This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recognizes labor’s important role in the one success story of the Arab Spring.
Two of Tunisia’s most prominent unions are a part of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet that received the Peace Prize “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”
I closely followed the uprising in Tunisia as part of my research on nonviolence in Muslim societies. Tunisia was the country where the Arab Spring began.The campaign in Tunisia succeeded in early 2011 in ousting for the first time, with mass support, a modern Arab dictator.
But the country seemed to be in a precarious situation soon after, beset with conflict between religious political players and more secular-minded actors. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, formed in 2013, has played a pivotal part in ensuring that the political transition didn’t go off the rails. One of the labor unions members of the quartet was particularly instrumental.
“Without the muscular involvement of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (l’Union générale tunisienne du travail, or UGTT)—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.
And yet, the important role of labor has been severely underreported.
“When Western reporters writing for corporate newspapers ponder why a transition to democracy has been difficult for some countries (and not just in the Arab world), they almost never suggest that it is because workers are not unionized enough or that unions are not sufficiently engaged in civic life,” comments Professor Juan Cole. “The sleight-of-hand of the editors for the rich is to focus on difficulties presented by ‘tribe’ or sectarianism. But what institutions in the Middle East actively overcome these primordial identities? Labor unions and peace and human rights groups.”
Indeed, as a labor publication points out, the very notions of compromise and consensus that have served Tunisia so well spring in good part from its union movement.
Tunisians learned “a lesson in tolerance” thanks to trade unionism and their practice of negotiation and dialogue, writes Mustapha Tlili in Equal Times. “Another lesson to be drawn from the Tunisian experience, by contrast with other Arab Spring countries, is that the existence of a representative and independent trade union movement and an organized civil society, capable of acting as a counterpower, offers a clear-cut warranty, in this part of the world.”
The anti-dictatorship movement in Tunisia was in large part a campaign against globalization and privatization, as well as inflation and corruption. A Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in December 2010, setting in motion the protests that eventually convulsed the entire Middle East. Not coincidentally, Tunisia was the country in the region that had embraced neoliberal policies most wholeheartedly.
These policies “created large amounts of unemployment and blocked the youth from advancing economically,” Professor Juan Cole told me in a recent interview. “As any historian will tell you, you never want a large number of educated unemployed in your society, because they then get up to mischief.”
Unions in Tunisia played an important part in the struggle against its free-market-oriented dictatorship, and have performed a crucial function in the nation’s successful transition. The story of the positive role of labor in the region deserves more media coverage in this country and around the world, especially in the light of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.