Tunisia grinds to a halt as unions challenge president

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)
Short Url
Updated 16 June 2022

Tunisia grinds to a halt as unions challenge president

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.


Heavy rains collapse 10 historic buildings in Yemeni capital

Heavy rains collapse 10 historic buildings in Yemeni capital
Updated 11 August 2022

Heavy rains collapse 10 historic buildings in Yemeni capital

Heavy rains collapse 10 historic buildings in Yemeni capital

SANAA, Yemen: Heavy rains lashing Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, which dates back to ancient times, have in recent days collapsed 10 buildings in the Old City, the country’s Houthi rebels said Wednesday.
At least 80 other buildings have been heavily damaged in the rains and are in need of urgent repairs, said the rebels, who have controlled Sanaa since the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war more than eight years ago.
The Old City of Sanaa is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the area believed to have been inhabited for more than 2 millennia. Its architecture is unique, with foundations and first stories built of stone, and subsequent stories out of brick — deemed to be some of the world’s first high-rises.
The buildings have red brick facades adorned with white gypsum molding in ornate patterns, drawings comparisons to gingerbread houses — a style that has come to symbolize Yemen’s capital. Many of the houses are still private homes and some are more than 500 years old.
In a statement, Abdullah Al-Kabsi, the culture minister in the Houthi administration, said the rebels are working with international organizations and seeking help in dealing with the destruction. There were no immediate reports of dead or injured from the collapses.
The houses had withstood centuries but this season’s intense rains have proved too much for the iconic structures. Bricks and wooden beams now make for massive piles of rubble in between still-standing structures.
The rains show no signs of letting up.
“I get scared when I hear the rain and pray to God because I am afraid that my house will collapse over me,” Youssef Al-Hadery, a resident of the Old City said.


Yemen has enough wheat for two-and-a-half months, document shows

Yemen has enough wheat for two-and-a-half months, document shows
Updated 10 August 2022

Yemen has enough wheat for two-and-a-half months, document shows

Yemen has enough wheat for two-and-a-half months, document shows
  • Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, and 45 percent of its wheat needs came from Ukraine and Russia
  • Importers are unable to store significant amounts of wheat due to infrastructure limitations at Yemeni ports

ADEN: Yemen has secured enough wheat to cover two-and-a-half months of consumption, a commerce ministry document dated Aug. 4 showed, as global disruptions and local currency instability risk deepening the war-torn country’s hunger crisis.
A review by the internationally recognized government in Aden showed 176,400 tons of wheat available — 70,400 stockpiled and 106,000 booked for August/September delivery — according to the document.
This is in addition to 32,300 tons of wheat available from the United Nations, which feeds some 13 million people a month in Yemen, the document showed.
Yemen is grappling with a dire humanitarian crisis that has left millions hungry in the seven-year conflict that divided the country and wrecked the economy. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, and 45 percent of its wheat needs came from Ukraine and Russia.
HSA Group, one of Yemen’s largest food conglomerates, said it had booked around 250,000 tons of wheat from Romania and France, sufficient to supply the market until mid-October, and that it is looking to secure a further 110,000 tons.
“Following the announcement of the Ukraine grain deal, we are currently looking to secure Ukrainian wheat for the Yemeni market if it remains affordable and accessible,” an HSA spokesperson, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
The United Nations and Turkey brokered a deal last month to restart exports from Ukraine, cut off since Russia’s February invasion, which could ease grain shortages that have driven up global prices. So far, however, there have not been any shipments of wheat.
Yemeni importers are unable to store significant amounts of wheat due to infrastructure limitations at Yemen ports and the country’s limited storage capacity, the HSA spokesperson said, and therefore the firm books new shipments every 2-3 weeks depending on availability and global prices.
Another issue facing importers is Yemen’s foreign reserves shortage and a serious devaluation of the currency in some parts of the country, where food price inflation has soared.
The Aden-based central bank has put in place an auction mechanism to ease access to foreign currency, but no import financing mechanism is currently in place to support the market.


Order to seize Lebanon MPs’ property over port blast

Order to seize Lebanon MPs’ property over port blast
Updated 10 August 2022

Order to seize Lebanon MPs’ property over port blast

Order to seize Lebanon MPs’ property over port blast
  • The decision was issued in the context of a complaint filed by the Beirut Bar Association to question the two MPs
  • Compensation of 100 billion Lebanese pounds is being sought

BEIRUT: Judicial authorities in Lebanon Wednesday ordered the temporary seizure of the property of two deputies in the case of the deadly explosion which destroyed Beirut port two years ago.
“Judge Najah Itani has issued a temporary seizure order worth 100 billion Lebanese pounds on the property of MPs Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter,” a judicial source told AFP.
The source said the decision was issued in the context of a complaint filed by the Beirut Bar Association to question the two for having “used their rights... in an arbitrary manner by filing complaints intended to hinder the investigation.”
Compensation of 100 billion Lebanese pounds is being sought.
On Thursday, crisis-hit Lebanon marked two years since the massive port blast ripped through Beirut.
The dockside blast of haphazardly stored ammonium nitrate, one of history’s biggest non-nuclear explosions, killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands and decimated vast areas of the capital.
After the tragedy, the bar launched legal proceedings against the state on behalf of nearly 1,400 families of victims.
However, an investigation into the cause has been stalled amid political interference and no state official has yet been held accountable over the tragedy.
Khalil and Zeaiter, of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal party, filed a total of 20 complaints against Judge Tareq Bitar for obstructing the investigation which he himself was carrying out.
Politicians on all sides have refused to be questioned by the judge.
Officials close to the powerful Hezbollah movement have also curtailed Bitar’s work with a series of lawsuits.
His investigation has been paused since December 23.
On Thursday’s second anniversary of the blast, relatives of victims demanded an international inquiry.


Syria says Daesh leader killed in south

Syria says Daesh leader killed in south
Updated 10 August 2022

Syria says Daesh leader killed in south

Syria says Daesh leader killed in south
  • Security forces carried out a "special operation" in the Daraa area that led to the death of "the terrorist Abu Salem al-Iraqi"
  • The security source said Iraqi had been the military chief of the extremist group in the country's south

DAMASCUS: A leader of Daesh group blew himself up in southern Syria after being surrounded by government forces, state media reported on Wednesday, citing a security source.
The official SANA news agency said security forces carried out a “special operation” in the Daraa area that led to the death of “the terrorist Abu Salem Al-Iraqi.”
Iraqi “triggered his explosive belt after being surrounded and wounded,” the agency said.
The security source said Iraqi had been the military chief of the extremist group in the country’s south.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, which has a vast network of sources on the ground, said Iraqi died on Tuesday.
It said he had been hiding out in the area since 2018, and had taken part in killings and attacks there.
Daraa province has mostly been under regime control since 2018, but rebel groups still control some areas under a truce deal agreed with Russia, an ally of Damascus.
After a meteoric rise in 2014 in Iraq and Syria that saw it conquer vast swathes of territory, Daesh saw its self-proclaimed “caliphate” collapse under a wave of offensives.
It was defeated in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria two years later, but sleeper cells of the extremist Sunni Muslim group still carry out attacks in both countries.
Syria’s war began in 2011 and has killed nearly half a million people and forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.


Lebanon risks plunge into darkness as govt races for fuel deal

Lebanon risks plunge into darkness as govt races for fuel deal
Updated 10 August 2022

Lebanon risks plunge into darkness as govt races for fuel deal

Lebanon risks plunge into darkness as govt races for fuel deal
  • UN spokesman calls on Nasrallah to halt ‘incitement,’ threats

BEIRUT: Lebanon could plunge into total darkness by the end of August if an agreement with Iraq to supply Electricite du Liban with fuel is allowed to expire.

With fuel stocks falling to critically low levels, the Lebanese government is looking for ways to avert a major power crisis.

Fears of an energy shortfall grew on Tuesday amid threats by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

“Hezbollah is ready for war if the Israeli side decides to start drilling for gas in the Karish field on Sept. 1, in the event that no agreement is reached between Lebanon and Tel Aviv during the remaining few weeks,” he said.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called on Nasrallah to avoid incitement and adding fuel to the fire in the region.

Lebanon’s last shipment of oil from Iraq in July was insufficient, EDL said, adding that it was “barely 28,000 metric tons.”

It said: “We are prioritizing vital facilities in Lebanon, namely the airport, the port, water pumps, sewage systems and basic state headquarters.”

EDL also warned of low production capacity, which will reach a maximum of 250 megawatts within days. “This will negatively affect the stability of the network, which sometimes exposes it to blackouts that may be repeated several times per day, despite the exceptional efforts to stabilize the electrical network as much as possible.”

The Ministry of Energy, under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, has been actively searching for an alternative to Iraqi oil, focusing on Algeria and Iran as potential sources.

Nasrallah suggested in July accepting an Iranian donation of fuel to address the crisis, provided that it reaches Lebanese and not Syrian ports, adding: “This, however, requires an official Lebanese decision.”

Caretaker Energy Minister Walid Fayyad said: “The Iraqi side is positive regarding the fuel file, and we are counting on extending the agreement between Lebanon and Iraq. The Iraqis did not refuse to extend the agreement, but rather wished to reexamine it before reaching a solution in the next few days.”

Fayyad said that an Iraqi delegation will visit Lebanon to discuss several issues. “We are seeking a great understanding with the Iraqi government,” he said.

Iraq was reportedly hesitant to extend the contract over concerns that Lebanon could fail to pay for the imported fuel in the future.

Speaking on the potential Iranian donation, and if sanctions would prevent Beirut accepting it, Fayyad said that Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Mojtaba Amani stressed Tehran’s readiness to offer free fuel to Lebanon.

“The Iranian donation would help Lebanon to cross this difficult stage, and the ministry has sent the Iranian side the specifications of the required fuel. The Iranian side requested that a team be formed to discuss this donation, and we are waiting for Mikati’s word to proceed,” Fayyad said.

Mikati’s media office said: “Amani has voiced his country’s readiness to provide the donation of fuel. Mikati thanked Iran for the offer and requested follow-up on this issue with the Ministry of Energy to ensure the technical specifications of the fuel. No official steps have been taken in this regard.”

Some analysts have warned that Iranian fuel is incompatible with Lebanon’s power plants, and that the donated fuel would need to be swapped with a third country for domestic use.  

According to an informed source, the Ministry of Energy is seeking to meet with Algerian energy companies to reach an agreement to supply fuel on concessional terms, but progress has stalled.

The process of importing Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity is still stumbling as a result of the World Bank’s delay in approving a loan to finance the project, owing to Lebanon’s failure in implementing conditions of the deal.