Over the past eleven months, President Qaïs Saied has effectively and efficiently chipped away at over a decade of democratic progress in Tunisia. Saied seized power in a presidential coup on July 25, 2021, with the intention of addressing a combination of economic and political problems plaguing the country. His early moves garnered high levels of public support from wide swaths of Tunisian society.
In the months since, as Saied has consolidated power, dismantled the legislature and the judiciary, and invalidated much of the constitution, several civil society groups and political parties have abandoned Saied. One such group is the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which has maintained an outsize role in Tunisia’s political system for decades under dictatorial and democratic systems.
Today, the UGTT is critical to Saied’s success. With more than 1 million members in a country of 12 million people, the UGTT has the power to bring the country’s economy to a halt. Nearly a year after Saied’s power grab, he has done little to improve the economic situation in the country, with inflation reaching 7.8 percent in May, unemployment at over 16 percent, and foreign investment taking a hit due to the political uncertainty caused by Saied’s actions.
Saied is counting on a proposed $4 billion deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out Tunisia’s economy, but the contours of the potential deal with the IMF have put Saied squarely in the crosshairs of the UGTT.
Saied is well aware of the power of the UGTT to mobilize the Tunisian public. Following UGTT Secretary General Noureddin Taboubi’s reelection to his post in February, some of Saied’s loyalists successfully brought a case to court alleging that Taboubi’s election was illegal due to procedural misconduct, in an attempt to replace the UGTT leadership with Saied’s people.
The UGTT has never wholeheartedly endorsed Saied’s moves, but it has also largely supported his coup and subsequent actions. For example, while in December 2021 the UGTT called for early elections over Saied’s failure to announce a roadmap for the country’s political future, in January 2022 Saied and Taboubi reconciled.
The relationship took a negative turn in May, when the UGTT rejected Saied’s invitation to join a national dialogue meant to rewrite the 2014 constitution. The UGTT has been calling for an inclusive and real national dialogue, describing the president’s current approach as a “sham.” The UGTT has refused to take part in a dialogue whose outcome it sees as preordained, with Taboubi stating, “[W]e reject reforms that would bring Tunisia back to the stone age with corporate citizens.”
Simultaneously, the union is facing pressure over the Tunisian government’s comments that the $4 billion IMF deal under negotiation would lower subsidies on goods and services, freeze public-sector wages, and privatize some public companies. The union has strongly rejected similar IMF conditions time and again.
Today, the UGTT and Saied find themselves on opposite sides of a widening chasm. The list of the UGTT’s grievances is growing—from anger over Saied’s handling of the economy, to the failure of Saied’s government to abide by its agreements with the union, nine of which have yet to be published in the official gazette, to continuing frustration with Saied’s decree requiring prior approval before members of the government can negotiate with the union. Therefore, following a failed attempt at negotiating with Saied’s government, the UGTT chose to go ahead with a general strike on June 16, which halted public transport, closed government offices, and led to the cancellation of all international and domestic flights as well as cruises. The strike called on 3 million public-sector workers across 159 state agencies to demand that the government reject wage and subsidy cuts.
While it is not yet clear what the medium- to long-term impact of the general strike will be on Saied, the union’s stronger pushback against the president should worry him tremendously. First, the sheer number of union supporters represents a bloc that, while not always united, has the potential to mobilize significant public opinion against Saied. Furthermore, as Saied’s predecessors have learned, the union is capable of grinding the country’s economy to a halt, with the negative implications this will have both for the lives of the Tunisian people, but also for the confidence of international donors, which Tunisia so desperately needs today.
It is difficult to envision a scenario in which Tunisia achieves a successful IMF deal but does not draw the continued ire of the union. The president is therefore facing a Catch-22. If he does not make a deal with the IMF, Tunisia could face financial ruin. But if he does, he could open the door for instability.
One thing in Saied’s corner is his tenacity. While Tunisia’s democratic leaders were beholden to some modicum of separation of powers and checks and balances in their decisionmaking, and treated the UGTT like a powerful civil society partner, no political or civil society actor to date has been able to sway Saied in the least. He has continued to shove his vision for Tunisia’s future down the throats of his opponents and supporters alike. In the end, he may be the only Tunisian leader capable of challenging the UGTT. But whether he can do so without also inflicting serious damage on Tunisia is unlikely.