The standoff between the UGTT union and the government has reached a nerve-racking stage. The union of teachers is demanding the departure of Neji Jalloul, the minister of education, in retaliation for the sanctions he imposed on teachers who went on strike for three days, as well as the headmasters of schools who refused to communicate the lists of teachers concerned to the ministry. Besides, the teachers’ labour section within the UGTT accuses the ministry of plans to privatise the public sector. The new UGTT leadership, elected last January, has already made a show of force in response to Jalloul’s measures as well as PM Youssef Chahed’s sacking of Abid Briki, ex-minister of the public service ministry. Briki is a heavy-weight figure of the union. He entered the new national unity government last summer, when President Caid Essebsi tried by-pass the PF’s boycott and bring some leftist figures in the government.
Last month Chahed started talking of privatisation and lay-offs in the public sector in line with recommendations of the IMF. This triggered the anger of the UGTT, especially since pay raises there were agreed earlier were suspended. Abid Briki threatened to resign; and in order to save face, Chahed sacked him first, and announced that he would be replaced by Khalil Ghariani, head of social affairs for the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA). For the UGTT union the decision was a humiliation that threatens large scale layoffs and privatisation of the public sector. The union let it be known that it is against the decision when Noureddine Tabboubi, leader of the union, met with Chahed, but no agreement was reached. The union threatened to call for more strikes, including in the education sector. Watching all this, UTICA backed off and Ghariani announced that he had informed Chahed that he could not accept the ministerial nomination. To save face, Chahed announced last Friday that he would abolish the public-sector portfolio, and annex it directly to his premiership duties. The standoff continues.
A number of analysts and politicians have proposed ways to mediate the crisis and save face for both parties. One initiative called for a reshuffle of the government whereby Neji Jalloul would stay in the government but be tasked to lead another portfolio. This way both the UGTT and PM Chahed would save face. It seems that Nida Tounes and Ennahdha have already reached consensus for a replacement of Jalloul. A solution would then be found for the public-sector ministry. What remains to be seen is the reaction of the Popular Front, through the labour union.
Meanwhile, in Carthage, German President Angela Merkel’s visit was marked by an agreement to send back 1500 illegal Tunisian immigrants, in return of a German investment of 250 million Euros in regional development in the country.
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