TUNIS – Tunisia’s president and the country’s powerful labour union on Friday urged the government to review the 7pm curfew it has brought in to slow COVID-19 infections, a curfew which they say will hit shops, cafes and restaurants in the month of Ramadan that starts next week.
The intervention of President Kais Saied and the UGTT union followed a gathering of hundreds of workers in the city of Sousse vowing they would keep shops and cafes open and after protests in el-Kef, Monastir and Mahdia.
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi’s government announced the tougher health restrictions on Wednesday to combat a surge in new cases, bringing the nightly curfew forward to 7pm from 10pm and barring public gatherings and markets.
Hospital intensive care units are nearly full and Tunisia has only slowly rolled out a national vaccination campaign.
During Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast by day and traditionally gather with friends or family in the evenings, frequenting street markets and eating out.
A cafe owners’ syndicate linked to another union, UTICA, said the curfew would leave 400,000 workers without jobs during Ramadan.
The government has said it will give $70 each to thousands of workers in a bid to avoid social unrest of the kind that broke out across the country in January.
Tunisia faces an unprecedented financial crisis, with a budgeted fiscal deficit of 11% this year adding to its already large public debt as political infighting complicates work on a reform programme aimed at reassuring foreign lenders.
On Friday, Saied took advantage of the 83rd anniversary of the April 9, 1938 events (Martyrs’ Day) at the Martyrs’ Square in Sejoumi to turn to Mechichi, calling on him to review the 7pm curfew the government has brought in to slow COVID-19 infections, evoking the consequences of this measure on many social categories.
The president’s request did not please Mechichi who responded with edginess that it is up to the scientific committee to make such a decision, hinting that such a matter does not fall within the competence of the Presidency of the Republic.
Saied, however, retorted that the scientific committee had no decision-making power, since it is a political decision.
“There is a scientific side. But there is also a social and economic side … the night time curfew should be reviewed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Noureddine Taboubi, head of the UGTT union which has a million members, said the decision would hit the vulnerable and should be reexamined.
He noted that after reaching out to the prime minister, a rethink on the curfew is expected, with the authorities taking into account the specific situation of each region.
With pressures from the street mounting and the words of Saied and Taboubi weighing in heavily, Mechichi’s options are limited. The question now is not whether the prime minister will modify the confinement measures but when he will announce the new rules and if he can find a credible compromise between socio-economics and public health requirements.