TUNIS, (Reuters) – Tunisian police broke up a clash in Tunis on Tuesday after pro-government Islamists attacked labor union leaders they blamed for inciting protests last week against the Islamist government.
Several hundred Islamists with knives and sticks charged a gathering of the UGTT main labor union body in the capital and broke its office windows with stones, a Reuters witness said. Police then intervened to separate the two groups.
“UGTT, you are thieves, you want to destroy the country,” the Islamists chanted. They also carried banners.
Hundreds of leftist union members, who backed days of protests over lack of jobs and development in the deprived town Siliana last week, had been chanting slogans in the streets by the UGTT headquarters calling for a general strike and downfall of the government led by the Islamist Ennahda party.
Ennahda came to power last year after an uprising brought down veteran ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose police state had repressed Islamists and promoted secularism.
Ennahda accused leftists who lost last year’s elections of fomenting the unrest in Siliana by provoking Tunisians in impoverished areas into confrontations that would drive away foreign investors.
The protests, which led to at least 252 injuries including some cases of blinding by birdshot, began after a call by the UGTT to take to the streets to demand jobs, investment and the removal of Ennahda’s Islamist governor of the province.
The government on Saturday temporarily removed the local governor, promised jobs to victims of the 2010 uprising, and police stopped using birdshot after criticism of “excessive force” from the U.N. Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay.
The protests were the fiercest since conservative Salafi Islamists attacked the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September over an anti-Islam film made in California, in violence that left four people dead.
The clashes on Tuesday did not appear to involve Salafis.
“This is a message from Ennahda to stop union activism. It’s the same method used by Ben Ali,” said UGTT figure Fethi Debek.
The shift to slogans against the Islamists in Siliana seemed to wrong-foot the government, which has been absorbed so far with violent disputes between Salafis and liberals over the future direction of what was once a bastion of Arab secularism and securing international funding to meet budget targets.