Posted on Tuesday, 17 November 2015 12:24

Spotlight on Houcine Abassi

By Frida Dahmani

Photos© Nicolas Fauquè/CorbisTaking no side politically, this skilled trade union negotiator has become one of the most influential men in Tunisia. His role since the Arab Spring won him and three others this year's Nobel Peace Prize


On 9 October, Tunisian labour leader Houcine Abassi and three other civil society figures took this year's Nobel Peace Prize for their role in deepening democracy and preventing conflict after the 2011 downfall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Since his election in December 2011 as secretary general of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), Abassi has been one of the most influential men in Tunisia.

At the head of the powerful labour union, which draws its support from its historical role in the struggle for independence and the building of a modern Tunisia, this native of Kairouan has faced four governments in three years and has forced them to listen to workers' demands.

A dyed-in-the-wool militant trade unionist who has spent 30 years rehabilitating the image of the union, Abassi brought about a rapprochement with the employers' union in 2012, bypassing government to help save the country's economy.

However, his boldest move was the national dialogue initiative. The troika of parties that led the country after the 2011 election of the Assemblée Constituante – Ennahda, the Congrès pour la République and Ettakatol – were bogged down in disagreements about the shape of the proposed new constitution.

In October 2012, he invited political parties, civil society organisations and the government
to a general consultation. this first attempt failed, and politicised militias attacked UGTT members.

After the assassination of leftist leaders Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, Tunisia was on the brink of civil war.

This forced the troika to agree to a roadmap that would bring the transitional period to an end.

Abassi joined forces with three others: Wided Bouchamaoui, president of the Union Tunisienne de l'Industrie, du Commerce et de l'Artisanat; Abdessatar Ben Moussa, president of the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l'Homme; and Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, president of the Tunisian bar association.

Together, they led discussions and ensured that the decisions taken were acted on up to the general elections in October 2014.

Despite the resistance of the Islamists of Ennahda, these civil society organisations forced the troika to step down, which led to the appointment of a government of technocrats, a new constitution and general elections. It was this peaceful manoeuvre, known as the national dialogue, that won the Nobel prize.

The accolade has not ruffled Abassi, 69, a taciturn man of strongly held opinions. He has not lost sight of his role as a trade unionist and continues to stick firmly to his principles in protracted negotiations with the government of prime minister Habib Essid.

Those close to Abassi say that he wants the national dialogue to become a permanent body, which would give the UGTT a firm political role; others insist he has no other objective in sight than the union's congress, scheduled for late 2016.

In any case, Abassi, virtually unknown here just four years ago, has become a man to be reckoned with.

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