Spotlight on Tunisia’s union leader, Houcine Abassi

By Frida Dahmani in Tunis
Posted on Friday, 7 March 2014 16:44

Tunisia celebrated its new constitution on 7 February, the fruit of mediation efforts and the roadmap that the country’s largest union created in late 2013.

When a stalemate developed between the Ennahda-led transitional government and parties in the opposition, unionist Houcine abassi rose to the forefront of Tunisian politics.

He was a little- known figure until he became secretary general of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) in december 2011.

1947 Born in Sbikha, Kairouan
1973Joined the UGTT
2006 Became a member of the UGTT executive committee
2011 Elected as the 11th secretary general of the UGTT
October 2013 Abassi’s roadmap ends political stalemate and leads to the signing of
a new constitution.

He has so far been able to help guide his country through an exceptional crisis. “I want to reassure the Tunisian people that the political crisis will be resolved,” Abassi repeatedly told the country.

A native of Kairouan in Tunisia’s north, this 67-year-old activist, who started his career as a teacher, is more of a listener than a talker.

Nonetheless, his speeches to the Assemblée Constituante Tunisienne and to the government have marked out red lines that must not be crossed.

Abassi is the product of 30 years of trade union militancy in one of the country’s most powerful labour organisations.

“The UGTT has always been there to support people during a crisis. It is the first and primary counterbalance to [the government] in Tunisia,” says political analyst Larbi Chouikha.

In his role at the union, Abassi has gained valuable experience balancing the demands of opposing factions.

Abassi led the union in a new direction, launching talks with employers’ groups in 2012, which led to the forging of a partnership between the two organisations.

When islamist attacks shook the country in 2012, the union’s strong stance won popular support and helped to undo the damage caused by the group’s ties to ousted former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Analysing the country’s political deadlock, this father of four laid much of the blame at the feet of the 2011 government led by Hamadi Jebali and its failure to anticipate how the need for a new constitution would deepen the transitional crisis.

The UGTT has always been there to support people during a crisis

Abassi’s first attempt at a national dialogue in October 2012 failed because it did not have the support of all of the main political groups.

As the country slipped further into political and economic turmoil, it was dealt a new blow with a return to political violence and terrorism as two opposition leaders were assassinated in 2013.

Abassi hardened his tone and relaunched a drive for a national dialogue in September. This time, he was careful to court and win support from other major civil society groups.

The Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat, the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme and the Ordre National des Avocats backed the UGTT’s proposal.

Together, they are now driving the national dialogue effort and giving some structure to the final steps of the transition.

During the exhausting rounds of negotiations as part of the national dialogue, Abassi used the threat of national protests to drive the agenda forward.

While Abassi may sometimes seem taciturn, his determination – forged by decades of trade union debate – is clear, especially when his country’s future is at stake.

Having hammered out a new constitution, contributing to establishing a new government is among his top priorities.

Tipped as a potential president, Abassi is mindful of the needs of the workforce.

Shortly after caretaker prime minister Mehdi Jomaa took office in January 2014, he issued a clear warning: “A social truce cannot hold without clear policy on price controls and an immediate solution for the numerous companies threatened with closure”.

If such a deal can be found, Abassi would be well placed to become a national leader with mass popular support. ●

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