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Protests in Tunisia's phosphate regions threaten economy

The recurrent disruption of phosphate production puts Tunisia's economy in the face of new challenges.
Unemployed tunisians sit outside the headquarters of the Phosphate Gafsa Company (CPG) in hopes of employment in the local mines of Metlaoui on February 16, 2011. The phosfate mines of Gafsa, in the central-ouestern region of Tunisia are paralized by a civil demonstration for employment blocking acces to the mines. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

TUNIS, Tunisia — Protests that had paralyzed all extracting production and transport activities March 9 at the Gafsa Phosphate Company (CPG), the main state operator in Tunisia, have been dispersed and production has resumed.

Since Jan. 20, large protests and sit-ins were staged in phosphate-producing cities, including in Redeyef, Moulares, Metlaoui and Mdhila, in the Gafsa governorate mining basin in the southwest of the country. According to the governmental institution Statistiques Tunisie, the unemployment rate in this province is as high as 28.8%.

Hundreds of unemployed youths from the region who participated in the staffing competition organized by the CPG on Aug. 1, 2016, blocked the roads leading to the phosphate mines and set up tents at CPG headquarters. They voiced their disagreement with what they said was a corrupt and nontransparent staffing competition that led to the employment of 1,700 operational employees, out of a total of 32,000 applicants. The competition's results were announced in four batches, the last of which was on Jan. 20.

Phosphate production in the mining basin has decreased for seven years now. The central director of information systems and organizations at Groupe Chimique Tunisien, Hatem Trigui, told the privately owned Mosaique FM radio station Feb. 23, “In the past, Tunisia ranked among the world's top three countries in the production of phosphate, but it is now almost uncatalogued.”

Trigui said, “The numbers started declining noticeably in 2011 as Tunisia was producing 6.5 million tons of phosphate that year and only produced 3 million tons in the years that followed the 2011 revolution, which is less than 50% of previous production. Groupe Chimique Tunisien estimated the accumulated losses between 2012 and 2017 at 440 million dinars [$183 million], meaning 90% of CPG’s capital, after revenues were estimated at 451 million dinars [$188 million] back in 2010.”

Although the government resorted to trade union mediation to stop the protests and resume production, the latter failed to convince protesters. On March 1, Bu Ali Mubaraki, assistant secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union, announced the halt of the dialogue with the protesters in Gafsa over a series of agreements concluded Feb. 23 between the Central Trade Union and the government.

Mubaraki visited Gafsa Feb. 26 and met with the protesters to negotiate measures approved by the premiership for their benefit, which basically provides for the provision of 7,000 jobs in various institutions in the mining basin, in addition to the 1,700 who passed the staffing competition.

Zied Lakhdhar, a member of parliament for the Popular Front, the most prominent opposition bloc in the Tunisian parliament, told Al-Monitor, “Corruption is still plaguing the CPG and the annual staffing competition is yet to improve the [company’s] conditions.”

Lakhdhar said that the ruling coalition, consisting of the Islamic Ennahda movement and the secular Nidaa Tunis, “is responsible for the lack of transparency in CPG’s recruitment process." He added, "The political options the ruling coalition has adopted have failed, which will result in more crises.”

On March 5, under the supervision of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, a ministerial council decided to adopt a series of escalatory measures after the protesters seemed determined to hold onto their demands and refused to remove their tents and allow CPG employees to resume production.

These measures focused on suspending all proposals approved by the ministerial council regarding employment at production sites and freezing all operational programs prepared or planned by the government, as well as suspending the results of the staffing competition until production is resumed.

The ministerial council also decided, as published March 3 on the prime minister’s official Facebook page, to instruct Minister of Justice Ghazi Jeribi and the relevant authorities to immediately prosecute those who violate the law and disrupt the production and transport of phosphate.

Protester Yusuf al-Tababi told Al-Monitor that the protesters in the mining basin decided to cancel all sit-ins March 9 to allow production to resume for the time being after the government backed down on its decisions and accepted to negotiate with Adnan al-Hajji, an independent member of parliament who is representing Gafsa.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mohamed Ramzi Khamis, a member of parliament for Nidaa Tunis, stressed the need for easing tensions to allow the government to carry out its commitments toward the protesters at CPG.

Meanwhile, financial risk management expert Murad al-Hattab told Al-Monitor, “The disruption of phosphate production caused a remarkable deficit in the trade balance, amounting to about 30%.”

Hattab said, “The phosphate revenues represent five times the tourism revenues and 60% of Tunisia's exports,” noting that “the disruption of production significantly contributed to the disruption of the Tunisian financial system.”

According to official reports, Tunisia suffers from various economic problems that increased last year, namely the increase of the trade deficit by 23% compared to 2016 and declining dinar against the US dollar and euro by 9%.

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