Tunisia’s socioeconomic and political conditions have been on a downward spiral for quite some time. While President Kais Saied continues dismantling the institutions that were put in place during the democratic transition post-2011 in favor of his own, the opposition remains fragmented, powerless, and now under constant threat of prosecution.
In the face of such dire circumstances, a considerable amount of attention has been directed toward a new dialogue-like initiative spearheaded by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the country’s biggest and oldest labor union. In addition to its union duties, UGTT has played an important political role since long before 2011, as large segments of the opposition turned to syndicalism as a bastion of dissent. Since the revolution, the UGTT has also played a mediation role, notably during the 2013 crisis for which, along with three partner organizations, it mediated a national dialogue that won the 2015 Nobel Peace Award.
Despite much anticipation given the UGTT’s key political role, little is known about the initiative and its long genesis. It is therefore critical to unpack what this initiative may be about and what it might be able to achieve, given the current deadlock and the increasing difficulty of mediating a political solution.
What we know
In December 2022, the UGTT started official deliberations with the Tunisian Bar Association (ONAT) and the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) to carve a political roadmap providing solutions for the country’s multilayered crisis, dubbing it the National Salvation Initiative. Along with the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), the four organizations officially launched this initiative on January 27, 2023. The announcement confirmed the absence of The Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts (UTICA), the trade and business owners union formerly part of the 2015 Nobel Quartet. The reasons for this absence are officially unknown, though they might involve fears of retaliatory investigations into UTICA leaders. Since then, few statements have been made concerning the initiative’s process.
The new quartet has indicated that three committees were formed to discuss and suggest recommendations for three issues: political and constitutional reforms, economic reforms, and social reforms. These committees included representatives and members of the organizations, in addition to a selected host of experts in these areas. The outputs of the committees will feed into and compose a wider document that would serve as a roadmap. Once amended and approved by the organizations’ leadership, this roadmap will be presented to the wider components of civil society in a national event to gather more support. At that point, the organizations will finally present it to the president.
In addition to the absence of more information, there has also been a lack of clarity on two rather important issues. The first is the intention to present the roadmap to President Saied, as his statements and behavior indicate that it is very unlikely he will engage with the initiative. The initiative’s leadership stated that they believe the president will not engage with them, yet they have shied away from revealing what escalatory steps will be taken if—and probably when—he refuses their roadmap. Furthermore, the willingness to present the roadmap to the president has been criticized by a number of parties as not condemning the precedent set in July 2021 and not breaking with this process unleashed by Saied.
Furthermore, political parties have not been included in this initiative yet. The leadership of the initiative explained that the role parties could play would be considered depending on the outcome of the deliberations. However, the reluctance on the part of the organizations to include parties was probably two-fold: they want to maintain a distance from political parties, on the one hand to prevent the initiative from being seen as interest-led politicking by the public, and on the other, to reaffirm the organizations’ refusal of a pre-coup status quo. This last point is confirmed by statements made by a member of the UGTT leadership which mention that, once formed, the initiative would engage exclusively with parties that “do not consider July 25, 2021 a coup.” As per their various statements following July 2021, the UGTT and many civil society organizations, including the union’s partners in the initiative, did not consider Saied’s actions a coup. Since then, most have switched to the opposition rank, particularly after Saied passed Decree 117, through which he monopolized all powers and has since ruled by decree. Despite this, the UGTT’s quarrel is with Saied’s unilateral rule, and one could even make the case that it is rooted in the union’s desire to preserve its own post-2011 political role. It is also important to note that the UGTT has a pro-Saied faction as it is composed of a large number of syndicates with many members that have current or previous party affiliations overlapping with parties currently supporting Saied.
Long in the making
This initiative is the last in a series of attempts by the UGTT to broker a political roadmap following the 2019 elections. Tunisia’s fragile political landscape and the highly fragmented parliament at the time led to various stalemates that preceded Saied’s power grab. These quarrels eventually produced an institutionally crippling political crisis between Saied and the then Head of Government Hichem Mechichi, as well as with Ennahda leader and Speaker of the Parliament Rached Ghannouchi. The UGTT was then meeting with different actors, including the president, calling for a dialogue, and it then produced an initiative of priority areas to be discussed. On December 30, 2020, President Saied received Noureddine Taboubi, Secretary General of the UGTT, who presented the contents of that initiative. After its position that did not object to Saied’s self-coup, the UGTT also shared a roadmap of urgent and priority measures in September 2021 to guide the post-July 2021 legal State of Exception in a participatory and deliberative management akin to a dialogue, a few weeks before Saied issued Decree 117. More than two years later, the UGTT is now leading a new initiative over which it is at odds with the president.
The union continued to call for a participatory approach and had directed its attacks toward the government rather than the president himself in the hope of not alienating Saied, and more importantly to maintain the organization’s unity
Despite some tension, such as the union’s refusal to take part in the president’s sham dialogue to draft a new constitution prior to the July 2022 referendum, the UGTT’s leadership sought to maintain a path to rapprochement with the president despite the latter’s disinterest in any talks. The union continued to call for a participatory approach and had directed its attacks toward the government rather than the president himself in the hope of not alienating Saied, and more importantly to maintain the organization’s unity as there is still a pro-Saied faction within their ranks. While this remains unchanged, the developments regarding the IMF reform program, particularly on subsidies and state-owned enterprises, which the UGTT is against, have provided an opportunity for the leadership to move forward with a political initiative while maintaining its unity. Based on that and on the union’s refusal to engage with parties that consider July 2021’s events a coup, it is safe to assume that this initiative seeks to influence the current political trajectory instead of putting an end to it.
Many cleavage points
As mentioned, little is known regarding the content of the initiative and the guidelines for its deliberations. Nevertheless, it is possible to infer what talking points would be addressed in each committee. For instance, in the case of the committees on economic and social reforms, it is probable that their recommendations will be in line with the UGTT’s focus on the preservation of social protection mechanisms. These would prioritize an inclusive case-by-case review and reform of state-owned enterprises, no subsidy cuts or reform, reviewing the economic policy, and progressive taxation. However, how these and other potential policy recommendations will be divided into long and short term priorities is unknown.
The cleavages within the members of the initiative would then be limited, as rumors have also confirmed, to the political and constitutional reforms committee. This committee is addressing several areas that have been at the center of public debates long before July 2021, such as amendments to the electoral law, regulating laws of parties, and civil society organizations, among others. More importantly, this committee will have to discuss and reach a consensus on areas that have divided the political and civic spectrum for almost two years, namely the issue of the constitution.
Between calls for a return to the 2014 Constitution and amending it, and calls to keep the 2022 Constitution and amending it, the UGTT is bound to push for the latter especially if it wants Saied to engage with its initiative.
Most political parties boycotted the 2022 referendum on the new constitution and naturally refuse to recognize it both for the democratic faults in holding the referendum and as a product of Saied’s unilateral and authoritarian rule. This has produced a point of contention in any attempt to negotiate a political solution, especially from the vantage point of the president and parties that support him and who are represented in the current parliament. Between calls for a return to the 2014 Constitution and amending it, and calls to keep the 2022 Constitution and amending it, the UGTT is bound to push for the latter especially if it wants Saied to engage with its initiative. The question that remains concerns what amendments to suggest and what the political and constitutional reform packages could contain that might convince the president.
Furthermore, the question of the latest parliamentary elections, which produced the current parliament, is also a priority. As turnout was only around 11 percent, parliamentary legitimacy is contested by the opposition. Secretary General of Pan-Arab Nationalist and pro-Saied party Echaab Movement Zouheir Maghzaoui, who has previously expressed in media statements that the party would engage with the initiative depending on its content, recently expressed that it was too late for this roadmap. For reference, Echaab has around 20 deputies in the new parliament. Such statements echo the president’s “What dialogue? Why did we just hold elections?” remarks in one of the videos on the presidency’s Facebook account. Despite its low legitimacy, this parliament is now a new variable that should be accounted for in any solution.
Another complex element, which would be difficult to sell to Saied, is a form of deliberative and participatory governance approach in the build-up to the next presidential elections, as well as an agreement on a particular format for this approach. Some politicians such as Afek Tounes’ Fadel Abdelkefi and former deputy Hatem Mliki have called for an economic emergency government that prioritizes the monetary and economic difficulties Tunisia is facing at the moment. What the initiative would suggest remains unknown, and what role, if any, would Saied play in such a transition would also be a key component of any suggestion of the sort.
Then there is the question of the date of presidential elections. Based on the 2014 Constitution, Saied’s current mandate should end in 2024, and there should be elections either way given that Tunisia currently has a new constitution. Although presidential elections will likely take place, nothing would stop Saied from delaying them should he want to, as there is no formal timeline in the new constitution’s transitional provisions.
While there are other issues to be discussed, such as decentralization and local council, as well as independent constitutional authorities, the crux of debates is undoubtedly focused on amendments to the electoral law, as well as legislative and presidential elections. What scenarios and steps would the initiative’s leadership, and particularly that of the UGTT, bet on will be revealed once the roadmap is presented to the public.
The publicly available elements on the UGTT’s initiative do not reveal much, yet they point toward the highly likely possibility that it will fail. In addition to Saied’s lack of appetite to engage with any and all actors, the roadmap that will be presented is unlikely to gain momentum and traction from other opposition parties, and even from civil society organizations. Far from a deliberative and participatory dialogue with wide participation from opposition actors, this initiative plays within Saied’s hand.
Aymen Bessalah is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on governance and the rule of law in Tunisia.