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Interview with the man who led Tunisia to peace

The inspiring story of painstaking negotiations, compromise and conviction
Houcine Abassi, head of Tunisia’s General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail or UGTT), is regarded as the Father of the National Dialogue in Tunisia. 
After the revolution following the overthrow of the Ben Ali dictatorship in January 2011, a power tussle among competing political and cultural forces ensued. The wrangling led to deadly clashes between Islamists and secular parts of society during which two key politicians were assassinated and social unrest became widespread. Tunisia was faced with the clear danger of the democratisation process unravelling and the total breakdown of law and order.
Houcine Abassis (pictured) recognised that only mediation could save Tunisia and that the non-partisan mediators must carry great moral authority. The union leader therefore painstakingly brought together four key organisations – his UGTT, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers – to form a National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for making a “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia”.

Houcine Abassi tells the story of how his country avoided war and established a democracy in Berlin. The occasion was a meeting of the labour leader with journalists, including the publisher of The African Courier, Femi Awoniyi, during Abassi’s visit to the German capital to receive the 2015 German Africa Prize.

How the idea of the national dialogue emerged
When we in the Labour Union realised fully that the direction in which the country was going had become very dangerous, we decided to seek a way to mediate the gathering conflict. However, we realised that such mediation only had a chance of success if the mediators reflected a large section of the population. We then reached out to the National Confederation of Tunisian Lawyers and the Tunisian Human Rights League, who agreed to work with us in finding a peaceful solution.

The initial reaction to our efforts to form the mediating group
I must say that the idea of a national dialogue had existed in an informal form before our initiative. We had already worked with some civil society groups after the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, when there was a sort of power vacuum, a constitutional vacuum and a security vacuum.
We collaborated with the National Confederation of Tunisian Lawyers, the Tunisian Human Rights League and 18 other civil society organisations and political parties to exchange ideas on how to act as an observatory of the democratisation process to ensure that it didn’t derail. The process of consultation led to the formation of a group which we called the Highest Committee for Democratic Transition and Political Reform.

How we influenced the democratic process with this committee
The committee was instrumental in the formation of the transitional government, a coalition of three parties – the so-called troika government, and the organisation of elections into the Constituent Assembly which was charged with the responsibility of writing a new constitution for the country.

What led to the crisis that again required our mediation
The government and the Constituent Assembly were not able to reconcile the divergent views of the different political and civil society groups which hampered the work of the Constituent Assembly. In short, they were not able to unite Tunisians behind a common national agenda. They committed mistake upon mistake.
Then a sort of paramilitary group was formed by the governing coalition parties to protect the interests of their members. This was where the situation deteriorated as there were violent physical attacks on influential members of the other groups, intellectuals and even members of our union who they perceived as standing in their way. They carried out a bloody attack on our headquarters in Tunis in that period.

Why we initiated the idea of the national dialogue
I realised at that point that with passion rising on all sides we had a very dangerous situation on our hands and that if we didn’t intervene, the situation could get out of hand and result in a civil war. Already the political crisis had started to have an adverse effect on the economy which in turn further worsened the political situation. We were faced with two alternatives: either we continued to watch as things got worse or we did something about it. We were convinced that if we didn’t do something, Tunisia would go the way of countries such as Libya or Syria, where the revolution had become a curse.
So the other alternative was to try to bring all the different political forces to the dialogue table so that they could find a common ground and save the country from a certain peril.

How we brought the political forces together
In consultation with the National Confederation of Tunisian Lawyers and the Tunisian Human Rights League, we prepared a paper on the national dialogue and what we thought should be its agenda. We then sent the paper to all the parties and asked them to sign it if they agreed with our plan and were ready to support it.

The initial reaction to our initiative of a national dialogue
We actually succeeded in convincing most of the parties – at least those that were represented in the Constituent Assembly – of the need for the national dialogue. The only exceptions were two of the three parties in the troika government that refused to participate in the dialogue.
Despite the refusal of these two parties, we decided to proceed with the plan by announcing the first public sitting of the national dialogue. At the first public sitting only three of us were still involved in the process – my organisation, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, and our partners, the National Confederation of Tunisian Lawyers and the Tunisian Human Rights League.

How the dialogue affected the political mood of the country
After our first public sitting, the situation took a dramatic turn as the number of attacks on politicians and members of civil society groups and members of the security forces increased. Several people were killed, including Mohamed Brahmi, opposition leader of the People’s Movement, who was fatally shot on 25 July 2013 in Tunis. His death followed the assassination of another opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, who was killed on 6 February 2013.
We called our members out on a general strike after the death of Brahmi, as we had done when Belaid was killed.
These developments made us review the agenda of the national dialogue to emphasise the urgency of a political solution before things got out of hand. It was at this point that we invited the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (the association of employers) to join the initiative, which they did. Collectively, we then agreed on a roadmap out of the crisis.

The content of our roadmap out of the crisis
Four things were in the roadmap: the completion of the work of the Constituent Assembly, which had been deadlocked as a result of disagreement among its members; the holding of a general election at which the parliament and the president should be elected; the establishment of an independent electoral commission to conduct those elections; and the resignation of the troika government and the appointment of an interim government of technocrats who should run the country until the polls had been held and a new parliament elected.
We spent more than 174 hours debating in the public sittings of the national dialogue and more than 700 hours if the sub-committee meetings are considered.

The challenges we encountered in pushing through our ideas
The first big challenge was to agree among us, the initiators of the dialogue, on the agenda before we presented it to the public in our open sittings. These preparations were very stressful. Finally, despite all the challenges we encountered, we succeeded in achieving a consensus at the national dialogue on the way forward for our country, which was to follow the roadmap we had drawn.

Factors responsible for the success of the national dialogue
That we succeeded in convincing all the stakeholders to put national interest above their individual or group interests was a major factor. If the stakeholders, especially the political parties, were not ready to sacrifice their partisan interests for the greater national good, the national dialogue would not have succeeded.

The most important lesson of the dialogue for Tunisia
The collective consciousness of Tunisians that peaceful resolution of their differences was the only way to avoid armed conflict, attacks and assassinations, and the need to ensure peaceful co-existence of all citizens irrespective of their political affiliations and religious creed.

The lasting legacy of the national dialogue
The agreement and promulgation of a constitution that respects the human rights of all Tunisians and which provides a strong basis for democracy in the country, the only way to guarantee lasting political stability.

The message of the Tunisian national dialogue for the region
That a democratic constitution and consensus among the political forces are the basis for peace and stability.

Can a national dialogue succeed in the countries in the region that are currently in a state of war – Syria or Yemen, for example?
The political parties in Tunisia were ready for compromise for the common good; they were prepared to subordinate their partisan interests to the national interest. If the contending forces in these countries do that, a national dialogue would succeed. Also, and very important, the dialogue was successful in Tunisia because we had civil society groups that enjoyed credibility in the populace and could play the role of mediators acceptable to all sides in the conflict.
It’s also important that the dialogue must be owned by the citizens of these countries and not imposed from the outside. Of course, they could be supported from the outside, but the process must be internally driven. And the foreign supporters must not interfere in the internal affairs of these countries.
We see the developments in Libya where three attempts have been made to make peace between the conflict parties, but they failed because they were driven by outsiders.
Anyhow, one must dialogue to make peace. Even in countries at war, after they stop fighting they must still dialogue to make peace.

Important factor for peace in the Arab world
The most important factor in bringing peace to Syria, Libya and Yemen is that countries that are supporting these terrorists should stop. Without support, these terrorists cannot be powerful; they cannot even exist.

Why terror attacks like in June took place in Tunisia
The extremists who don’t have any support base in the populace are responsible for these attacks and their objective is to sabotage our democracy by destroying the tourism sector, causing economic problems in the country. Their actions could be seen as desperate attempts to derail the democratic path which the overwhelming majority of Tunisians have agreed to tread. But Tunisians are united in their rejection and condemnation of these attacks and are committed to the democratic system which they have freely chosen.

How the country deals with extremists
Tunisia is a small country with limited resources and economic difficulties which cannot fight this scourge alone by itself. We are doing our utmost but need the support of our partners in Europe to be able to overcome this threat to our democratic order. And recent events in Europe such as the terror attacks in Paris show that terrorism is a global phenomenon and we should all work together to fight it.

What the world can do to support Tunisia
We need more co-operation with and support for our security forces. Also we need investment so that we can create jobs. Unemployment is our biggest problem at the moment with about 15 per cent of the workforce jobless. We direly need foreign investors to invest in our country.
We also appeal to European countries to be careful about issuing advisories against travelling to Tunisia because of the fear of terrorism. This affects adversely our tourism sector and our economy in general. We cannot simply advise against travelling to a country because a terror attack occurred there. When we do that we only play into the hands of the terrorists because that is exactly their aim. It is better to work with our government to fight these terrorists.

Photo: Houcine Abassi in Berlin. (© Deutsche Afrika Stiftung e.V.)

 

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