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How a Leftist Labor Union Helped Force Tunisia’s Political Settlement

Without the muscular involvement of a powerful labor union, it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about.

Published on March 27, 2014

On a Saturday afternoon last October, in an ornate, scarlet-draped convention center bedecked with flags and white flowers, Tunisian labor leader Houcine Abbassi presided over a signing ceremony that would mark his country’s destiny and perhaps that of the Arab world. “Thank you for heeding the nation’s call,” he told the leaders of two dozen political parties, before each stood to sign what has come to be called the Road Map.

The event almost came off the rails. Some politicians were shocked to discover upon arriving that they would be forced to sign the document in front of television cameras—and thus be bound by its terms. On a tight calendar, the text called for three giant steps: the resignation of Tunisia’s entire cabinet and the appointment of a nonpartisan prime minister tasked to put together a new one, the formation of an independent election commission, and the modification and approval of a draft constitution.

With handcuffs like these lying open before him, the head of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, balked. The Road Map, in his view, was merely a “basis for discussion.” For three hours, as participants and witnesses and journalists grew confused and impatient in the main hall, Abbassi tousled with Ghannouchi offstage, at last extracting an agreement to sign.

And what was a labor union doing in the thick of politics? Everything, it turns out.

Civil Society

Tunisia, whose mass demonstrations in January of 2011 touched off the regional conflagration that toppled four governments and sparked at least one war, has so far avoided the bloody aftershocks its neighbors have suffered. The passage of an exemplary constitution in late January suggests it has turned a momentous corner.

Explanations in the West for this Tunisian exception have emphasized the country’s penchant for consensus in general, and the conciliatory nature of the Islamist party in particular. “The Ennahda Movement made many concessions and agreed to relinquish control of the government in order to preserve genuine consensus,” reads the approving account of Ghannouchi’s remarks at a roundtable held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in February.1


Founder Farhat Hached resigned from the French communist-leaning union Confédération générale du travail because of its lack of support for Tunisians’ fight to gain independence from France. Thus, from its very inception, his UGTT has been more than just a labor union. Hached’s 1952 assassination (probably by French intelligence services) sparked riots across three continents. He is revered as a hero of the Tunisian independence movement.

While its leadership, under both Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was often seen as close to the ruling party, the UGTT retained more independence than other Arab labor unions—or even its French counterparts, many of which are allied to political parties. Its only general strike before the 2011 revolution—savagely put down—was against Bourguiba’s 1978 effort to handpick union leadership. But even Bourguiba never tried to ban the UGTT.

The union maintained credibility in the struggle for workers’ rights—and social justice more broadly—through the organization of some local strikes, its participation in bread riots in late 1983, and its ability to obtain wage hikes and other improvements in working conditions from Ben Ali.

With its large membership and multiple local structures, the UGTT was the only institution that rivaled Ben Ali’s ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party in its presence in Tunisians’ everyday lives. Its democratic bylaws and internal electoral practices allowed for greater freedom of expression inside the organization than outside its doors. In the view of many Tunisians, the UGTT represents Tunisians better than any of the postrevolutionary political parties do and enjoys more legitimacy.

It also enjoys economic clout. “The only institution that has leverage is the UGTT,” judges Amine Ghali of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis. “The UGTT’s ability to bring the country to an economic standstill was explicit.”

And yet, 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. The UGTT and other key institutions, the talent and tenacity of a few individuals, and several fortuitous events combined to drive the process. It was this convergence that compelled inexperienced and sometimes bitter and refractory politicians to bridge the divides.

The Tunisia story, in other words, is not just one of political parties that were more mature and responsible than their counterparts in Egypt or Libya. More accurately, it is one of the breakdown and widespread disavowal of standard political processes, and the ability of external actors to step in and serve as bludgeons and mediators, both.

The most critical was the UGTT, which has been deeply entwined with Tunisia’s political development since the union’s founding in 1946—in the midst of the fight for independence. Now counting more than half a million dues-paying members (about 5 percent of Tunisia’s total population), a branch in every province as well as nineteen organized by activity, it penetrates society down to the grass roots. Its economic clout, together with extensive mediating and negotiating experience acquired through collective bargaining, were critical to the role it played in 2013. So was the determination, talent, and sheer stamina of General Secretary Houcine Abbassi, who personally ran hundreds of hours of negotiations.

General Secretary Houcine Abbassi

If any single person emerges from the 2013 crisis as a Tunisian national hero, it is Abbassi. Participants in the intensive National Dialogue negotiations in the second half of 2013, as well as ordinary Tunisians of every political persuasion, praise the skill and stamina he displayed in driving the process:

“He is an incredibly hard man, a hard, upright, principled man,” says Mahmoud el-May, of the Joumhouri Party.

“He was the boss, clearly. He was so stubborn during the negotiations,” remembers Afek Tounes parliamentarian Noomane Fehri. “He had no problem asking the same question again and again for six hours.”

The union joined forces with three other respected institutions to drive the settlement process: the employers’ union (UTICA), whose participation side-by-side with the normally hostile labor union added to the Quartet’s moral as well as economic clout; the Tunisian Bar Association, founded in 1887, whose leadership also helped pilot the fight for independence; and the Human Rights League (LTDH), which has the distinction of being the first independent human rights association in the Arab world.

This story holds lessons about the role of civil society in political transformation. Civil society matters enormously, of course. Populations have a newfound agency, in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, in shaping their nations’ destinies. But Western analysts and donor agencies may be placing too much weight on civil society as personified by small, upstart NGOs or nascent political parties. Such groups, and disorganized popular movements, can apply generalized pressure and help topple governments. But in the wake of abrupt change, when detailed settlements must be crafted and imposed, economic clout, historical legitimacy, and internal infrastructure are vital assets.


The Tunisian employers’ union (l’Union tunisienne de l’industrie, du commerce et de l’artisanat) joined the three other groups during this crisis, adding to the Quartet’s economic clout and transmitting a strong signal of unity. Not since independence had the employers joined forces with the UGTT. “It was exceptional to see the workers and the employers together,” says Amine Ghali of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis. “The temperament of the president, Wided Bouchamaoui, was critical. It wasn’t the usual CEO arrogance.” 

Rough Road

Even with such assets, it took two months from a point of total deadlock in the summer of 2013 to reach that October agreement on steps forward; consensus on the bare scaffolding of a consensus agreement was hard-won. The Road Map agreed upon at that October signing ceremony enshrined two fundamental compromises. It combined electoral legitimacy (only parties elected to the Constituent Assembly were invited to participate in the National Dialogue the agreement called for) with consensual legitimacy (each party got two representatives, regardless of the size of its constituency). And it preserved governmental institutions (the assembly was not dissolved) while modifying their functions.

Those three long, empty hours in front of the TV cameras were not the final near misses, however. Ghannouchi appended a caveat to his signature: “as a basis for discussion.” So other parties insisted on a further written promise by then prime minister Ali Larayedh to abide by the Road Map’s terms and resign. Extracting that assurance took another three weeks.

L’Ordre des avocats

The Tunisian Bar Association, founded in 1887, is the oldest member of the four institutions that make up the Quartet. “Historically, it has always been more of an activist organization than merely a professional association,” says its president, Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh. Absorbing constitutional principles and republican values while studying in France, many Tunisian lawyers, like trade unionists, helped lead the fight for independence. “We played an opposition role under the French, under Bourguiba, under Ben Ali,” continues Mahfoudh. “Our bylaws are democratic, which vaccinated us against efforts at co-option.” 2

Seven more weeks of bitter haggling followed—and dramatic announcements that the whole dialogue would soon be abandoned—to reach consensus on the name of a new prime minister. The Constituent Assembly reconvened, and, with the National Dialogue working in parallel and a liaison committee reconciling the two bodies’ drafts, completed the constitution in another month.

Forcing functions that helped propel the process forward included a sit-in strike by nearly a third of the members of the Constituent Assembly—supported by thousands of demonstrators; the violent crackdown in Egypt; and the suspension of international loans.

Outstanding agenda items remain, but Tunisians are more confident than they were a year ago that their unique blend of fledgling political institutions and hard-nosed external moderators will carry them through.

Recipe for a Deadlock

The coercive mediation was necessary because, by early 2013, Tunisia’s postrevolutionary transformation was shuddering to a halt. Three developments ignited concern verging on panic, especially among the engaged secular population: the stacking of the bureaucracy, outbreaks of political violence, and controversy over a draft constitution.


In the 1990s, Ben Ali cracked down on the twenty-year-old Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’homme, or Human Rights League, shuttering regional offices and filling leadership positions with members of his ruling party. “I remember holding a secret meeting in someone’s house,” says Vice President Ali Ziddini. “The security services surrounded the building, and they would stop the kids, in case they were carrying messages. After the revolution, we were fighting on two fronts: we had to handle a flood of citizen complaints about treatment at the hands of Ben Ali, and simultaneously rebuild ourselves, internally, from the ground up.”


In a country remarkable for the professionalism and quiet efficiency of its bureaucracy, Ennahda, which won elections in late 2011, seemed to be rushing to fill government agencies with party adherents. Islamist leaders were accused of politicizing a corps that opponents argued should be kept separate from the new party politics. In the view of critics, Ennahda was exploiting for partisan gain the widespread postrevolutionary desire to clear members of the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) out of administrative structures.

In particular—before any formal transitional justice process was agreed upon—Ennahda “reinstated” thousands of its adherents who had been jailed under deposed ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into their old civil service jobs, often awarding them all the promotions they would have received had they been working during their years behind bars.

“Ennahda pushed for a maximum level of reparations in Decree No. 1,” says Amine Ghali of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis. That decree, the first enacted by Tunisia’s interim government after the revolution, granted a general amnesty and indemnities for crimes of conscience. Since its promulgation, “something like 30,000 Ennahda members have been reintegrated into the bureaucracy,” continues Ghali. Many saw a grab for what constitutes the real machinery of power in this orderly country.

On the other hand, haunted by mistrust of the former ruling party, Ennahda faithful—especially family members of former detainees—saw such appointments as the only reliable guarantee of their security. “We don’t trust them,” says Intissar Souidi, a pharmacist in the southern city of Medenine, whose brother was jailed for Islamism under Ben Ali. She is referring to the old guard—some of whose key figures have taken up visible positions in the largest opposition party, Nidaa Tounes. “They stole, they abused, they imprisoned. They had their chance at power and they failed. If they come back, they will reactivate all the old networks. They will do it again.”

Political Violence

Tunisians often assert that their tolerance for bloodshed is lower than that of many of their neighbors. Attacks on public expression beginning in late 2011—first some fisticuffs at a political rally or vandalism of a provocative art exhibit, later more lethal episodes, and increasingly militant pronunciations by extremist religious leaders—provoked consternation.

On September 14, 2012, amid uproar across the Muslim world over a deliberately offensive amateur video called “The Innocence of Muslims,” hundreds of Tunisian Islamists attacked the U.S. embassy. The circumstances of the assault suggested official collusion: the man who preached the action, “Abu Iyadh,” was a well-known leader of the al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia. He exhorted his followers from a downtown Tunis mosque whose nominal imam was the minister of religious affairs. The well-orchestrated convoy enjoyed police protection along the 4-mile route to the U.S. embassy. And Abu Iyadh escaped a subsequent police stakeout under mysterious circumstances.

Repeated acts of vandalism against the UGTT’s Tunis headquarters and offices across the country, moreover, struck a personal chord with union members and leadership.3 On December 13, 2012, the union called a general strike to protest the attacks, the first since 1978.

By the second half of 2012, many were calling on the Ennahda-led ruling coalition (the “Troika” formed with the Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic parties) to replace ministers critical to the integrity of the ongoing political transition, such as interior, justice, and religious affairs.

The violence culminated in two shocking political assassinations in early and mid-2013 (see timeline below).

June Constitution

On June, 1, 2013, the Troika unveiled a draft constitution. It drew immediate criticism.

“I did not recognize the text,” says Constituent Assembly member Noomane Fehri, of the opposition Afek Tounes party, who served on one of the constitutional committees. “Compromise language we had hammered out, that Ennahda had agreed to verbally, disappeared from the draft. The drafting committee decided to change things—to put things in and take things out. It was a purely Troika constitution.”

Opposition sympathizers were particularly concerned about provisions that referred to Islam as the state religion, to restrictions on liberties of expression and assembly, and to some ambiguities regarding women’s equal treatment under the law.

Tunisia Timeline


In early 2014, Tunisians of all political persuasions—even those who questioned the opposition’s good faith—are relieved and visibly happier than they have been at any time in the past eighteen months. Pharmacist Souidi, a fervent Ennahda member, is “glad they all agreed. Everyone gave up something.”

Others see the process as part of Tunisia’s long recovery from past trauma. “Tunisians didn’t know how to communicate before,” remarks Abdullah Fadhli, of an association of unemployed people. “We were so used to being afraid to say anything of substance outside of our own homes, in case there was an RCD spy nearby. Now we are learning to talk together again.” Disgusted with the political quarreling and drama, Fadhli says he is still waiting for solutions to the social and economic problems that sparked the 2011 revolution. “A constitution is a book. What will it do for the people?” He and many others criticize the new political actors for getting sucked into a competition for power instead of focusing on renovating Tunisia.

Still, in the capital Tunis, new stores and cultural associations have opened, evidence of an improving mood.

Unfinished Business

The Quartet continues to play a role in ensuring completion of the final items called for under the Road Map. The agenda includes: finalizing an electoral law (due imminently); reviewing postrevolution civil service appointments; and implementing such constitutional provisions as the establishment of a supreme court and independent governmental bodies called for in the text.

The political cleavages dividing Tunisians are still appreciated in fundamentally different ways inside and outside the capital—a misunderstanding that presages more turmoil to come. In Tunis, the role of religion in public life represents a bright dividing line. In the underprivileged provinces of the interior, especially the south, social and economic justice are more important political drivers, as is a sense of regional marginalization.

Ennahda remains attractive there, but not entirely because of its religious agenda. Rather, for many outside the capital, it represents the most visible break from old regime networks, and its leadership is seen as more geographically representative than that of most secular parties.

Yet, Tunisians now regard these differences with a bit more equanimity than they did even recently. For they know that when the next, inevitable political crisis looms, they have a powerful lever to lean on: the Quartet—a collection of institutions and individuals whose positioning outside the battle for political power, historical legitimacy, and mediation skills have now been reinforced by their extraordinary performance in 2013–2014.

Westerners, while acknowledging the persistence and ultimate flexibility of Tunisian political actors in reaching consensus, should not draw the wrong lesson from this remarkable story. As they think about how Tunisia’s experience might usefully be applied to other contexts, they should be sure to give appropriate weight to the mediating role of powerful and legitimate external institutions. After all, as LTDH Vice President Ali Ziddini puts it, “just as our revolution was a model, we want our National Dialogue to be a model for other countries.”


1 James Fromson, “Tunisia’s transition,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 27, 2014,

2 See also, for example, Éric Gobe, Les avocats en Tunisie, de la colonisation a la revolution (Paris: Editions Karthala, 2013), 265.

3 See, for instance, Hela Yousfi, “Quand l’UGTT brûle, c’est la Tunisie qui brûle! (“When the UGTT Burns, So Does Tunisia!”),, February 22, 2012,

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.