North Africa

‘Coordination committees’ overshadow parties, unions in Tunisia

Regional and local “tansiqiyats’ (coordination committees) are putting protesters in various parts of Tunisia in direct contact with the authority, by sitting at the dialogue table and negotiating to receive satisfaction over many demands related to employment and development.

As protests spread in the country, the role of these coordination committees grew, making them a de-facto alternative to political parties and unions, especially since the previous events have shown that the successive governments respond to social demands only when sit-ins and strikes occur.

On Friday, Selim Tissaoui, advisor to the Prime Minister in charge of social affairs, warned that the idea of ​​coordination committees was taking hold as an alternative to the political and party fabric, considering that this would usher the country to what he called “a return to the Stone Age.”

In a statement to a local radio station, Tissaoui said, “It is time for all parties, national organisations, personalities and bodies that are supposed to represent the widest possible sectors of society to reconsider their approach to dealing with the problems of reality and the priorities of the stage.”

He emphasized that if this does not happen, the idea of ​​coordination committees will take hold as an alternative to a political and party fabric in society. “What we want is for our society to be organised and structured and has someone to represent it,” he said, considering that “the models of organisation embodied by the coordination committees are backward.” Tissaoui stressed that “what is supposed to happen in a societal development trend is to have established parties and organisations that have weight and credibility with the people, and that the opposite approach means returning to the stone age.”

Tissaoui pointed out that the state of tension and crisis in many regions and has become a chronic condition in Tunisia that has persisted in recent years, stressing that “nothing is done at a profound level to restructure the general situation in the country, especially at the economic and political levels, the country will continue to produce these same phenomena.”

He pointed out that what was new in the recent protest movements was the emergence of coordination committees in what he described as a “remarkable and simultaneous” manner. He added that what mattered to him in the context of reforming the situation in the country on a structural level was that organisations, parties and other bodies that have a representation revise and restore their way of dealing with real problems and the priorities of the stage, warning that failure to do so will lead to the entrenchment of the idea of coordination committees.

The coordination committees are grassroots committees formed spontaneously by the people to defend specific and local demands. In Tunisia, they were mainly born in the governorate of Tataouine, in the south of the country, against the backdrop of a broad social movement led by the Coordination Committee of the Kamour Sit-in, to demand development for the region and employment opportunities for the region’s youth in the oil and gas installations in the governorate.

Observers believe that coordination committees came to displace the role of those who used to carry out the task of negotiating between the protesters and the authority (parties and unions), as well as in light of the retreat of of civil society organisations, associations and activists as main defenders of popular demands.

Political analyst Abdelaziz Kotti said, “Coordination committees are an expression of the inability of the parties to provide the appropriate framework for social demands, and highlight the weakness of the state and its inability to meet the daily needs of citizens in a proactive and pre-emptive manner, especially for unemployed youth,following the increase in poverty and the deterioration of the middle class.”

Talking to The Arab Weekly, he added, “These committees appeared in light of the political, economic and financial impotence of the state, the absence of its authority and its inability to take decisions. They are societal formations to express a state of tension and which have appropriated the power to decide.”

“The phenomenon is a product of the failure of the parties, the citizens’ disappointment in the political class, and the loss of confidence in the representative and the official, which enabled it to take root and control of matters,” he said.

Tunisian analysts fear the gradual shrinking of the role of the traditional and historical active forces in the country, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) and the unions behind them. They see these groups and organisations as failing to convey the voice of the marginalised and impoverished and to defend their professional and development rights, at a time also that civil society components retreated in their task of framing grassroots demands in their various dimensions.

Political analyst Neji Zairi confirmed, in a statement to The Arab Weekly, that “the coordination committees appear to be a spontaneous movement and a solution resorted to by the people and protesters to demand development and employment. Their mere creation and role are evidence of a vacuum in directing the protests.”

“Some trade unions, such as the UGTT because of its prestigious status, should have played a role in exerting oversight over the protests, in addition to the role of the political parties, which ought to have taken the initiative to listen to the protesters. The failure of all of these parties to play their role paved the way for the emergence of these coordination committees,” he added.

Zairi demanded that “the UGTT play its role and be present and intensify its presence so that things do not get out of hand, because we fear chaos and closing production sites.”

Some have argued that the idea of ​​coordination committees came with President Kais Saied, who had built his election campaign on the slogan “The people want…” He had also cultivated his image as an independent political actor who boycotted the idea of ​​party affiliation, and of being the saviour of Tunisian youth from the clutches of unemployment and poverty. He preached such ideas as activating the role of the citizens in defining the sought project its direction. Others, however, have pointed out that idea of grassroots formations is not new and has appeared since 2011, but these formations were contained and channelled by elements in the regional labour unions and Human Rights League branches.

The first coordination committee of El-Kamour had brought the government to sign an agreement regarding the implementation of development and employment projects in the region. Under this agreement, the government pledged to provide hundreds of jobs in government and petroleum companies, in addition to establishing new companies to absorb the large number of the unemployed in this poor governorate.

Soon after the Kamour Agreement, dozens of other Tunisian cities and towns, such as Gabes, Kairouan, Beja, Gafsa, Sfax, and Kasserine, rushed to formulate similar demands.

Locals protest against pollution caused by nearby factories on the road leading to the industrial zone of Ghannouch in Tunisia’s Gabes region. (AFP)

In the governorate of Gabes (south-east), the so-called Coordination Committee of the Somoud 2 Sit-in is leading a widespread protest movement that has led to an acute shortage of domestic propane gas in most regions of the south of the country, since this vital product is produced in facilities in the city of Gabes.

Similarly, in the governorate of Kasserine (center), the so-called local Coordination Committee of the Douleb Sit-in has blocked the headquarters of an oil company in the area of El-Ayoun, demanding improvements in the developmental situation.

While a number of political parties are calling for activating the role of national organisations and parties as mediators between protesters and representatives of the state, others have blamed what was happening on the successive governments that have sought in one way or another to ignore the role of civil society and its components, and this has led to weakening of the social and trade union movements led by national organisations.

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