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January 1978 General Strike

Widespread riots that grew out of the general strike in January 1978 gave observers their first indication that the national consensus behind the leadership and policies of Bourguiba and Destourian Socialist Party was not as strong as it had once been. Estrangement between the government and the labor movement and the growth of Islamist opposition continued in the 1980s and concerned government officials. To a degree, the emergence of a strong, political opposition reflected the relative openness of Tunisian society. It also indicated the existence of widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling Destourian Socialist Party, the pace of economic growth and development, high unemployment, official corruption, and the apparent rejection of Islamic values by some of the top national leaders. The roots of Tunisian stability were weakened somewhat during the 1970's. Despite unprecedented economic growth and a high standard of living by regional standards, popular dissatisfaction with the Bourguiba government increased as some of the structural shortcomings of the politico-economic system appeared to have become intractable. The gap between rich and poor Tunisians had grown since independence and showed no signs of narrowing.

The citizens of the southern desert areas saw themselves excluded from the country's political elite and from sharing in the nation's economic growth. Partly as a result, large numbers of young unemployed Tunisian men flocked to the major cities, swelling the ranks of the urban poor. Ordinary crime, previously a negligible problem, increased with the influx of migrants, although reliable statistical data on the magnitude were not available. More important, the growth of a large mass of disaffected and disenfranchised young Tunisians had ominous implications for national security.

Government policies and the increasingly rigid and arbitrary style of Bourguiba's leadership also contributed to the growth of public discontent. In the early 1970s Bourguiba rejected the nation's socialist economic policies as well as new proposals to move toward the establishment of a multiparty democracy. In ousting officials most closely linked with those initiatives, the aging president indicated that he feared being overthrown by subordinates who had built up independent power bases. Political expression had always been limited in Tunisia, but the president and then- Prime Minister Hedi Nouria appeared to be unwilling to tolerate any dissent or accept any criticism, even from within the PSD. The regime's increasing remoteness combined with the rise in domestic criticism of its leadership to stifle the PSD's grass-roots dynamism, which had been the foundation of the government's security and effectiveness.

The 1970s were characterized as a decade of increasing civil unrest in Tunisia. At the beginning of the period, large numbers of students for the first time began to object publicly to the direction of government policies. Dominated by Marxist critics during this time, student dissent resulted in growing numbers of disturbances at Tunisian universities, unrest that continued despite the government's demonstrated willingness to arrest and impose strict prison sentences on offenders. At the same time, organized labor showed itself to be an important opposition force. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens - UGTT), which had long been closely allied with the PSD, became increasingly militant in demanding better working conditions and wages, criticizing growing unemployment, and protesting the economic gap between the affluent and poor elements in the society.

Illegal strikes, rare before the mid-1970s, became more and more frequent, numbering approximately 600 between 1976 and early 1978 alone. When strike actions were joined by large numbers of unemployed urban youths and supplemented by the persistent dissidence of students who viewed the PSD as an outdated and increasingly ineffectual political party, they posed a direct challenge to the government. The scope of Tunisia's discontent was first dramatically demonstrated by the violence connected with the general strike of January 26, 1978, a day Tunisians remenber as Black Thursday. The strike, coming after months of what observers called government intimidation of the UGTT leadership, was interpreted by the government as a direct threat to its authority. The violence was controlled after two days by army units equipped with infantry weapons and armored vehicles after police were overwhelmed by demonstrators.

According to official Tunisian figures, 42 were killed and 325 were wounded before government forces restored order; other, unofficial, sources put the number of casualties far higher. Over 1,000 were arrested, and many, including the entire UGTT leadership, were brought before the State Security Court on charges of subversion. Even before the trials began, pro-PSD elements moved into positions of power within the UGTT. The new union leaders immediately expressed regret for the riots and pledged to cooperate with the government.

After the 1978 unrest, the national government increasingly found antigovernment dissidence expressed in religious terms. The conservative Muslim imams had long opposed Bourguiba's securlarist social reforms, but during the 1970s the authorities had supported Islamists as a counter to the influence of Marxist groups on Tunisian campuses. The Islamists only became regarded as a threat after the Iranian revolution of 1979 demonstrated that, even in the late twentieth century, Islam could generate great social and political upheavals. In the early 1980s a variety of Islamist groups came into existence, most of them drawing their strength from university students and other educated young Tunisians disaffected by the PSD and the secular Marxist alternative. The largest and most important of these groups was the Islamic Tendency Movement (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique- MTI), which was formed in 1981. Because of its 1eaderships political sophistication and calls for democratization of the political process, the MTI was considered to be among the most "moderate" of similar groups in existence throughout the Islamic world. The MTI's popularity, however, its calls for the rejection of Western values, and the militancy of some of its members (especially those on college campuses) made the government deeply concerned about the movement's potential as a threat to national security.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:13 ZULU