Tunisia grinds to a halt as unions challenge president

Supporters of Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) carry flags as they gather during a national public strike outside their headquarters in Tunis. (REUTERS)
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Updated 16 June 2022

Tunisia grinds to a halt as unions challenge president

  • Police were present in large numbers outside UGTT headquarters as strikers began to rally
  • Strike comes as Tunisia prepares to enter formal talks with IMF on a new bailout plan for its debt-laden economy

TUNIS: Flights were canceled, public transport ground to a halt and government offices were closed in a nationwide strike by Tunisia’s main trade union confederation Thursday, that piled pressure on a president already facing a string of crises.
The powerful UGTT confederation had called on up to three million public sector workers to strike, halting work at 159 state agencies and public companies to demand concessions on salaries and threatened reforms.
The action appeared to be widely observed in the capital Tunis, where post offices and public utilities were closed.
Police were present in large numbers outside UGTT headquarters as strikers began to gather for a rally.
Public television played repeats and carried an announcement that staff were taking part in the strike.
At the capital’s main airport, check-in desks were empty and frustrated passengers gazed at screens showing rows of canceled flights.
“This strike is the culmination of a collective failure by more than 10 Tunisian governments, the UGTT, the International Monetary Fund and Tunisia’s international partners” to restructure the economy, said Tunisian economist Fadhel Kaboub.
“It will serve as a reminder to the IMF that working people in Tunisia can only sustain so much economic pain.”
The strike comes as Tunisia prepares to enter formal talks with the IMF on a new bailout plan for its debt-laden economy.
Tunisians are facing soaring inflation and the UGTT has demanded a new deal to raise public sector salaries, including retroactively for last year.
While the UGTT’s opponents say it is ignoring the country’s deep financial woes, its leverage has been boosted by the IMF making a bailout deal conditional on trade union support.
The government has presented a reform plan to the global lender which includes a freeze on the public sector wage bill, progressive cuts to some subsidies and a restructuring of publicly owned companies.
But the UGTT, which has warned against “painful reforms” aimed at pleasing the IMF, has demanded guarantees that state sector firms, including some monopolies, will remain publicly owned.
The UGTT said Wednesday that its strike action aimed to defend workers’ economic and social rights after the “dithering of the government in the face of their legitimate demands.”
Employment Minister Nasreddine Nsibi said the government reserved the right to requisition some workers to allow essential services to operate.
While the UGTT insists the strike is not political, it comes as President Kais Saied faces intense criticism for excluding opposition forces from his “national dialogue” — part of a push to overhaul the Tunisian state and consolidate an ongoing power grab.
The president sacked the government and suspended an elected parliament in July last year, before dissolving the legislature in March and sacking scores of judges by decree earlier this month.
The UGTT was invited to take part in the national dialogue, but refused on the grounds that key political forces were not. It also argued that the process aimed to push through “conclusions decided unilaterally in advance.”
The UGTT, a co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in a previous national dialogue in the wake of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, had originally backed Saied when he sacked the government and suspended parliament.
But it has become increasingly critical as Saied has extended his power grab, which some of his rivals describe as a coup in the only democracy to emerge from the Arab uprisings of 2011.
Kaboub said democratization had failed to deliver key economic reforms such as boosting food and energy sovereignty and investing in high value-added industries.
“It’s time for the IMF, the Tunisian government and the UGTT to formulate an alternative vision for economic development in Tunisia,” he said.


Iran says 450 protesters arrested in northern province

Updated 26 min 29 sec ago

Iran says 450 protesters arrested in northern province

  • Hundreds of demonstrators, reformist activists and journalists have been arrested during the demonstrations across the country since unrest first broke out after Mahsa Amini’s death was announced on September 16

TEHRAN: Authorities in a northern Iran province have arrested 450 people during more than 10 days of protests following a young Kurdish woman’s death in morality policy custody, state media reported Monday.
Hundreds of demonstrators, reformist activists and journalists have been arrested during the mostly night-time demonstrations across the country since unrest first broke out after Mahsa Amini’s death was announced on September 16.
Amini, whose Kurdish first name was Jhina, was detained three days before that in Tehran for allegedly breaching rules mandating hijab head coverings and modest dress.
“During the troubles of the past days, 450 rioters have been arrested in Mazandaran,” the northern province’s chief prosecutor, Mohammad Karimi, was quoted as saying by official news agency IRNA.
They “have attacked government buildings and damaged public property in several parts of Mazandaran,” he added.
Local media reported that protesters were shouting anti-regime slogans, and Karimi said they were led by “foreign anti-revolutionary agents.”
On Saturday, authorities in the neighboring Guilan province announced the arrest of 739 people, including 60 women.
Iran’s judiciary chief, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, on Sunday “emphasised the need for decisive action without leniency” against the core instigators of the “riots,” the judiciary’s Mizan Online website said.
At least 41 people have died since the unrest began, mostly protesters but including members of the Islamic republic’s security forces, according to an official toll.
Photos published Monday by the Tasnim news agency showed protesters in Qom, a holy Shiite city about 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of the capital Tehran.
Security forces have released these images of “lead instigators,” Tasnim reported, asking residents to “identify them and inform the authorities.”


Lebanese banks reopen partially after weeklong closure

Updated 26 September 2022

Lebanese banks reopen partially after weeklong closure

  • Lebanon’s talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout have progressed sluggishly

BEIRUT: Banks in crisis-hit Lebanon partially reopened Monday following a weeklong closure amid a wave of heists in which assailants stormed at least seven bank branches earlier this month, demanding to withdraw their trapped savings.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon said last Monday it was going on strike amid bank holdups by depositors and activists — a sign of growing chaos in the tiny Mideast nation.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks had last closed for a prolonged period back in October 2019, for two weeks, during mass anti-government protests triggered by the crisis. That year, the banks imposed strict limits on cash withdrawals, tying up the savings of millions of people.
The country’s economy has since spiraled, with about three-quarters of the population plunged into poverty. The Lebanese pound has lost over 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
The frustrations boiled over this month, with angry and desperate depositors — including one armed with a hunting rifle — started holding up the banks. One of them, Sali Hafez, broke into a Beirut bank branch with a fake pistol and retrieved some $13,000 in her savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
However, only a handful of bank branches opened Monday — accepting only customers with prior appointments for corporate transactions. The partial reopening was to continue indefinitely, until banks can secure the safety of their employees.
Crowds of anxious Lebanese gathered around ATM machines.
“I’ve been here for three hours, and they won’t let me in or schedule an appoint,” Fadi Al-Osta told The Associated Press outside a bank branch in Beirut. “The security guards can let us in one at a time and check for weapons. Isn’t that their job?”
George Al-Hajj, president of Lebanon’s Federation of Bank Employees Syndicates, said branches have downsized, to have a larger number of security guards per branch.
“Our goal isn’t to harm anyone, but we want to go to work feeling safe and secure,” Al-Hajj said. “We’re also human beings.”
Tensions were simmering in the southern city of Sidon, where State Security forces armed with assault rifles stood outside some bank branches. Some police officers and army soldiers, whose salaries have lost over 90 percent of their value, unsuccessfully tried to break into a bank branch to collect small cash bonus recently granted by the government.
Lebanon’s talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout have progressed sluggishly, with authorities failing to implement critical reforms, including restructuring the banking sector and lifting banking secrecy laws. Last week, a visiting IMF delegation criticized the government’s slowness to implement desperately-needed financial reforms.

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Iran says US trying to violate sovereignty over unrest, warns of response

Updated 26 September 2022

Iran says US trying to violate sovereignty over unrest, warns of response

  • Iran has said the United States was supporting rioters and seeking to destablize the Islamic Republic

DUBAI: US attempts to violate Iran’s sovereignty over the issue of protests triggered by the death of a woman in police custody will not go unanswered, the foreign ministry said on Monday.
Iran has been rocked by nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, after she was detained by morality police enforcing the Islamic Republic’s strict restrictions on women’s dress.
The case has drawn international condemnation. Iran has said the United States was supporting rioters and seeking to destablize the Islamic Republic.
“Washington is always trying to weaken Iran’s stability and security although it has been unsuccessful,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani told Nour news, which is affiliated with a top security body, in a statement.


Syria cholera death toll rises to 29 — health ministry

Updated 26 September 2022

Syria cholera death toll rises to 29 — health ministry

  • The highly contagious disease has also spread to the country’s Kurdish-held and opposition areas in north and northwestern Syria

AMMAN: A cholera outbreak in several regions of Syria has killed 29 people, the Syrian health ministry said on Monday in what the UN has called the worst outbreak in the war-torn country for years.
Rapid assessment testing confirmed 338 cases since the outbreak was first recorded last month, with the bulk of deaths and cases in the northern Aleppo province, the ministry said in a statement.
It said 230 cases were in Aleppo province where 25 people were confirmed dead. The rest were spread across the country.
The United Nations this month said the outbreak was believed be linked to irrigation of crops using contaminated water and people drinking unsafe water from the Euphrates river which bisects Syria from the north to the east.
The highly contagious disease has also spread to the country’s Kurdish-held and opposition areas in north and northwestern Syria where millions have been displaced by the decade-old conflict, medical officials said.
Suspected cholera cases have risen to 2,092 in the northeast of Syria since the outbreak was announced this month, said the US-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) which operates in the northern region.
It said there were fears about significant under-reporting of cases.
The widespread destruction of national water infrastructure after more than a decade of war means much of the Syrian population is reliant on unsafe water sources.
Prior to the recent cholera outbreak, the water crisis had caused an increase in diseases such as diarrhea, malnutrition and skin conditions in the region, according to the World Health Organization.


Renewed militia clashes rock western Libya; 5 killed

Updated 26 September 2022

Renewed militia clashes rock western Libya; 5 killed

  • Along with the five who were killed, at least 13 other civilians were wounded

CAIRO: A new round of infighting between rogue militias in western Libya has killed at least five people, including a 10-year-old girl, health authorities said Monday, the latest bout of violence to rock the North African nation mired in decadelong chaos.
The fighting broke out on Sunday between rival militias in the western town of Zawiya, where armed groups — like in many other towns and cities in oil-rich Libya — are competing for influence.
Along with the five who were killed, at least 13 other civilians were wounded in the clashes that continued overnight, the Health Ministry’s emergency services said.
The fighting trapped dozens of families living in the area for hours, said Malek Merset, a spokesman for the emergency services. Local media reported that one militia fired at a member of its rivals, wounding a militiaman who was taken to hospital.
The violence was the latest between militias in western Libya. In August, clashes in the capital of Tripoli killed more than 30 people, one of the deadliest bouts of fighting in Libya in many months.
Libya was plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The oil-rich county has for years been split between rival administrations, each backed by rogue militias and foreign governments.
Libya is now split between two rival administrations. One is that of the government of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in Tripoli who refused to step down after Libya failed to hold elections last year. A second administration is led Prime Minister Fathy Bashagha who operates from the eastern city of Benghazi after failed efforts to install his government in the capital.

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