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Disagreement between unions, Saied could seal fate of Tunisian dialogue | Seghair Hidri

TUNIS – The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) has delayed announcing its initiative for a national dialogue, and its secretary-general made barbed comments  about the protests in the south of the country meant for President Kais Saied.

All of this has increased the ambiguity that hangs over the fate of this dialogue, as many political analysts in Tunisia talk about manoeuvres led by Qatar during Saied’s visit recent visit to Doha to bridge relations between him and the Islamist Ennahda party and its allies. Such manoeuvres are said to have angered the labour union.

In recent days, signs of disagreement have emerged between Saied and the UGTT, the central trade union that holds broad influence in Tunisia, in a development that observers believe is likely to thwart efforts to hold a national dialogue, especially since the labour union, which enjoys a privileged position in the public scene, has not yet announced its initiative in this regard despite pledging to unveil it last week.

 A 2018 file picture shows Tunisian General Secretary of Labour Union (UGTT) Noureddine Taboubi giving a speech in the capital Tunis. (AFP)
 A 2018 file picture shows Tunisian General Secretary of Labour Union (UGTT) Noureddine Taboubi giving a speech in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi confirmed in statements reported by local media on Saturday evening that the protests that broke out in many areas of the country were planned and that the discourse of the coordination committees of these protests, or the so-called popular committees, suggested that political parties were behind these protests, apparently referring to Saied’s own enthusiasm for ​regional coordination committees and popular committees in keeping with his ideology of a “people’s democracy.”

In parallel with these developments, the Tunisian president faced accusations he had concluded a deal in Qatar regarding the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, also connected with the arrangements preceding calls for a national dialogue.

MP Walid Jallad from the Tahya Tounes bloc called on Mechichi to be frank with the people about the “blackmailing” he is being subjected to by the government coalition that is led by Ennahda (54 seats) and includes Qalb Tounes (30 seats) and the Islamist Dignity Coalition (19 seats).

Jallad pointed out that there was a “deal made in Qatar with Kais Saied regarding Mechichi and Qalb Tounes,” but the speculation and assumptions about “what was not said about Saied’s visit to Doha” go in two parallel directions.

The first theory says that Qatari efforts were made to bring calm to relations between Saied and Ennahda on the one hand, and Saied and Qalb Tounes President Nabil Karoui on the other, paving the way for Karoui and his party to participate in the national dialogue.

The second theory regards a truce between Ennahda and Saied in exchange for getting rid of Mechichi and his government, which is facing increasing pressure regarding a cabinet reshuffle that may be announced in the coming days, but the visit did not touch upon Ghannouchi’s allies, especially Karoui, which means that Saied can continue with his same approach in dealing with Qalb Tounes — ignoring their role.

Jallad said, “Indeed, there is talk about a deal that Saied concluded during his visit to Qatar regarding the Mechichi government and his relationship with Qalb Tounes and Ennahda.”

The Tunisian parliamentarian told The Arab Weekly that “the situation is getting more complicated… and it is necessary to proceed with the path of a national dialogue and review the entire political system… The matter is not limited to revising the electoral system, but rather the constitution and the political system as a whole must be all be revised… This political system has proven its failure during the (past) 10 years.”

Hichem Mechichi, Prime Minister-designate of Tunisia, stands to deliver a speech to members of parliament in the capital Tunis on September 1. (AFP)
Hichem Mechichi, Prime Minister-designate of Tunisia, stands to deliver a speech to members of parliament in the capital Tunis on September 1. (AFP)

There are already arguments behind the scenes about parties that may be invited to participate in this national dialogue.  The Free Destourian Party (16 seats) has so far refused to participate in a dialogue with “those who brought the country to this state.”

It seems that the president is torn between striking a truce with Ennahda and opening communication channels with Qalb Tounes and the Dignity Coalition, two controversial parties that the president has so far refused to engage with.

Ennahda, through its president Rached Ghannouchi, who is also parliament speaker, was previously locked in a bitter struggle with Saied over powers and prerogatives.

On the other hand, Ennahda is increasing pressure for their to be a national dialogue, ignoring the arrangements that should be made prior to that. Analysts have interpreted the drive as part of manoeuvres aimed at evading any blame for the repercussions of the failure of the Mechichi government, and at safeguarding its own internal crisis.

On Saturday, Ghannouchi renewed his call for a comprehensive national dialogue that would lead to urgent solutions to the country’s crisis.

The labour union is vetoing any dialogue with Qalb Tounes and the Dignity Coalition. It once described their alliance as a conspiracy against the country.

UGTT Assistant Secretary-General Sami Taheri said in a press statement: “The Union has cut off contact with Ennahda Movement because of the attacks on it and its leaders, whether directly by the movement or through those who were tasked with carrying them out,” in a clear reference to the Dignity Coalition, pointing out that the union had sent correspondence to Ghannouchi asking him to clarify his movement’s position regarding these parties’ attacks against the labour union, civil society institutions and many national figures. He revealed that the UGTT has not received an answer, which “forced it to send a message to the public opinion.”

In addition, whether calls for a national dialogue are heeded seems to hinge on the moves by its advocates, be they the political parties (the Democratic Current, the People’s Movement, or Mashrou’ Tounes) or the UGTT, which has only spoken of an initiative, thus keeping ambiguity in the air regarding surprises that seem to have taken place during Saied’s visit to Doha.

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