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INTERVIEW: Labour unions helped Tunisia overcome post-2011 divisions

The head of Tunisia's general labour union talks about brokering national dialogue and saving Tunisia, efforts that got it nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

Karem Yehia in Tunisia, Monday 3 Nov 2014
Abassy
Secretary general of the Tunisian general labor union, Hussein El Abassy, November 2, 2014 (Photo: Ahram online)
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Tunisia has been something of a model for Arab countries after the 2011 revolts. Last week, it elected a new parliament, with the secular Nidaa Tounes party knocking out the Islamist Ennahda.

A big part of the country's transitional success has been contributed to the Tunisian General Labour Union, which spearheaded national dialogue along with efforts to draft a constitution and hold presidential and parliamentary elections.

In an exclusive interview, head of the union Hussein Al-Abassy talks about how Tunisians were able to overcome division, and how the UGTT was nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Ahram Online: Let's start with the union's nomination for a Nobel Prize and how close you were to winning this year.

Hussein Al-Abassy: We did not expect to be one of the nominees for the Nobel Prize in 2014. What happened is that four universities submitted a report nominating us for the role we've played in national reconciliation since 2012. Deputies of the constituent assembly and other organisations and figures supported this initiative; many of them are Nobel Prize winners. We made it to the finals and competed with only four finalists. However Pakistan's Malala Youssef and Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi were chosen as the winners. We came in third. Those who support us are planning to reapply for the 2015 prize. I believe we have a better shot at winning, as we were very close this time.

AO: How did the union initiate the national dialogue with the dispute around the end of the Constituent Assembly in October 2012?

HA: We are an independent organisation and we have a role in Tunisia's history. We fought round after round to keep our independence. Throughout the fight there were martyrs, prisoners and wounded who paid the price. There is no doubt that the union takes pride in the success of the revolution.

When the country was in trouble like in October 2012, we thought of an initiative that would meet political parties in a national dialogue.

AO: What was the union's stance regarding the Constituent Assembly?

HA: We feared the country's institutions would suffer a vacuum status. We knew that the assembly had to finish its work within one year, but we dealt with what was on the ground. And we understood the load they were bearing, from legislating to monitoring the government.

We urged the assembly to finish the constitution in time, but at the end, and as the country was passing a sensitive period, the union saw it had to take the needed time.

AO: How did the national dialogue develop?

HA: At the beginning, the union was the only one who kicked off the initiative. Later we engaged three other fronts in the dialogue, the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Lawyers Syndicate and the Tunisian Union for Industry and Commerce. We were all civil society institutions.

The dialogue's success was because we were independent institutions and the same distance from all the political forces. We also told everyone else who didn't need to be involved in the dialogue that they had to exclude themselves.

AO: The beginning of the dialogue's sessions was not easy.

HA: Yes, both Congress for the Republic and Ennahda parties boycotted the first session of the national dialogue – but the prime minister, president and head of the constituent assembly didn't, despite their parties' stance.

Afterwards, I had to hold bilateral talks with Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda party, to convince him to participate in the second session.

On the other side, Congress for the Republic Party excluded itself until we all reached a parallel platform at the end of 2012 to discuss with the Constituent Assembly over the constitution.

AO: How were the parties represented at the dialogue?

HA: We approved for the parties represented in the Constituent Assembly (19 parties) to be represented in the national dialogue with one member each.

AO: How did the dialogue's members reach a roadmap, particularly after the assassination crisis in the summer of 2013?

HA: The Labour Union and the three other fronts sponsoring the dialogue launched a new initiative ... and we asked them all to sign the roadmap. We called them to release power for a technocratic government, and to put forward a new timeline for the constitution, the elections law and forming the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE). And that's how the constitution was approved in January 2014, with 200 in favour and 17 against.

AO: How did you reach a consensus with the dual polarisation between the Islamists and the secularists?

HA: That issue took us a few months. We put forth so much effort, but we were sure that nobody would participate in the national dialogue unless they signed and applied the roadmap.

AO: When will the national dialogue end?

HA: We are in ongoing talks until the presidential election ends. However, in this week's session, there was an idea to keep up this national dialogue. Of course the formation of the participants will be changed according to the new parliament. Also, maybe the dialogue will be turned into an institution to protect the country from any future disturbances.

AO: How much do you value the parliamentary elections?

HA: It's the peoples will, and we have to respect it. Tunisia is a variable community, and that's what achieves the balance. And we're also looking forward to the presidential election and the municipal elections.

AO: How many members of the union will be in parliament?

HA: We are not a party, so we are not interested in counting the parliament's members who belong to the union, and if there is an MP who belongs to a political party and the union at the same time, they will represent their party and not us. And when anyone tries to get the union involved in his party's interests, he will be removed.
 

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