Tunisia: Opposition prepares for 'Week of Rage'

A protest camp outside the Tunisian Constituent Assembly.
August 26, 2013

In a move aimed at demobilising and splitting the opposition, the leaders of Tunisia's governing party, Ennahda, reached out to Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the secular ex-regime party Nidaa Tounes. It was part of a bid to resolve the political crisis that has crippled the north African nation for weeks.

In a meeting in Paris on August 15, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi offered Essebsi the presidency and four ministries in a new government if his party supported resuming the suspended National Constituent Assembly (NCA), reported Tunisia Live.

“Leaders of Ennahdha are seeking alliances with Nidaa Tounes and are discrediting the Popular Front,” Ammar Amrousia, a leader of the Popular Front coalition of left parties, said in response.

Business News Tunisia said the Popular Front and General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) were potentially being excluded from the deal ― and that Ennahda was under pressure from the European Union and United States to strike such a compromise.

Secular parties

Since the assassination of Popular Front figure Mohammed Brahmi on July 25, some of the non-government secular parties have been united in the streets with the Popular Front and other left groups, demanding the NCA be dissolved and a non-partisan government to oversee immediate elections.

The move by Ennahda, the senior government partner after the NCA elections in October 2011, could weaken the support base of the protests and divide the broader masses who have mobilised in recent weeks against the government.

Nidaa is the largest party in the Union for Tunisia alliance of secular democratic parties, which brings together social democratic party al-Massar, the al-Joumhouri (Republican) Party and ex-regime figures such as Essebsi.

Although Nidaa has not thrown its full weight behind the protests in the Tunis suburb of Bardo, al-Massar and al-Joumhouri have both done so.

Essebsi, who acted as prime minister in the interim government after the overthrow of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, pressure the Union for Tunisia to withdraw from street protests if such a deal is struck.

Mohsen Marzouk, a member of the Nidaa Tounes executive committee, told Al Jazeera that the party would “not accept any one-on-one deal with Ennahdha and that discussions must continue between all parties, including civil society as represented by the UGTT”. However, another high-level meeting between the parties will reportedly take place this week.

Seeking a more direct route to end the crisis, a group of NCA members opposing the body's suspension began circulating a petition of no confidence in the speaker, Mustafa Ben Jafaar, reported Tunisia Live on August 21. Ben Jafaar, from “troika” government partner Ettakatol, suspended the NCA on August 6 in the face of huge protests.

On August 22 Tunisia Live said Ennahda had accepted a UGTT proposal for “national dialogue”. However, Ennahda statements reaffirmed the party wouldn't accept the demand for the NCA's dissolution, and that the Troika government would continue working until “national consensus” was reached.

Bardo sit-in

While these movers were taking place, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh told state news agency TAP that “there will be no hesitation or retreat against those who, by terrorism, anarchy or rebellion, jeopardize the state institutions,” after the opposition declared another week of protests, dubbed the “Week of Rage”, would begin on August 24.

In response, Hamma Hammami, Worker's Party and Popular Front leader, told AFP that “we have not called for violence... just for peaceful sit-ins to get rid of the coalition in power and of officials appointed for their political affiliations and not their competence”.

The ongoing “sit-in of departure” (rahil in Arabic) at the NCA's chambers in Bardo has continued; after the police removed tents from the site at August 9, the camp was rebuilt on August 16. An outdoor cinema was set up at the site on August 21.

Since Brahmi's murder, the Popular Front and Nidaa Tounes have both joined a “National Salvation Front” demanding a technocratic government to oversee fresh elections and both have supported the "rahil" sit-in and major protests against the regime.

But friction between the two groups before the most recent maneuvers by Ennahda has been notable; the Front declared both the Troika and Nidaa Tounes “extreme” and declared it would seek to break their duopoly in the political sphere when it first formed in October last year.

Nonetheless, in June journalist Yosr Dridi accused the Popular Front of “anti-revolutionary conversion” by seeking a closer alliance with Nidaa Tounes against Ennahda.

Debate over law

A key point separating the Popular Front and Nidaa is the draft Law for the Protection of the Revolution, being drawn up by the government to put to the NCA.

The draft law would ban figures from Ben Ali's regime from holding public office for a period of time. But Ennahda quickly signalled it would be willing to compromise on the law once the current crisis began.

“Canceling or delaying it is possible as long as it comes through dialogue with all blocs in the Constituent Assembly, because there are some that back the law,” Ghannouchi told Reuters on August 5.

“Another possibility is to tighten it so that fewer people are included, or so the time period is shorter,” he said.

It is widely believed that Nidaa, which includes many ex-regime figures, is opposed to the law. In response to the negotiations between Ennahda and Nidaa, Ammar Amrousia said: “If Nidaa Tounes is exempted from the law for the protection of the revolution, they will reach an agreement with Ennahdha."

The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution ― pro-Ennahda militias ― have announced they will turn on the party at election time if the law is not passed. “If Ennahdha decides to cancel the law, we will wage a war against it,” LPR press attache Nasreddine Wazfa told Tunisia Live on August 6.

Although ore attention by the government has been focused on Salafists ― the suspect identified in the murder of Brahmi and Chokri Belaid, Aboubaker al-Hakim, belongs to Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia ― the Leagues for Protection of the Revolution also has a track record of using violence.

Many suspect the Leagues killed Belaid. The Leagues also led an assault on the headquarters of the UGTT in December.

Popular Front leader Mongi Rahoui (who succeeded Chokri Belaid as head of the Democratic Patriots' Movement) told Al Jazeera that he and other Front leaders were still being intimidated in a campaign by Ennahda supporters to silence dissent.

“When a party manoeuvres to position itself to control the administration, and to create an atmosphere of violence so that opposition politicians will be afraid, we cannot remain inactive,” he told AJE on August 20.

Both Rahoui and Besma Khalfaoui have reported threatening vehicles frequently approaching their homes, forcing them to relocate daily.

Perhaps aimed at addressing criticism of the security situation, the military has launched an offensive against radical Islamist groups centred on Chaambi Mountain, on the border with Algeria. Eight soldiers were killed at the site just days after Brahmi's assassination, on July 29.

And in the hours before Brahmi's funeral, a bomb was planted beneath a police car in the La Goulette suburb of Tunis. After several hours, police arrested two suspects, reportedly linked to a “radical religious group”.

Worsening economic situation

The assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi, and the climate of political crisis following, have only partly impacted on broader social struggles.

The number of strikes has declined significantly from last year. Ministry of Social Affairs figures indicate 9% of Tunisian workers took part in strikes during the first half of 2013, compared to 41% last year. But the number of days lost rose by 37%, increased by the general strikes called in response to Belaid's murder.

Other strikes have also taken up political issues as well as basic wages and conditions. A week-long strike in the port of Rades by employees of the Tunisian Company for Stevedoring and Handling erupted over comments by the company's CEO that privatisation of the port was on the agenda in early July.

The strike was called off after reassurances from the ministry of transport that was not the case ― as well as the resignation of the CEO.

Recent strikes have also been waged by shopkeepers in the Medina of Tunis against monopolisation. Earlier in the year, taxi drivers struck to protest fuel price rises.

The economic and political issues that drove Tunisians to revolt under Ben Ali's rule remain challenges for the Troika. A recent Gallup poll showing approval of national leadership fell dramatically from 60% in May to 23% by March 2013.

The poll also found that levels of anxiety over economic issues remain high, with 71% reporting it is a bad time to find work and 41% reporting it is difficult to get by on their household income.

So long as Tunisians remain under these economic pressures, then the demands of the January 14 revolution ― work, dignity and freedom ― remain unfulfilled.

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