The Middle East Channel

Instigating emotionalism in Tunisia

Instigating emotionalism in Tunisia

At dawn on July 26, one day after the assassination of National Constituent Assembly (NCA) member Mohamed Brahmi, the opposition — led by Jibhat Shaabia (the Popular Front), Nidaa Tounes (the Call for Tunisia), and a number of civil society activists — demanded the dissolution of the Tunisian government and the NCA in order to "correct the course of the revolution and to spare the country further economic and security afflictions."

Despite the absence of a clear connection between Brahmi’s murder and the policies of the government — which has been cracking down harder on Salafi jihadi extremism and trying to provide more security — and despite that the opposition had no plans to create a democratically legitimate body to replace the NCA, this announcement was received with great euphoria by many Tunisians. Ongoing protests in the Bardo neighborhood of Tunis, just outside the Constituent Assembly, have been fueled by emotion and the shortsighted power hunger of opposition elites, including figures in Nidaa Tounes, Jibhat Shaabia, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) — the country’s largest trade union — and the media. 

While analysts are beginning to gain a better understanding of Nidaa Tounes, there has been a surprising lack of attention to the role the UGTT and media are playing. Though the UGTT and media are not political parties, they are politicized institutions, influenced strongly by old regime interests, and they desire to shape the political scene to their will. It is important to look critically and calmly at the current political situation in Tunisia and recognize the forces behind the Bardo protest and calls for dissolving the NCA.

The UGTT claims its actions are not politically motivated. Historically, the organization did defend the interests of workers, especially when Tunisia was achieving its independence from France and during the presidency of Habib Bourguiba. But the period of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s rule from 1987 to 2011 changed the nature of the organization. Many top figures in UGTT were implicated in Ben Ali’s circles of power. Today, the UGTT usually acts not to defend the interests of workers, which should be the primary goal of a trade union, but to serve the politically motivated self-interest of a handful of elites in the organization.

Just after the 2011 revolution, many people called for UGTT to open its files, as a number of UGTT leaders were suspected of having made corrupt deals with Ben Ali and his cronies. These deals involved investments, smuggling, and more. Instead of opening its files and aiming to be a more transparent organization, UGTT refused any investigation. In November 2011, UGTT’s leader, Abdessalem Jrad, who had led the organization during the Ben Ali years and was known for having close ties to the old regime, faced a judicial investigation. A judge banned him from traveling outside the country. UGTT threatened to go on general strike unless the judge’s decision was annulled — this despite that the accusations against Jrad were founded on reliable information provided by the National Commission for Investigation on the Affairs of Corruption and Embezzlement. The judge’s decision was cancelled the next day and no one has questioned Jrad’s past abuses since.

Instead of fighting to support workers’ interests, UGTT has been using strikes and sit-ins as tools to destabilize the country’s progress. UGTT has called hundreds of strikes over the past two years. These strikes have paralyzed Tunisia’s economy and imposed colossal pressure on the state’s budget in already fragile financial times. Throughout these events, UGTT leaders have used the principle of defending workers to mask personal opportunism. People at the top of UGTT have demonstrated their power by shutting the country down with general strikes, regardless of whether those strikes solve anything or benefit anyone — most of all the workers.

UGTT called countrywide general strikes after this year’s two political assassinations — that of Chokri Belaid on February 6 and Mohamed Brahmi on July 25, as if strikes could bring either of these people back or help catch the criminals. These strikes cost the country millions of dollars and brought Tunisia to a standstill. Even schools and hospitals stopped working. Many factories have shut down over the past two years because of such strikes and have relocated to countries like Morocco. The financial damage caused by these strikes cripples an already weak government that is trying to reform important institutions and provide services to the people. These strikes have therefore helped create public disgust at the government’s inability to improve the economy and provide more services faster.

Politically and ideologically, UGTT is aligned with the opposition parties Jibhat Shaabia and Nidaa Tounes. The tensions between Ennahda and opposition groups like Jibhat Shaabia reflect much older tensions between Islamists, leftists, and pan-Arabists on university campuses during the 1960s and 1970s. This fight was suspended because of the dictatorship, but has revived and exploded in the country today.

Unlike Nidaa Tounes, which is a combination of leftists, anti-Ennahda secularists, and old regime forces, Jibhat Shaabia is a much smaller coalition of 10 leftist and pan-Arabist parties, and it is driven more by emotionalism than strategy. Most Jibhat Shaabia supporters are young. They seem to be against everything and fight amongst themselves — sometimes violently, as I witnessed at Manouba University when Jibhat Shaabia supporters threw punches, knives, and even heavy stones at one another.

Many Jibhat Shaabia supporters have lived in poverty all their lives, and tend to be reckless and anarchistic in their political thinking. They consider themselves leftists but do not want to join with Nidaa Tounes because of its well-known linkages to the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Ben Ali’s former ruling party. Though they constitute a major pillar of support at UGTT protests, they rarely talk about workers’ rights. Instead, they usually belittle and discredit Ennahda, which they consider as an existential enemy, but for reasons that sometimes have more to do with just that the party is in power. Inside UGTT, a tension exists between the membership, which is heavily influenced by Jibhat Shaabia’s youth and emotionalism, and the leadership, which has turned more and more toward Nidaa Tounes. Many Jibhat Shaabia youth disagree vehemently with that turn. Despite these tensions, both members and leaders often seem motivated by political power and ideological fury at Ennahda, not workers’ rights.

Amidst all this, the media has played a central role sustaining the opposition’s narrative — namely that the NCA is illegitimate and that recent assassinations were the government’s fault — and depicting reality through its murky lenses. By broadcasting inaccurate and emotive statements and a constant stream of alarming news, media has been making Tunisians more intolerant toward the NCA and each other.

The TV channel El-Hiwar Ettounsi, for instance, which is owned by the Nidaa Tounes leader Taher Ben Hassine, is a typical example of the biased and alarmist coverage. It devoted all its programs to covering every sit-in and demonstration in the country, pinpointing all forms of social malaise, and linking the existence of these problems to the governing troika, especially the "Islamists" and so-called "new comers" (i.e. Ennahda).

This channel is the mouthpiece of the opposition’s destructive calls to dissolve the NCA. It is even explicitly instigating the army and the "honest" ministry of interior cadres to conduct a coup against Ennahda, which it sweepingly refers to as the "Ikhwan" (Muslim Brotherhood) and "the murderers."

Other major media outlets like Nessma TV, Shems FM, Al Maghreb newspaper — whose directors and contributors are well-known for being pro-Nidaa Tounes– and dozens of popular Facebook pages close to the opposition also adopted a passionately belligerent stance toward the government. Facebook pages circulated thousands of rumors meant to discredit the value of any positive efforts undertaken by the "new rulers."

Special emphasis was directed toward magnifying the imperfections of the democratic transition process. The information transferred to the public was saturated with emotive charges in the classic style of "yellow journalism." For months, media outlets used clips of assembly officials arguing and acting unprofessionally to prove that the entire new ruling political leadership is incompetent and inefficient. This caricatured portrayal was taken seriously by many people, resulting in a negative perception of the whole post-revolution experience. Such coverage has stirred many Tunisians to question whether ousting Ben Ali has been worth it.

It is interesting that the media has taken this approach, given that so many media outlets are owned by supporters of Nidaa Tounes — a party with strong ties to individuals who benefitted from the old regime and will benefit more if they can convince people the revolution wasn’t worth it.

Most media outlets have also worked hard to propagandize the term hukuma fashila, or "failure government." This term was confirmed in many average Tunisians’ minds by recurrent incidents that prevented them from accessing basic needs of everyday life. Since the January 2011 revolution, there have been frequent power outages and water supplies being cut off, as well as other suspensions of services particularly in poor interior regions like Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Jendouba, Kairouan, and Kef. It was as though people had been deprived of indispensable necessities in order to drive them into the streets. "We were neglected all our lives, we have no infrastructure and no job opportunities and now they are trying to strip us from our last basic right, the right to live!" said one infuriated young man from El Ala, a village near Kairouan, in July 2012. He was blocking the street with about 30 other people.

These power outages and water cut-offs were likely not a coincidence. A recent New York Times report showed that state-supplied goods, like electricity and water, which had been frequently cut over the past year, mysteriously returned when the Egyptian military deposed Mohammed Morsi. Similarly, in the northwest region of Kef, forest fires have been raging for over a week. These forests are likely being burned intentionally to create chaos at an already chaotic time. Dar Chichou suffered from similar forest fires in 2011. These fires were set by friends of the former first lady, Leila Trabelsi, and her clan. They have not been punished.

In the end, Brahmi’s assassination was meant to provoke maximum confusion and emotional hysteria. Calls to dissolve the government and pressure NCA members to resign threaten the transition, and would do nothing to solve the recent murders or speed institutional reform in Tunisia. Sixty members of the NCA have joined the Bardo sit-in calling to dismantle the government. About 45 of them have demanded the dissolution of the NCA — the very house that hosted them for nearly two years. They have suspended their membership but have so far refused to resign. Conveniently, they still benefit from their high salaries.

Regardless of exactly who planned Brahmi’s murder and the subsequent destabilizing attacks Tunisia has been experiencing — be it a small group of ultra-violent Salafi jihadis, old regime interests, foreigners bent on stopping Tunisia’s revolution, or some combination of the three — it is clear that there are people who are determined to upend this transition. Behind some Tunisian politicians, there are businessmen who had very prominent positions in the old regime. Old regime interests are strong in Nidaa Tounes, the media, and even in UGTT, and these links need to be better understood by Tunisians and outside analysts.

Omar Belhaj Salah is an independent researcher and graduate of Manouba University.