Green colonialism under the guise of energy privatisation in Tunisia

After 60 years of public ownership through STEG (Société tunisienne de l'électricité et du gaz), Tunisia’s energy sector is now being slowly privatised. Since the nationalisation of energy in 1962, six years after independence, STEG increased the country's rate of electrification from 21 per cent in 1962 to 99.8 per cent in 2016.1, 2 However, seeking to foster the transition to renewable energy, the Tunisian government has embarked on a liberalisation programme, offering market share to private investors through independent power purchase schemes.


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Illustration by Fourate Chahal El Rekaby

The government’s plan has been ardently criticised by Tunisian trade unions and their international partners, who are raising awareness of the dangers of privatisation, refusing to connect private power plants to the national grid and organising nationwide strikes and protests. Trade unionists from the energy sector have created the Working Group for Energy Democracy, an initiative oriented around supporting workers’ struggles. The goal is to link workers with civil society and communities to build a coalition capable of stopping the wave of electricity liberalisation and building a public and democratic energy model based on cooperation.

Fighting against privatisation

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) has been at the forefront of the struggle against energy privatisation from the very beginning.19 After successfully blocking legislation to privatise renewable energy production in 2013 and early 2014, the unions continued to mobilise their members and successfully negotiated with the government to reimburse STEG for the losses it incurred between 2013 and 2018.

In March 2020, the unions decided not to connect private renewable energy plants to the national grid.20 The UGTT blocked the connection of a private power plant to the grid in the summer of 2020.21 This received international attention and support from other trade union organisations such as the global confederation TUED (Trade Unions for Energy Democracy) and the French confederation CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail).

With the increase in the number of IPPs, the union fears that STEG will eventually be privatised as well. Due to the continuation of neoliberal reforms and austerity measures by the government, as well as the consolidation of power by President Kais Saied after the suspension of parliament in summer 2021, unions regularly organise strikes to protest against the lack of involvement in decision-making. In the nationwide general strike in June 2022, the unions protested against the government's compliance with IMF conditions to freeze public sector wages and cut subsidies as part of a $4 billion loan agreement.22

In 2019 and 2020, UGTT launched public awareness campaigns to highlight the dangers of privatisation, including opposing the renewal of the 20-year power purchase agreement between STEG and the private Carthage Power Company.23,24 After a successful campaign, the contract extension scheduled for May 2022 failed to materialise and the 471 MW combined cycle power plant became the property of STEG. The public takeover was an important victory in the struggle for a democratically controlled and state-owned energy sector in Tunisia.

As the government continues on its path towards liberalisation and austerity measures, Tunisian unions will continue to take their demands to the streets to show everyone that essential public services, such as energy, belong exclusively to the public sector.

Working Group for Energy Democracy Tunisia

In December 2022, the Working Group for Energy Democracy published a report analysing Tunisia's current energy trajectory and presenting an alternative public and democratic model for a just transition.25 The report highlights several changes needed to break with Tunisia's extractive energy model and to move to a new model based on cooperation and energy as a shared public good rather than a privatised commodity.

The main features of this proposed new energy model are: the politicisation of access to energy, the re-establishment of collective energy production systems, the reduction of dependency on fossil fuels, and a focus on Tunisian companies to reduce imports and foreign dependencies. The model defined by the Working Group is based on the participation of citizens, trade unions and workers, as well as the inclusion of local groups and cooperatives in energy production. The goal is to create an alternative to the current paradigm, which pits the private sector against the state. Finally, to achieve a just energy transition, the report stresses the importance of building alliances within civil society and public-public partnerships that strengthen energy sovereignty and reduce foreign influence – all to achieve a transition that benefits the Tunisian people.

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