Who are the lawyers, trade unionists, and secular activists who have been challenging the power in Tunisia for decades

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:37:10

In a curious twist of fate, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet (UGTT, UTICA, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers) won the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year of the death of Abdelkader Zghal, one of the pioneers of Tunisian and Maghreb sociology. Born in 1931, Zghal served as the catalyst for the Tunisian Centre for Economic Research and Society (CERES) for many years, and was one of the most thoughtful inquirers of precisely that civil society that the Norwegian Academy saw it fit to reward. The theoretical coordinates drawn up by Zghal are a tool for understanding the Quartet's role and its historical roots. The Struggle Against the Single Party System Zghal's research on the concept of civil society is inspired by the development of public space in Tunisia from the second half of the 1970's onwards. At that time, politics and philosophy of human rights were once again gaining force on the international scene, as demonstrated, among other things, by the place accorded to the theme of human rights during the Helsinki Conference in 1973-1975. In Tunisia, Bourguiba's authoritarianism suffered bureaucratic degeneration and was punctuated by phases of openness and repression. In this context, the associations started to become aware of their role as critical voices against the single party system. The General Union of Tunisian Workers is an example of this. Founded in 1946 from the convergence of several unions, the UGTT had participated in the struggle for national liberation. Following independence, this union was to play an important role as a link between society and the party-state of Bourguiba and, in constant tensions between subordination and autonomy, ensured a space of relative freedom in the absence of a multi-party system. Although it was more inclined to mediation that to direct confrontation, from the mid-1970's the UGTT started to challenge the regime. Meanwhile, between 1976 and 1976, the Human Rights League was born, the first association of its kind in the Arab world, and an organisation which brought together different political tendencies united by an ideal opposition to authoritarianism. Three serious social and political crises occurred in Tunisia between 1978 and 1984. In January 1978, a general strike launched by the UGTT turned into a popular uprising. To subdue the riot, Bourguiba was forced to bring in the army for the first time in the history of the Republic. History repeated itself on two more occasions, in January 1980 and in January 1984. As Zghal notes in an article written in 1990, at that particular juncture the issue of the Tunisian political system preserving its non-military nature emerged for the first time. The concept of civil society imposed itself in both political and academic circles as a network of organisations independent from the state and that protects it from military coups. Defending Secularism Meanwhile, a coup d'état eventually occurred in 1987, but it was a rather "conventional" coup, with Ben Ali supplanting Bourguiba. It seemed to usher in a new era of political openness, in which the Islamists of An-Nahda also participated. They were to challenge the regime on the grounds of the interpretation of Islam, while the process for their legal recognition was under way. Civil Society reacted once more, on this occasion not to safeguard the "non-military" nature of the political system, but rather to safeguard its "non-religious" character. At the time, Zghal noted that the notion of civil society took on a new meaning: no longer "the set of organisations separate from the State, regardless of their ideological orientation, but more specifically: the parties and associations that, despite their differences of opinion on many issues, share the same values on human rights and individual freedoms". During the 1990's and 2000's, Ben Ali's regime took control of the rhetoric of human rights and civil society, and managed to control the organisations and associations working in this field, through both repression and co-optation. The 2010-2011 revolution paved the way for new opportunities, but the organisations that would go on to comprise the Quartet reached that point with varying degrees of preparation. The UGTT was initially in trouble, because it paid for its ambivalent role as mediator between the regime and society. In 2008, the central trade union was supplanted by its base during the revolt that broke out in the mining area of Gafsa, the rehearsal for the Jasmine Revolution. In 2011, the scenario was repeated. After some initial hesitation, the leadership got to work, and with its new General Secretary Houcine Abbassi, it regained its lost lustre. Even the Human Rights Defence League was weakened, but during the years of Ben Ali's presidency, it managed to remain true to its mission thanks to support from the International Federation of Human Rights, chaired by the Tunisian Souhayr Belhassen until 2013. The Order of Lawyers, which under the Ben Ali presidency operated as an "enclave of democracy", and the only professional organisation whose leaders are elected in a transparent manner, was ready for the task. Lawyers were the first to react to the immolation of Tarek Bouazizi on 17 December, organising sit-in protests throughout the country the very next day. Together with the UTICA, the association that brings together businessmen, traders and artisans, these three organisations allowed the Revolution to reach the middle classes in the cities, turning the 2010 revolts from popular uprisings into a national movement. The national dialogue In 2013, at a time of political tension when two leading political exponents of the left were assassinated, the four large organisations launched an initiative for national dialogue, which forced An-Nahda out of the government, brought about the end to the work of the Constituent Assembly and facilitated the organising of the 2014 legislative and presidential elections. For Zghal, who meanwhile assimilated the lessons of Habermas on the public sphere as a space of debate, the chance was presented to further develop his conceptualisation of civil society. As another Tunisian scholar, Mohammed Kerrou noted, his reflection has now been strengthened with the idea of the "historic compromise" between secularists and Islamists, which is neutralising the hegemonic pretensions of An-Nahda and the polarisation of the political sphere. The Nobel Prize won by the Quartet could therefore be considered a "Nobel Prize for lifetime achievement", awarded to Tunisian civil society as a whole. The temptation to turn them into a role model is strong, but a certain degree of realism is required. In 1987, Zghal noted that Tunisia was the only remaining civil Republic in the Arab world, and since then things have not changed. The Nobel Peace prize challenges that this path can be worth something that transcends the borders of this small Mediterranean country.