Labour union is not Egypt army but is kingmaker in Tunisia
TUNIS – The secretary General of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Hussein Abassi, doesn't like it when his trade union federation is compared to the Egyptian army and he is likened to a general who can make or break a government.
The UGTT has neither tanks nor military ambitions, but it does boast an "army" of a million members that dwarfs the political parties now at loggerheads in Tunis.
With the opposition trying to force the ruling Islamist party Ennahda to resign, Tunis has been abuzz with talk of an "Egyptian scenario", with the UGTT - like the army in Egypt - the only group strong enough to force the Islamists out.
Abassi, a former teacher who became UGTT secretary general in late 2011, says his federation wants to use its influence to end a crisis that has paralyzed Tunisian politics for three weeks, but insists that is where all parallels with Egypt end.
"Our situation is different from Egypt's and I'm not another al-Sisi," he said in an interview, referring to the Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who ousted the country's elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last month.
"We don't know yet what we will do if this stand-off continues, but we have several options and we have ways to make everyone join in a dialogue."
Although Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their dictators within a month of each other at the start of the "Arab Spring" revolts in early 2011, the two countries could hardly be more different.
Tunisia is a country of 11 million, with a secular tradition and an apolitical army.
At 85 million, Egypt is the largest Arab state. Its army has a long tradition of political intervention, and kept the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood illegal for decades.
Both countries elected Islamist governments, but Ennahda has ruled with two secular coalition partners and has polarized Tunisian politics less than the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt.
Despite those differences, Tunisia plunged into crisis last month shortly after the Egyptian army toppled Morsi. The spark here was the year's second assassination of a leading politician by suspected radical Salafi Islamist gunmen.
The opposition, partly emboldened by the mass protests in Egypt that led to Morsi's ouster, organized their own huge demonstrations demanding that Ennahda make way for a caretaker cabinet to prepare new elections.
The so-called "Egyptian scenario" was so widely discussed that Ghannouchi warned the opposition against flirting with the unlikely idea of a military intervention here. "We've made mistakes, but they don't merit a coup d'etat," he remarked.
The UGTT, which has members in both the state and private sectors, swung behind the opposition demand for a technocrat government last week.
Ennahda seemed to be considering some kind of compromise, but Ghannouchi ruled that out on Thursday, offering only to form an all-party government if that could help break the impasse.
"We are disappointed that Ennahda didn't make any concessions," Abassi said. "This government must go because it has made many economic, social and political mistakes. Its failure to provide security is the worst one."
The government and opposition must "reach a solution in a few days", he added. "Any delay to a consensus will double the problems the Tunisian economy is already suffering."
Abassi said he had a meeting with Ghannouchi scheduled for Monday. The UGTT leadership will also meet that day and could decide the federation's further strategy.
The UGTT has already flexed its muscles several times in Tunisia's new politics. Its regional strikes in early 2011 helped bring down Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
It called a one-day strike last month that cost the struggling economy more than $400 million, caused the stock marked to plunge and pushed the dinar currency down to its lowest ever levels against the dollar and euro.
Abassi said the federation wanted to keep the country's political and economic interests foremost while trying to steer through the crisis.
"We helped build this into a modern country, to struggle against colonialism and contribute to the revolution of 2011 and we will continue our role," Abassi said.