Civil servants strike in Tunisia, signaling a national crisis | Radio WGN 720

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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A nationwide public sector strike in Tunisia is set to cripple land and air transport and other vital activities on Thursday, with the North African nation already in the midst of a deepening economic crisis. deteriorated.

The powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) announced the walkout, which was to include 159 public companies, on the basis of pressing social and economic demands. The union demands wage increases and protests against the economic reforms planned by the government.

The purchasing power of Tunisian citizens has eroded since the start of the year amid rising prices, high unemployment and widespread poverty. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the financial pressure.

President Kais Saied’s government last week unveiled plans to cut its massive wage bill and said it would gradually reduce energy and food subsidies from next year. The government has said it will replace grants with cash payments to low-income families.

In July 2021, Saied abruptly dismissed the government and assumed sweeping powers. While his critics accuse him of masterminding a coup, Saied said he acted in response to widespread economic and social discontent.

Many fear Thursday’s strike will have a serious impact on an already fragile economy and fuel an already tense political situation. An increasingly isolated Saied ruled the country alone for 10 months, ruling by decree, while key Western allies raised concerns about democratic backsliding.

A meeting between the government and the UGTT was held on Tuesday but did not lead to an agreement.

At a weekend meeting of the UGTT ahead of Thursday’s strike, hundreds of union members filled the Palais du Congress in Tunis, waving national flags and singing popular songs. The audience cheered as union president Noureddine Tabboubi spoke, promising to oppose the government’s economic reforms.

Tabboubi told The Associated Press after the meeting that Thursday’s strike was a necessary response to Tunisia’s high inflation rate – which the Institute of Statistics said reached 7.8% in May – and the high cost of living which has intensified with the recent decision by central banks to raise interest rates.

The union leader said the strike had the potential to trigger a “social explosion” which was “normal and inevitable”.

A key issue for Saied’s government is the country’s urgent need for a new loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tunisia’s fourth loan in a decade.

Ahead of negotiations stalled for months, the IMF demanded that Tunisia implement economic reforms, including reducing subsidies on which many poor Tunisians depend.

IMF spokesman Gerry Rice welcomed Tunisia’s proposed economic reforms and said talks with the authorities were progressing.

But labor leader Tabboubi accused the government of wanting to “sell the country and impoverish the people” by imposing IMF-dictated changes.

“The country needs leaders who demonstrate wisdom and who make reason prevail and a national project that federates and does not divide; avoid insults and confrontation,” he said.

The UGTT has so far refused to participate in the “national dialogue” proposed by Saied. – a key stepping stone in its roadmap to emerge from the Tunisian political crisis. He plans to change Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution. Tabboubi justified his decision on Saturday, saying the process was “not transparent”.

The union leader said Thursday’s strike was not a political action but “based solely on the social demands of the working classes”.

However, Youssef Cherif, a political analyst, argues that while UGTT leaders were careful to characterize the strike as purely economic, the strike has a political message and implications.

“Politically, if the strike succeeds, it is a signal to the president that the UGTT is powerful and that he cannot circumvent them, that they are an important actor who cannot be ignored,” Cherif said in a statement. telephone interview.

The strike could add to the doubts of outside observers such as the IMF and the World Bank about Tunisia’s ability to overcome its political and economic crisis, the analyst said.

“It’s happening in the heart of summer,” CHerif noted. “Economically, this will disrupt tourism and travelers in and out of the country, and close many amenities and public transport, creating resentment among the general population.”

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