After months of threats, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) staged a nationwide general strike on January 17 that paralyzed the country’s economy and even closed its airspace, following a smaller nationwide strike on November 22, 2018. The main point of contention was the government’s decision to move forward with the package of reforms requested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), particularly privatization efforts that would endanger the union’s influence and its members’ interests. The union leadership has threatened to hold a second, larger general strike on February 20-21, but reached a compromise with the government on February 7 to increase wages. Given the renewed prominence of the UGTT—including rumors that it may enter formal politics—this activism may signal a shift in Tunisian politics toward an emphasis on economic priorities.

Observers have often summarized the situation in Tunisia, and the Arab world in general, as a conflict between Islamists and secularists. While the framework of an Islamist–secularist divide is not completely inaccurate, it frequently ignores more nuanced analysis and perpetuates the orientalist premise that Middle East politics should be explained by historical religious norms. In Tunisia, political Islam was marginal until the fall of dictatorship in January 2011. Unlike Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was able to field independent candidates and used provision of social services to build a strong popular base, Ennahda was banned and ruthlessly repressed under president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The main demands of the sporadic protest movements before 2011 were not ideological, but called for more political liberties or an improved socioeconomic situation, as in the 2008 Gafsa uprising.

Besides corruption and authoritarianism, a major grievance during the Ben Ali era was the state’s retreat from its paternalistic, regulatory role, yet its simultaneous insistence on retaining a monopoly on economic initiatives. Consequently, angry Tunisians asked for more state intervention to provide jobs, build hospitals, and other socioeconomic demands. However, the quick rise of Islamist Ennahda as political party and its electoral successes in 2011 pushed its opponents to develop a “secular” counter-narrative that overshadowed public debate over the economy, arguably the driving force behind the Arab Spring. Disconnected from economic grievances, this ideological narrative fed a growing sense among disenchanted voters, youth in particular, that their standards of living would not improve no matter which party they voted for.

By 2015, when the “Islamist” Ennahda and “secularist” Nidaa Tounes decided to form a National Unity Government, both adopted a neoliberal vision of the economy—though unlike Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda preferred to limit state intervention and the size of the bureaucracy. Though the Unity Government collapsed in 2018, the current coalition—including Ennahda, Prime Minsiter Youssef Chahed’s Tahya Tounes, the Machrou Tounes Party, and the Moubadara Initiative—has retained this economic approach. As a structured political party with large parliamentary representation but little influence inside state institutions, Ennahda in particular has aimed to change the status quo, as its new elite within the Tunisian interior remains largely excluded from the established economic circles in the coastal cities. Ennahda found Chahed to be a useful ally who shares some of its economic views. Chahed similarly needs Ennahda to back him against opposing factions while he works to grow Tayha Tounes, which he established on January 27 with the goal of replacing Nidaa Tounes.

Both seek the political backing of the IMF and G7 countries, who are demanding that Tunisia speed up ongoing structural reforms to the economy. However, these measures are very unpopular, reawakening old grievances and notably sparking widespread anti-austerity protests in January 2018. Chahed and Ennahda have therefore kept their statements ambiguous and have not articulated their economic vision clearly even as they have gone ahead with IMF-approved policies such as raising fuel prices and freezing public sector wages for 2019.

It is in opposition to this camp that the UGTT declared its general strike of January 17. As a labor union, the UGTT represents an estimated 500,000–750,000 public sector employees, who are automatically unionized. The Chahed government’s desire to cut public sector employment and freeze salaries threatens the union’s survival, as it would slash a key source of income and diminish the union’s ability to mobilize. The UGTT is also hostile toward Ennahda, which still has only a limited presence among public sector workers (and therefore in the union). The discourse of the union’s leadership—which calls for nationalization of major sectors and includes elements of pan-Arabism and anti-imperialist nationalism—is finding appeal among a population disenchanted with the leading parties’ ability to improve their economic situation. The union has also found natural partners in the Popular Front, a political coalition of leftists and pan-Arabists, and in remnants of the old regime, whose hybrid ideology incorporates nationalism, socialism, and pan-Arabism.

Until recently, the UGTT had preferred to engage with politics behind the scenes. Yet as plans for the January strikes moved forward, on December 29 UGTT Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi announced that his organization was “interested” in the 2019 elections, implying it would formally enter politics and field candidates. It is possible the union seeks to build on its current popularity to establish itself as a leftist figurehead in the upcoming elections—or at least kingmaker for another coalition.

Whether or not it runs for elections, the UGTT’s recent rhetoric promises a heated electoral season featuring more economic promises and nationalist slogans. Meanwhile, as UGTT leaders accuse Chahed and Ennahda of being manipulated by the IMF and foreign countries, the camp in power is going on the defensive. They have alternately called for negotiations, stalemate, and compromise with the UGTT, ultimately capitulating to the UGTT’s primary demand on February 7 to increase wages in order to avert the planned February 20 strike. However, as Ennahda president Rached Ghannouchi reiterated on January 2, the party is determined to stand by its economic strategy of cutting government spending while cautioning the IMF not to “apply pressure to the extent of an explosion” on sensitive issues, such as reducing subsidies.

The more Tunisia’s foreign partners demand substantial structural reforms, the more the current coalition will confront popular anger that puts these reforms on hold, lest the coalition provoke a larger upheaval that could topple it. This will in turn make it harder for the government to abide by Tunisia’s commitments to its international donors, at a time when it needs their support to keep a grip on power.

Youssef Cherif is a political analyst, member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network, and head of the Columbia Global Centers | Tunis. Follow him on Twitter @Faiyla.