Tunisia’s Powerful Labor Union Is Thwarting President Saied’s Ambitions

The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) is the one body with enough power to derail Saied’s plans.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
Taboubi and other leaders sit at a conference table in front of the Tunisian flag
Taboubi and other leaders sit at a conference table in front of the Tunisian flag
Noureddine Taboubi (right), secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, chairs a meeting of the body’s national administrative commission in Hammamet, Tunisia, on May 23. KHALIL KSIBI/AFP via Getty Images

Last July, Tunisian President Kais Saied embarked on a dramatic mission to rewrite Tunisia’s politics and set the country on what he sees as a dynamic and uncharted course.

But today, few can even agree where Tunisia currently is in its political evolution. For supporters of the country’s political parties, Tunisia stands prisoner to an emerging and illegitimate autocracy. For supporters of the president, the country is embarking on a bold constitutional project. However, for the large swaths of the Tunisian public who are broadly supportive of the president but unclear as to his means or aims, the future is hard to discern.

From the onset, ignoring the withering economy, the ingrained unemployment, and the widespread perception of political corruption that first propelled him to power, Saied’s singular focus has been on redrawing Tunisia’s 2014 constitution to reflect a “bottom up” model of democracy. Though this may not be what Tunisia ends up getting, the model as envisioned vests sovereignty in a series of local councils, elected on the personal qualities of their members rather than party affiliation, who would then appoint regional and national bodies to advise the president.

Last July, Tunisian President Kais Saied embarked on a dramatic mission to rewrite Tunisia’s politics and set the country on what he sees as a dynamic and uncharted course.

But today, few can even agree where Tunisia currently is in its political evolution. For supporters of the country’s political parties, Tunisia stands prisoner to an emerging and illegitimate autocracy. For supporters of the president, the country is embarking on a bold constitutional project. However, for the large swaths of the Tunisian public who are broadly supportive of the president but unclear as to his means or aims, the future is hard to discern.

From the onset, ignoring the withering economy, the ingrained unemployment, and the widespread perception of political corruption that first propelled him to power, Saied’s singular focus has been on redrawing Tunisia’s 2014 constitution to reflect a “bottom up” model of democracy. Though this may not be what Tunisia ends up getting, the model as envisioned vests sovereignty in a series of local councils, elected on the personal qualities of their members rather than party affiliation, who would then appoint regional and national bodies to advise the president.

Now, after dismissing parliament and purging the judiciary, Saied appears tantalizingly close to achieving that goal. Only one political force stands in his way: the Tunisian General Labor Union (known by its French acronym, UGTT)—the one body with enough power to derail Saied’s plans to overhaul the constitution and his ability to negotiate a new deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

For Tunisia, the stakes are high. A fresh agreement with the IMF will buy Tunisia, as well as its president, time—allowing him, in theory at least, to restructure the economy. In return, however, the IMF will almost undoubtedly seek cuts to both Tunisia’s payroll and subsidy systems. Such cuts would be potentially destabilizing for any government that tried to force them through, but they would be especially perilous for a government that appears to have vested all authority into the hands of the president.

In sum, Saied needs the UGTT.

“The UGTT is by far the most powerful civilian force within the country,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst at the Columbia Global Centers’ Tunis location. “It has a huge membership. Moreover, unlike the president, whose appeal rests in rhetoric, its support is institutional. People have been members of the UGTT all their lives, and they see the results every day they go to work.”

The UGTT and its million or so members have emerged as a unique political force in the country. The UGTT spans a number of subsidiary unions, and their power, along with their ability to mobilize that power, cannot be underestimated. In 2013, the UGTT and three other civil society stalwarts—UTICA, the employers’ union; ONAT, the bar association; and LTDH the human rights league—managed to negotiate a new political agreement for Tunisia that staved off a potential revolution and corrected the country’s course. The National Dialogue Quartet, as the grouping was known, won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize as a result.

Subsequent administrations have sought to act in concert with the UGTT, as the risks of alienating the union—not least by working too closely with the same body that now craves its support, the IMF—are considerable. In 2019, a national strike that the UGTT called over suspicions that the government was preparing to cave to the IMF on wages was enough to bring the country’s major cities to a standstill and prompt a serious government rethink.

According to Saied’s road map for constitutional change, the presidency should be consulting with the constitutional commission earmarked to oversee the reforms. Made up of two subcommittees—one an assembly of the deans of the country’s law faculties and the other made up from the Nobel-winning quartet and others—the commission has the task of channeling and codifying the public’s ideas into a list of suggestions for the president’s consideration.

On its current trajectory, this part of the consultation should be concluded by June 30, when the amendments will be presented to the population ahead of the July 25 referendum. At that point, according to the country’s gazette, the voting public will simply be asked, “Do you agree [with] the new constitution?” A new constitutional footing thus (presumably) established, fresh legislative elections are slated for Dec. 17.

However, all is not going to plan. The online consultation intended to sample the public mood failed to garner even double-digit participation from those eligible. And Saied’s invitation to the UGTT to consult doesn’t really reflect the UGTT’s ambition—nor, according to the union itself, does it offer a broad enough political foundation on which to rest any fundamental reform.

Now, rather than cooperating with the UGTT on a national project, Saied finds himself in opposition to the union over his narrow view of the process, excluding all actors—including the country’s political parties—in order to ram through the means to achieve a constitutional end that many feel he conceived of long before he even ran for office.

In response, not only is the UGTT boycotting the process, but it has also called a general strike for June 16. All the while, the IMF looks on and the economy continues to decline.

Excluded from the consultations on constitutional reform, the main political parties have also called upon their members to boycott the referendum, further undermining whatever amendments the president’s commission produces.

However, it is the UGTT’s voice that stands to prove decisive.

Moreover, though the union’s objection to the political parties’ exclusion is likely sincere, there are also broader strategic gains to be made. By objecting now, the UGTT highlights both the limits of its consultative role within the commission and its unrivaled ability to galvanize the street and draw on the collective will of its membership to force change.

“This is a central issue to the UGTT,” Hamza Meddeb of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Foreign Policy. “Every aspect of the negotiations over the constitution or with the IMF will impact directly on its membership,” he said. “Think about it for a moment: Can you see the security services policing a constitution that only a small percentage of the country ever committed to?” Meddeb said, speculating on whether the IMF would even care to negotiate any reform package that would struggle to see the light of day without the UGTT’s backing.

“This is everything, and the IMF knows that. If there’s no deal with the UGTT, then there won’t be a deal with the IMF,” Meddeb added.

Time is not on Tunisia’s side. Before the coronavirus pandemic even hit, the country’s public finances were in a disastrous state. During the early months of the pandemic, the country closed all its borders, with subsequent lockdowns taking a heavy toll on trade. Those measures have been lifted now, but the heavy toll they exacted upon an already faltering economy has been considerable. Tourism, a vital part of Tunisia’s economic ecosystem, formerly contributing around 14 percent of the country’s GDP, is only now beginning to reemerge from the pandemic’s wastelands.

High on the IMF’s agenda is almost certainly slashing Tunisia’s expenditure on public-sector salaries and benefits. In the years immediately following the revolution, the number of state employees almost doubled, with the overriding aim of successive administrations being simply to avoid experiencing another one.

With half of state spending going to its hulking public sector’s salaries and benefits, those figures remain among the world’s highest. Reform of the public sector, including the country’s state-owned enterprises, are key battlegrounds for the UGTT, whose membership stands to be on the front line of any job cuts and will be among the first to bear the brunt of any agreed reduction in subsidies.

Few within Tunisia have any doubt that life is getting worse. Unemployment, one of the principal drivers of unrest, reached 18.5 percent last year. Daily grocery shopping for essentials, an increasingly expensive exercise for everyone in the country, is proving especially painful for its poorest, with even state subsidies for foods such as bread, sugar, and vegetable oil struggling to blunt the edge of rising food prices. Now, squeezed by the war in Ukraine and with the prospect of IMF cuts ahead, the UGTT needs to act and be seen to act.

“Many of these reforms are going to come with a significant social cost,” Meddeb said. “This is the UGTT’s constituency. This is who it is. It needs to be involved in the negotiations.”

Outside the country, the arbitrary nature and speed of Saied’s redrafting has attracted scrutiny—most recently from the Venice Commission, a constitutional law advisory board of the Council of Europe, whose criticism of Tunisia’s constitutional process led to its members being branded personae non gratae in the country on Monday.

How receptive Saied is to civil resistance or international pressure remains to be seen. In what is proving to be a highly individualistic presidency, few clues have been given. Proceeding without the UGTT—thereby risking undermining both the effectiveness of Saied’s constitutional project and the country’s economic future—remains a very real possibility. On the other hand, backtracking, conceding the UGTT’s influence, and allowing the political parties to enter the process, while unlikely, is also possible.

In other words, for now Tunisia remains where it has been for quite a while: in transition.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia. Twitter: @IgnitionUK

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.