Tunisia's union leader Houcine Abbassi

The intermediary

Houcine Abbassi has headed the Tunisian Labour Union Confederation UGTT since late 2011. Along with workers' rights, he primarily pleads for political dialogue in his home country. The National Dialogue Quartet he initiated for this purpose has now been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By Sarah Mersch

From his office in downtown Tunis, Houcine Abbassi looks out over Mohamed Ali Square. Portraits of the union's founding fathers and Abbassi's predecessors look down from the walls of the modest office with its heavy wooden table and worn leather armchairs.

Here, outside the historic seat of the Labour Union Confederation, is where the first demonstrations took place in the capital in late December 2010, after protests had already been raging across the country for days against ruler Ben Ali. At the time, Abbassi was a member of the union board in charge of legal issues and conducting studies, and he remained in the background as events unfolded. 

One year later, the union rid itself of its pro-regime leader from the days of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and elected consensus candidate Abbassi, today 68.

The teacher can look back on more than 40 years of experience in union work. Born into a farming family, he grew up some 100 kilometres south of Tunis and became involved in the local teachers' union in the 1970s. In 2002, he became chairman of the union council in the Kairouan district, and in 2006 a member of the executive bureau in Tunis. His subsequent term as secretary general would turn out to be one of the most eventful since the founding of the confederation in 1946.

General strike as a means of pressure

Although Tunisia is the only country to have seen positive developments since the Arab Spring, it is still plagued by frequent violence, setbacks and crises. And the UGTT often plays an active role as intermediary in these cases. With its more than 700,000 members – in a country with a population of about eleven million – the Labour Union Confederation is well-connected throughout the country and is able to quickly mobilise its members, as it already demonstrated in the days of the revolution.

When opposition figure Chokri Belaid was assassinated in February 2013, the union called for a general strike on the day of his funeral – and all of Tunisia stood still.

Protests following the murder of Chokri Belaids in Tunis (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Powerful political tool: when opposition figure Chokri Belaid was murdered in February 2013, the union called a general strike for the day of his funeral – and all of Tunisia stood still

For Houcine Abbassi, the general strike is the most powerful form of leverage that can be exercised when all else fails. In the summer of 2013, when in the midst of the fasting month of Ramadan MP Mohamed Brahmi was murdered, Tunisian political life was plunged into a crisis and Abbassi felt called upon to seize the initiative. The small man with short grey hair spearheaded a quartet of intermediaries made up of the union, the employers' association, the Human Rights League and the Tunisian Bar Association, which began trying behind the scenes to resolve the entrenched stand-off between the political foes.

From opponent to negotiating partner

The negotiations in the autumn of 2013 dragged on for months, finally culminating in a compromise between government parties and the opposition. This compromise paved the way for a transition government, the adoption of the constitution and new elections. "Once, dialogue was really on the verge of breaking down," Abbassi recalls. So he threatened a general strike to persuade everyone to give in, "because the other members of the quartet have no means of applying pressure."

Under the leadership of Houcine Abbassi, the Tunisian Labour Union Confederation has gone from adversary to negotiating partner. Abbassi is not afraid to intervene if he believes that his country is straying from its democratic course.

"We are always being accused of sticking our nose into things that don't concern us. But we are merely intermediaries, we have no political ambitions," the father of four never tires of pointing out. Acting with reserve but determination, Abbassi has demonstrated great dedication, and is subject to frequent death threats as a result.

Finding a way out of the impasse

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet press conference in December 2013 (photo:dpa/picture-alliance)
Working toward pluralism and the further development of civil society: Tunisia′s "National Dialogue Quartet" has received this year's Nobel Peace Prize, which will be officially presented on 10 December. The quartet consists of the Tunisian Labour Union Confederation (UGTT), the employers' association (UTICA), the Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian Bar Association

Not affiliated to a political party, Abbassi was able to mediate between the various political stakeholders in the "National Dialogue" only because all those involved trust him. For hours he listened to the positions of the various camps. "We kept reaching the point where someone would say to me: until here and no further, because we fear what the others will do. Of course I couldn't say that to the others. I had to keep some things to myself so that the dialogue could succeed." Even his fellow quartet members never found out all the details of the deals that were hashed out behind closed doors.

Once his mandate ends next year, Abbassi wants to write down everything that's not secret. He wants to convince future generations that dialogue is the only reasonable means for resolving conflicts.

Abbassi is pleased that his achievements have now been crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize, but he nonetheless remains modest. "When we launched the dialogue, we never thought it would someday be rewarded in this way. What gratified us the most was to have led our country out of the crisis."

The next hurdle to be overcome is the upcoming collective bargaining in the private sector. The labour union and employers' association have been struggling for weeks to reach a compromise – Nobel Prize or not.

"We all recognised in 2013 that Tunisia was in danger and that we could only save the country by working together. But that doesn't mean we share the same views on other things," says Abbassi with a mischievous smile. He hopes, however, that in this case once again dialogue will bring about a solution.

Sarah Mersch

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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