The union is part of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet which has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.

Houcine Abbassi, Secretary General of UGTT, the Tunisian General Federation of Labour

Houcine Abbassi, Secretary General of UGTT, the Tunisian General Federation of Labour

A union leader who played a key role in steering Tunisia from the Arab Spring uprising to democracy says he is “overwhelmed” to be a Nobel Prize participant.

Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Federation of Labour (UGTT), told the AP news agency on Friday: “It’s a prize that crowns more than two years of efforts deployed by the quartet when the country was in danger on all fronts.”

“I am happy.”

The prize was awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet, made up of  the UGTT, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

Abassi described how the quartet joined together to try to “bring the country out of crisis.” The quartet steered the country through the difficult period after the overthrow of dictator Ben Ali in 2011. The legitimacy of the union – seen as an honest broker by all sides – helped prevent Islamist unrest derailing the country in 2013.

“The Arab Spring originated in Tunisia in 2010 and 2011, but it quickly spread to other countries in North African and the Middle East,” said Kaci Kullmann Five, the chairwoman of the Nobel Prize committee. “In many of these countries, the struggle for democracy and human rights has come to a standstill or suffered setbacks. Tunisia, however, has seen a democratic transition based on vibrant civil society, with demands for respect of basic human rights.”

Tunisia, the first country to overthrow its dictator in the Arab Spring, in January 2011, is the only one that now has a functioning democracy. The Arab Spring started five years ago after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight to protest harassment, humiliation and theft by municipal officials.

It lead to the swift overthrow of Ben Ali, and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and other countries across the region. However, many countries lacked robust democratic institutions, and the revolution became a conflict between Islamist insurgents and the authoritarian deep state: Egypt lives under a new dictatorship, Libya has collapsed, Syria has descended into civil war, and Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen.

Protesters march on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtownTunis, angry over unemployment, rising prices and corruption, 14 Jan 2011

Protesters march on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtownTunis, angry over unemployment, rising prices and corruption, 14 Jan 2011

Tunisia’s democracy is currently in a better state than any other in the Arab world, and this is largely due to the strength and credibility of the UGTT.

With its large membership and representative local structures, the UGTT was the only institution that rivalled Ben Ali’s ruling party in its presence in Tunisians’ everyday lives. Its democratic structures and internal electoral practices allowed for greater freedom of expression inside the organisation than in society. To many Tunisians, the UGTT represents them better than any of the political parties and enjoys more legitimacy.

The UGTT was founded in 1946 as part of the Tunisian struggle for liberation from France. Founder Farhat Hached was assassinated by French agents in 1952, leading to riots across three continents. He is still considered a hero of Tunisian liberation.

Before the Arab Spring, the UGTT retained more independence than most unions in Arab countries, and maintained credibility by consistently fighting for for workers’ rights and social justice.

Read more

 


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

Read All Articles