Tunisian union nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recently approved the nomination of UGTT, Tunisia’s largest trade union federation, for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

The winner of the prize will be announced on October 10.

UGTT was nominated by four Tunisian university professors for the union’s leading role during the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Most recently, UGTT mediated tense negotiations between Islamist and secular leaders that resulted in a settlement that produced a moderately progressive new constitution and avoided sectarian strife.

“Without the muscular involvement of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT is the French acronym)–perhaps the only organization whose power and legitimacy rival the Islamists’–it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about,” writes Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

UGTT  has played an integral role in Tunisia’s history since the union was founded in 1946 during the country’s struggle against French colonialism.

In 2011, rank and file UGTT members were among those who organized popular demonstrations that eventually led to the downfall of  Tunisia’s dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The UGTT leadership was at first reluctant to throw its full support behind the demonstrations, but as Ben Ali’s attempts to suppress the demonstrations became more brutal, the union’s leadership called for his removal and organized a general strike that played an important part in driving the dictator from power.

After Ben Ali’s overthrow, UGTT supported a national reconciliations government that was free of influences from the old regime. Among other things, UGTT proposed an economic development program that called for public investments in underdeveloped regions that had been ignored by Ben Ali’s neoliberal economic policies.

The country’s first elections after Ben Ali’s overthrow resulted in a victory for Ennahda, an Islamist political party, and its Islamist allies.

When Ennahda rose to power, the national unity that resulted from the successful revolution began to fray.

Instead of filling important government positions with experts, Ennahda stacked those positions with its partisan supporters, which raised concern among secular Tunisians.

In 2012, Islamist extremist began physically attacking supporters of a secular government, which further heightened tensions.

One of the main targets of these attacks was UGTT, which had some of its local offices stoned or firebombed.

Ennahda did little to curb these attacks leading some Tunisians to believe that the extremists were acting in collusion with Ennahda.

Tensions between Islamist and secular Tunisians became even more tense when Ennahda proposed a new constitution that limited the role of women in society.

Ennahda’s proposal led to massive street demonstrations. UGTT played an important role in organizing and leading these demonstrations.

The rift between Ennahda and its secular opponents became more pronounced with the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two leaders of the secular movement.

The assassinations were blamed on extremists, and Ennahda did little to bring the murders to justice.

At this point, it looked like the enmity between the two sides might cause the country to slip into civil war.

But during the summer of 2013, UGTT in concert with UTICA, the employers’ national organization, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the Tunisian Human Rights League persuaded Ennahda and representatives of secular Tunisians to participate in negotiations that could avoid civil war.

The negotiations were mediated by Houcine Abbassi, UGTT’s secretary-general.

Out of these negotiations came a road map for resolving the conflict, which included a draft of a new constitution.

In October, the two sides made a formal commitment to the road map, and in December, Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the new constitution.

The constitution itself is a compromise. For example, it establishes Islam as the state religion but it also guarantees freedom of religion. It  limits freedom of speech by banning attacks on religion, but it also bans accusations of being a non-believer.

The new constitution contains a number of progressive features. It guarantees equal rights for women, protects the country’s natural resources, and seeks to end the abuses of power that characterized the Ben Ali regime by decentralizing government, making government more transparent, and including provisions for fighting government corruption.

As a result of the UGTT-mediated negotiations, the leaders of the Ennahda government agreed to resign and turn over power to a caretaker government until new elections can be held in 2014.

While UGTT’s role helped avoid the kind of civil strife that has plagued other countries in the region, the chance of UGTT winning the Nobel Peace Prize is a long shot. More than 270 candidates have been nominated for the prize, and as Michael Parenti has pointed out, the winner of the prize is often less than a true peacemaker.

But that doesn’t diminish the importance of UGTT’s nomination and the prestige that the nomination carries with it.

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