First demonstration of social discontent in the first days of the year in Tunisia. The strike called by the powerful trade union centre UGTT has brought the workers of the state-owned public transport company, Transtu, onto the streets to demand payment of salaries and end-of-year bonuses.
On the verge of bankruptcy, hundreds of protesters and workers from this sector have gathered in front of the Ministry of Finance to await a response from the government of Kais Saied. They have been waiting for a solution since November, when they suspended another strike because of an agreement that, according to the Transtu workers, has not been honoured by the government. "The financial situation of the company is really difficult," said the spokesman for the state transport company, Hayat Chamtouri.
For the time being, the strike is expected to continue until "the demands of the company's employees are met," according to the secretary general of the UGTT-affiliated transport federation, Wajih al-Zaidi. "The employees have obligations and some cannot pay their loans," he denounced.
As a result of this strike, metro and bus traffic has been paralysed in the Tunisian capital for the whole day. The Ministry of Transport denounced the strike as having disrupted "the functioning of public services and the interests of citizens".
Tens of thousands left stranded as Tunis's busiest train/bus station sits empty after a sudden #Strike in Public transportation.#Tunisia#Strike pic.twitter.com/cLrshoBmb3— Souhail Khmira (@SKhmira) January 2, 2023
In any case, these demonstrations comply with the threat that UGTT projected to the executive of Kais Saied to "occupy the streets" when it rejected the new budgets of the government. So much so that the union has called more strike days for air, land and sea transport on 25 and 26 January to protest against what UGTT considers "the marginalisation of public companies by the government".
The government's response to this strike has been to extend the state of emergency in the country until 30 January as a preventive step to avoid random protests. This exceptionality gives the Interior Ministry the power to ban gatherings or declare curfews. However, the financial problem will continue to put pressure on the country.
Tunisia is in its worst financial crisis with debt exceeding 100% of gross domestic product (GDP). The only alternative for the government to get out of this situation is an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), from which it hopes to obtain a credit of 1.8 billion dollars, the third loan in the last decade. To achieve this, Kais Saied's government will have to implement particularly delicate policies, such as restructuring public companies, freezing salaries and cutting subsidies on energy and food products.
The Minister of Finance, Samir Saied, himself projected that 2023 would be a particularly difficult year and that inflation could exceed 10%. Faced with this situation, the secretary general of the UGTT, Noueddine Taboubi, has assured that the union will present an initiative "to save the country from collapse with the components of civil society, independently and away from political tensions".
This mention of politics is not far from the reality in Tunisia. The population's discontent has been reflected in the very high abstention rate in the last two consultations with the population: the referendum on the approval of the Constitution drafted unilaterally by President Kais Saied, with 70% abstention, and the legislative elections, which registered only 11% turnout. This reflects discontent with the increasing concentration of power in the hands of President Saied.
The government plans to hold a second round of legislative elections in the first week of February, while the UGTT urges the government to engage in "serious" dialogue to find a solution to Tunisia's serious crisis.