Union leaders demand clean break from Tunisia’s dictator

Tunisia on Friday began an official three days of mourning for the 78 Tunisians killed during the month-long struggle to overthrow former dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, but street demonstrations continued in Tunis, the capital city, as people demanded that the new interim government, which includes eight members with ties to the old regime, be free of all Ben Ali supporters..

On Thursday, those eight members quit Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, but they remained in the government. They had hoped that their resignation from the RCD (the French abbreviation for the party) would stem further street demonstrations.

On Tuesday, four labor union leaders who had been invited to join the new government, abruptly quit because holdovers from the old regime held all the key positions. 

As the union leaders were quitting, the nation’s largest labor confederation, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT, the union’s initials in French) called for a general strike to demand that the new government make a clean break from Ben Ali and his ruling party.

“I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people,” said Ines Mawdud, a student taking part in Tuesday’s protests. “The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years.” 

At the Tuesday demonstration, UGTT members carried signs that read “RCD Out.”  Ben Ali Out had been the rallying cry of UGTT and other anti-government demonstrators during the protests that led up to Ben Ali’s resignation.

Three of the union leaders who resigned from the government on Tuesday belonged to the UGTT: Anour Ben Gueddour was junior minister of transportation and equipment, Houssine Dimassi was labor minister, and Abdeljelil Bedoui was minister without portfolio. Mustafa Ben Jaafar who was health minister also resigned. He belonged to an opposition union, the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedom.

It’s not clear yet what impact the decision by the eight RCD ministers to leave the party will have. The government did meet for the first time on Thursday, but protests continued.

“If the government responds to our demands, we will go back to it, but it must shoulder its responsibilities,” said Noureddine Taboubi, UGTT’s secretary-general. “We call for disbanding the RCD, a demand that is popular and essential.”

The fall of Ben Ali government began more than a month ago when protestors took to the streets to demand jobs and lower food prices. The leadership of UGTT at first opposed the demonstrations, but many local unions and their leaders and activists were playing key roles in organizing the protests.

The UGTT soon changed its position and began to support the protestors. As the demonstrations gathered strength its demands widened in scope. Demonstrators began to hold Ben Ali and his neo-liberal economic policies responsible for Tunisia’s widespread poverty. They also began to demand political freedom, which Ben Ali had stifled while in power.

Ben Ali tried to suppress the demonstrations by force. At least 70 people died at the hands of Ben Ali’s security forces during the protests. But instead of intimidating protestors, Ben Ali’s violence only increased his isolation from the people.

Things came to a head last week after UGTT called a general strike and thousands of Tunisians poured onto the streets chanting “Ben Ali out.” Demonstrators confronted Ben Ali’s security forces, who tried to maintain order with gun fire and tear gas. When that didn’t work, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

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