North Africa, West Asia

UGTT and the culture of dialogue in Tunisia

On the fifth anniversary of the uprising, national dialogue is what brought Tunisia to where it is today.

Anouar Jamaoui
18 December 2015
'National dialogue' talk held in Tunis initiated by the UGTT, 2012.Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

'National dialogue' talk held in Tunis initiated by the UGTT, 2012.Demotix/Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.Taking a closer look at Tunisia’s transitional process, one realizes that the country has gone through a very critical historical phase over the past five years.

A period, marked by a number of challenges and crises, threatened the very aspirations of founding a democracy and endangered the efforts to establish a post-revolutionary country. An escalation of violence, inflation, thirst for power, and an intensification of societal divisions on the basis of regional belonging, ideologies and religion have taken place. The old regime was trying to regain its position as anti-revolutionary powers were taking hold. Consequently, Tunisia receded in its sovereignty rating.

As such, the Arab Spring was threatened since its very early moments, and a general sense of intimidation and national longing for security and stability ensued. The conflict between the ruling coalition and the opposition was aggravated by a series of assassinations that shook the country.

Tension reached its peak during the ruling of the Troika (the coalition between Ennahda movement, the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) as political violence grew. The conflict between the ruling coalition and the opposition was aggravated by a series of assassinations that shook the country: the assassination of  the leftist political opponent and leader of the Democratic Patriots’ Movement Chokri Belaid (6 February 2013) , the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi (25 July 2013), a representative at the Constituent Assembly and a leader of the Popular Current, and the murder of the Tunisian soldiers in the Al Chaambi Mountains.

The majority of Tunisian citizens, newly introduced to the concept of assassination, were deeply shocked. They came to realize that political violence had moved from its primal discursive/verbal form to an actual bloody act in which politicians could be killed.

Shortly after Belaid and Brahmi’s deaths, the Ennahda Movement was accused of being responsible for both assassinations, even before the official investigation had concluded. The intense atmosphere of mistrust fed the already destabilized political context. Tunisia was almost drawn into a state of a civil war.

As a result, the Tunisian political spectrum was split into two main blocs: pro-government and a fierce opposition. The situation furthered the dichotomy and accelerated rivalry for power. Both blocks competed to gain public support and disputed issues such as the content of  the constitution, the powers of the Constituent Assembly, and the role of the League for the Protection of the Revolution. The media exacerbated the state of conflict, as it promoted extremism, exclusion, and mutual accusations of betrayal.

On 30 June 2013, massive protests erupted in Egypt and the first democratically elected president was removed from power to be replaced by the Egyptian military on 3 July 2013. These changes had a political impact on Tunisia, as it was then further divided.

Some Tunisian politicians supported what had taken place in Egypt. They considered the end of Morsi’s presidency as both the right move to achieve democratic transition and the consequence of the Islamic Party’s failure.

Other Tunisian politicians believed that it was nothing but a bloody military coup. According to them, the military takeover was a massacre and repression of the people’s basic liberties. The coup was believed to ignite the Egyptians’ dichotomy since it divided the community in two: those who supported military rule and those who denounced it.

During that same summer, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – a civil unionist body bringing together the General Labor Union, the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicraft, the Order of Lawyers, and the Human Rights League – assumed the responsibility of resolving political tension in Tunisia. The Quartet sought to unite all political activists by inviting 21 political parties to a national dialogue.

On 17 December 2013, the Quartet proposed a road map that was signed by all political participants on 5 October 2013. It proposed five main points: to finalize the work of the Constituent Assembly, nominate the Superior Independent Authority for the Election, declare the electoral law, validate the Constitution within four weeks, ensure the resignation of  Larayedh’s government , and to nominate an independent head for the new government. Ennahda provided an unprecedented example in the history of Islamic politics, as their decision founded the principle of peaceful power transition and showed that they prioritized consent over electoral legitimacy.

Almost two months after its official start, Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) leader Houssein Al Abbassi announced on 14 December 2013 that the Quartet and a number of political parties (8 political parties out of 18 attended the meeting) agreed that Mehdi Jomaa would be the leader of the future government of technocrats. In fact, the national dialogue quartet together with the efforts of a number of active trade union, labor and human rights organizations improved the political situation in the country and bridged the gap between different political opponents. There was a shift from the logic of electoral legitimacy to that of extensive national consent. Consequently, though it had the majority of the Tunisian National Assembly, Ennahda decided to step aside.

The UGTT went beyond its classical role as it was determined to reach a political resolution that brought political opponents together. This move actually saved its reputation as it had been accused of adulating the old regime.

The main objective of the national dialogue quartet was to rally various political opponents to reach consent. It valued unity above difference, and dialogue between civil society and the political sphere above dispute. Such attitudes resulted in the promotion of democratic consent. However, it would have never succeeded without the support of civil society, political activists and the Tunisian army.

As far as civil society is concerned, activist trade unions, human rights organizations, political parties and the intellectual elite played a major role in supporting the Quartet’s initiative.

Politically, Ennahda successfully supported the dialogue, as they were ready to peacefully leave power despite the fact that they had a majority in the constituent assembly. By doing so, Ennahda provided an unprecedented example in the history of Islamic politics, as their decision founded the principle of peaceful power transition and showed that they prioritized consent over electoral legitimacy.

Moreover, the army chose to keep a distance from all political parties and managed to protect the country from potential military coups facilitating a peaceful power transition. As such, the Tunisian army was the principal guarantor of a peaceful transitional.

The Tunisian experience has exemplified that a transitional phase cannot be successfully fulfilled following the logic of the rule of the majority, but rather by constructive consent. The fact that Tunisia won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was reaffirmation, as Tunisians’ triumph over their differences was recognized along with their determination to resolve problems by turning to dialogue rather than violence.

The questions is, will ‘national dialogue’ be deployed to put an end to the crises in what are referred to as the Arab Spring countries? 

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