elected Ennahda government.

By playing a prominent political role, threatening the opponents with strikes, and maintaining certain predominance among most of the workers, the UGTT managed to achieve considerable power. But beside the new country conditions, and considering the powerful position the union managed to reach, the union seems not to have been interested in challenging the model of economic inequality typical of the Ben Ali era. Neither in facing a more clear reconciliation with its recent past of compromise with power.

Heading toward more economic reforms and privatizations

In the last years, the country assisted instead to continuity in terms of neoliberal economic policies. The free exchange treaty with European Union signed in 1995, has been recently leading to an EU-Tunisia Deep and Comprehensive Free trade Agreement (DCFTA), part of the Privileged Partnership between the EU and Tunisia, also signed in the aftermath of the revolution in November 2012. The United States started too in the last years to focus on Tunisia, preparing the field for a free trade agreement, which also needs to be related too with the confirmed designation in July of Tunisia as Major Non-Nato ally (MNNA).

The actual Tunisian government, and the same National Dialogue Quartet, asked too recently for more funds from the International Monetary Found, and the World Bank has been actually touring Tunisia at the beginning of November to implement the recent Country Context and Development Agenda 2016-2020. In the document presenting the brand-new plan for Tunisia, the Nobel Peace Prize award is often used as the representation of the end of the political transition and as legitimization for new investments in the country.

The Bouazizis and Tunisian unions

Since Bouazizi immolated himself in December 2010, setting himself on fire have been the last attempt for several among the more marginalized strata of the population, informal workers and unemployed, in order to make their voice heard. The Bouazizis presence and tragic gestures in today Tunisia represent how the plight and grievances of informal workers and marginalized people went instead almost unheard. Only a small part of the syndicate has been interested in defending the marginalized and fragile part of the population from economic aggressive policies.

No doubt UGTT’s focus on political activity resulted as beneficial for the country stability, and there’s no reason not to celebrate the continuous struggle of the syndicate for improving the wage of workers. But as Hibou suggested few months after the uprising in 2011, the simple focus on wages has been good but in detriment of spending the State budget for more needed people, or instead of developing structural projects for impoverished areas where public services are deficient.

By focusing on national politics, without touching the root causes of the uprising and the economic structure of country, UGTT missed the opportunity to capitalize its power in order to achieve real social and economic changes. The uprising in 2011 asked for “bread, freedom and dignity” for all Tunisians, not for a general “increase in wage” for professional workers. The UGTT, as major social force in the country, still needs to honestly reconcile and admit past mistakes, and publicly take a clear stance if its priority is to challenge the inequalities rooted in the current economic model of development.