General strike in Tunisia ends after governor dismissed; economic problems remain

Union leaders in the western Tunisian town of Siliana called off a general strike on Sunday after the Tunisian government agreed to the dismissal of the region’s governor, who was accused by the strikers of ignoring the concerns of the local population where unemployment remains high and the economic misery that sparked Tunisia’s 2011 revolution continues to fester.

“The governor  is permanently gone.” said UGTT leader Ahmed Chefai to a crowd that gathered Sunday outside UGTT’s office in Siliana. “He belongs to the past, he will never set foot again in Siliana.”

The Regional Workers Union, which is affiliated with the national federation of unions UGTT, had been organizing demonstrations in Siliana since November 22 to protest the lack of economic development investment that the national government had agreed to make in the region.

The demonstrations turned into a general strike after police fired tear gas and birdshot at the demonstrators. About 200 people were injured during the demonstrations and subsequent general strike.

The town’s unemployment rate remains unsustainably high nearly two years after the uprising that began in nearby Sidi Bouzid and that led to the overthrow of Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidize Ben Ali.

“I’ve been unemployed since 2009,” said Sami Guirat, a participant at the demonstration to Tunisia Live. “I am participating in this march to push the authorities to find solutions to our social problems and to penalize those who shot and blinded protesters.”

After the revolution, the Islamist party Ennahda came to power and agreed to invest more in the development of Tunisia’s interior including Siliana, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and Gafsa, which under the neoliberal economic policies of Ben Ali had become marginalized and excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by the country’s elite.

In an interview with Al Jareeza back in April, economist Hassine Dimassi, a professor at Sousse University and a UGTT advisor, explained the problems that Tunisia’s interior regions are facing:

These regions can never develop by themselves. There must be support from outside, there is too much poverty. What form can this support take? It could come as private investment, whether local or foreign.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t borne fruit over the last twenty years, in spite of significant tax incentives offered to private investors in these regions. To give an idea of the extent of the problem [of uneven development], over the past twenty years, for every ten jobs created in the industrial sector, nine of them were along the eastern coast while only one was created in the rest of the country.

This is despite state incentives to businesses. When people leave the (interior), the most dynamic young people go overseas, to France, Italy et cetera. They make some money, but then their families move to the east. Any remittances are going to the richest parts of the country, not the inland regions. So migrants don’t tend to help develop these regions either.

Finally, the (government) has taken a hands-off approach to the economy. Since the 1990s, the argument has been that the government should no longer invest in productive sectors such as industry or tourism. So the state has been absent.

The conclusion that must be taken to avoid making the same errors in the future is that the state must itself take action in these regions. Otherwise we could see a repeat of the current situation in ten years.

After the revolution and after Ennahda came to power, it promised to invest in the country’s interior economy.

But so far, little of this promised investment has taken place. As a result, the people of Siliana took out their anger on Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi the Ennahda appointed governor, who did little to get the national government to keep its promise.

In announcing the resignation of Mahjoubi, UGTT also said that the national government had agreed to “clarify” its development program for the Siliana and the other interior regions, to provide funds for medical care for those wounded in the demonstrations, and to conduct speedy court reviews of people arrested last April during similar demonstrations.

UGTT said that t was canceling the general strike but the strike would resume if Mahjoubi was returned to power.

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