Tunisia union says violence is not the answer

Tunisia once again proves its exceptionalism as mighty union is working to negotiate solution to political stalemate.

Tunis, Tunisia – As Egypt reminds us once again, the visceral struggles between Islamist and secularist forces have a tragic tendency to rip the guts out of democratic transitions in the Arab world.

The pattern was set in Algeria two decades ago. A popular uprising is followed by a brief democratic overture and blossoming of civil society. Scarcely has the honeymoon begun, however, before deep distrust between secularists and Islamists becomes the prevailing theme. 

The army then intervenes to “save democracy” – with the consent of a large percentage of the population in both Egypt and Algeria – and the cycle of violence leaves civil society wondering how something that was born out of such optimism could have become so ugly so quickly.

Tunisia, for all its economic and social issues – not to mention two political assassinations and allegations of intimidation – has so far avoided this fate. 

The defining difference is that the Tunisian military has no history of intervening in national politics.

Instead, the country has one of the most robust unions in the Arab world. And the Tunisian General Labour Union, or UGTT, is acting as the main mediating force in the present political standoff. This week its meetings with party leaders and Tunisian civil society actors have multiplied.

“National dialogue and national consensus are the best solutions to solve disagreement,” Samir Cheffi, deputy secretary-general, tells Al Jazeera in an interview in the UGTT’s headquarters in Tunis.

“We hope it will not get to the point where it got in Egypt, and we are very sorry to see all those victims dying from both sides. We hope that what happened in Egypt does not happen here,” he said.

“We’re convinced that violence will only produce violence. And violence is against democracy and freedom. Whoever the source of the violence is.”

Tunisia’s labour movement has played a defining role in the country’s evolution since its emergence in the 1920s. Its early leaders were crucial to the country’s fight against French colonial rule, and many paid for their political activism with their lives.

The union was a decisive force in UGTT grassroots members were very active in the uprising that helped overthrow President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but the national leadership was criticised for being too close to the old regime and for failing to throw their weight behind the protestors.

Since then, the UGTT has undergone considerable internal transformation, and has emerged as a consistent counterweight to the Ennahdha-led government.

At present, the UGTT says it is playing the role of negotiator, and not favouring one party over another.  

The UGTT does, however, have its own position: that a non-partisan interim government is the starting point for negotiations.

Unlike the loose coalition of secularist opposition parties that are part of the National Salvation Front (NSF), the UGTT is not calling for the dissolution of the constituent assembly, the elected body charged with writing the constitution.

The UGTT is also abstaining from throwing their official weight behind a nationwide protest planned by the opposition for Saturday, aimed at pressuring Ennahdha to accept the opposition’s proposal.

And unlike many secularist groups in Algeria or Egypt, the UGTT opposes the concept of political exclusion – that it, it is against going back to the days when Islamists were banned from participating in national politics.

“Away from making judgments about one party or another, we believe that our mission is to bring all parties closer, based on the initiative that we are proposing at the UGTT,” he says, arguing that Tunisian politicians don’t have any other option.

“Tunisia is more fragile than Algeria or Egypt. We don’t have the economic resources to endure a protracted crisis.”

“The most important thing for us right now is to save the country from descending into violence.” 

You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan