So far, Tunisia’s National Dialogue has been heralded as a case of “democracy saved,” with Quartet members described as patriotic civil society organizations that placed collective over parochial interests. These organizations are understood to have thrown Tunisia a life preserver in a crisis moment, saving political actors from themselves. The Quartet has been cast as an example of civil society “outsiders,” in cooperation with allegedly apolitical technocrats, rescuing elected government – both from its purported incompetence and from unelected opponents intent on dismantling democracy. The Quartet members – especially the UGTT, Tunisia’s powerful trade union and the Dialogue’s undisputed standard-bearer – are portrayed as standing midway between Tunisia’s seemingly familiar secular actors and its “devil-we-know” Islamist political elites, yet simultaneously outside politics.
In this script, the heroic Quartet enables Tunisia to peacefully negotiate the Islamists out of power without completely eroding nascent democratic institutions. Tunisia avoids collapsing into chaos or crude coup-making, like Libya or Egypt, and its transition weathers the storm. Told this way, the lessons of Tunisia’s National Dialogue story shine in bold, broad brushstrokes: strong civil society steps in to light the path forward and mediated consensus triumphs over conflict.
However, that’s not quite what happened.
The National Dialogue occupied one pivotal moment in a three-way struggle for power among Tunisia’s secular left, personified by the UGTT, its Islamist center-right, personified by Ennahda, and a range of political figures and economic elites connected to the old regime, personified by elements of Tunisia’s now-ruling party, Nidaa Tunis, and its Employer’s Association (UTICA). This three-way struggle has produced a counterbalancing effect that can check excesses of power, in which any two can offset gains or threats posed by the third. But it has also produced a pattern of self-interested positioning in which these groups’ political goals have subsumed the pursuit of core revolutionary goals, such as socio-economic dignity, institutional reform and transitional justice.
The Dialogue’s initiator and leader was Tunisia’s general trade union, the UGTT – a group whose secular unionist values represent many Tunisians, especially those on the left. From its founding in 1946, UGTT’s leadership has seen the union as tasked with a special, dual role: defending the rights of workers, but also – and perhaps more importantly – guaranteeing Tunisia stays on a sovereign, “modern” path. The UGTT coordinated resistance against the French during Tunisia’s fight for independence and is imbued with a huge amount of historical and popular legitimacy. Boasting 750,000 members in a population of just under 11 million, it also holds a powerful political bargaining chip: by calling a general strike, UGTT can grind the economy to a standstill.
Despite its legacy and large membership, however, UGTT’s leadership was heavily co-opted under Tunisia’s first two presidents, Habib Bourgiuba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali took co-optation to a new level, buying off UGTT’s top brass with free cars, special access to loans and guarantees of legal immunity. The famous Gafsa mining basin protests of 2008 – which anticipated Tunisia’s revolution – began as a protest of local union activists against UGTT’s corrupt national leadership. When revolution struck in December 2010, protests often started from local UGTT branches, but some protesters carried signs indicting union bosses’ corruption.
After Ben Ali’s departure, the UGTT was eager to re-establish its credibility and reassert political influence. At its December 2011 conference, the UGTT ousted its general secretary and other Ben Ali-era leaders. A reenergized union sought to assert itself as an independent force – one that could powerfully oppose, partner with or even supervise the role of government. This new mission created tension between UGTT and the Troika government. The Troika came to power through Tunisia’s first democratic elections in October 2011, and was led by Ennahda, an Islamist party which had been banned for decades. Though it formed a coalition with two smaller, mostly secular parties, Ennahda’s victory stunned many secularists, pro-union leftists, and political and economic elites.
UGTT’s leadership had long viewed Islamists as a broad and blurry group inherently opposed to “modern” values. Ideological hostilities ran deep. Even some UGTT leaders imprisoned and tortured alongside Ennahda members under the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali tended to label Islamism – rather than old regime authoritarianism – the main threat to unionism. “Bourguiba did what he thought he had to do… he defended republican values,” Mongi Ammami, an adviser to UGTT’s Secretary General who was imprisoned under Bourguiba, told me in 2014. “But Islamists have a totally different project, khilafa [building a caliphate]. It’s a fascist discourse.”
UGTT leaders also saw Ennahda as a political competitor intent on dismantling unionism. In the years following Tunisa’s 2011 revolution, UGTT leaders alleged Ennahda – with the support of purportedly Islamist revolutionary militias, Salafi jihadis and even some members of the Troika coalition party CPR – was attempting to crush the union by infiltrating it from within and attacking it from without. UGTT held large protests against Ennahda in February and December 2012, in response to garbage dumped outside union offices and police firing birdshot on union-backed demonstrators respectively. UGTT’s leaders strongly believed Ennahda was behind these abuses.
For its part, Ennahda claimed the UGTT was intentionally sabotaging Tunisia’s economy to topple the Islamist-led Troika. Ennahda leaders I interviewed throughout 2012 and 2013 described UGTT leaders as ideologically prejudiced against Islamists. Many suggested UGTT’s leaders were intentionally taking a hands-off approach to thousands of wildcat strikes happening throughout the country. Some even claimed UGTT, possibly with support from the RCD, was stoking these strikes to make governance an especially impossible job. Research has suggested such assertions, like some of UGTT’s claims against Ennahda, are untrue. Yet with the economy in post-revolutionary free fall, and thoroughly inexperienced in the art of governing, Ennahda leaders tended to approach the UGTT with fear and frustration – unsure how to transform what they perceived as obstructionism into constructive collaboration. One crucial mistake Ennahda leaders made was encouraging their supporters to counter-protest at UGTT demonstrations during 2012. Instead of cooperating to solve Tunisia’s socio-economic challenges, UGTT and Ennahda spent much of 2012 locked in a destructive cycle of competing street protests that directly contributed to Tunisia’s 2013 political crisis.
Ennahda placed itself in further opposition to the union by awarding public administration jobs to its own supporters. Ennahda leaders denied wrongdoing, claiming that winning parties in established democracies often exercise their prerogative to make political appointments. Yet such actions brought Ennahda into heightened conflict with the UGTT, which condemned it for threatening the public administration’s neutrality. Some prominent members of UGTT, along with anti-Islamist parties like Nidaa Tunis and the Popular Front, went further, claiming Ennadha was covertly seeking to Islamicize the Tunisian state.
Escalating tensions between Ennahda and the UGTT played a central role in precipitating the National Dialogue, a project that began a full year earlier than most observers realize. UGTT began the first National Dialogue in June 2012 in an attempt to apply pressure to Ennahda, which its leaders perceived as jeopardizing both the union’s strength and the “civic” (i.e. secular) character of the state.
In the months prior, Ennahda – freshly installed in the Constituent Assembly – had engaged in protracted, painstaking debates over whether or not the word “sharia” should appear in Tunisia’s new constitution. These conversations generated identity-based controversy and engendered fears among secular and leftist Tunisians that Ennahda would railroad their views, imposing a majoritarian conservatism on the country. UGTT’s intervention therefore found strong support among well-established secular civil society organizations that shared its suspicions regarding Ennahda. Two of these, the League of Human Rights and the Bar Association, helped UGTT convene the 2012 Dialogue, forming the base of what later became the Nobel-winning Quartet.
But the 2012 National Dialogue initiative faced strong pushback from Ennadha and its coalition partner, Congress for the Republic (CPR), a stubbornly revolutionary human rights-oriented party. Ennadha and CPR believed the Dialogue was an attempt by unelected actors to dictate the democratic political process. They were especially disturbed by the Dialogue’s inclusion of Nidaa Tunis, an unelected party heavily represented by former members of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party of Ben Ali. Ennahda and CPR viewed the 2012 Dialogue not as a neutral, civil society process but as a vehicle for the old regime to influence Tunisia’s freshly elected government and legislature.
However, their position grew less tenable after a series of destabilizing events, including the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and two high-profile political assassinations in 2013. The first assassination, on Feb. 6, targeted leftist politician Chokri Belaid, a vocal critic of Ennahda and long-time defender of trade unionists. Though Islamic State militants later claimed responsibility, many secular and leftist Tunisians believed Belaid’s assassination proved what they had always suspected: Ennahda’s supposedly “moderate” Islamism was just a cover for an Islamo-fascist takeover. Thousands massed to accompany Belaid’s coffin to the Djellaz Cemetary in Tunis, and UGTT declared a general strike. The second assassination, on July 25, targeted lesser known Arab nationalist MP Mohamed Brahmi.
Brahmi’s assassination ground Tunisia’s transition to a standstill. It also set the stage for a dramatic three-way power struggle, pitting Nidaa Tunis, sometimes in criticism of but often in agreement with UGTT, against Ennahda.
The political crisis of summer 2013 was inflamed and exploited by political elites, including UGTT. Nidaa Tunis was especially well poised to exploit political tensions that, though brewing during 2012, boiled over following the two assassinations. While Tunisia’s two best-organized political forces, UGTT and Ennahda, contributed to the development of these tensions, Nidaa Tunis – a charismatically led party with strong ties to the former regimes –capitalized on them the most.
Though Nidaa Tunis enjoyed the support of many Tunisian secularists, leftists and trade unionists, its political machine was fueled by ex-RCD money and manpower. Members of the Employer’s Association, which joined the UGTT-led Quartet in August 2013, represented Tunisia’s traditional economic elite, and many had a heavily vested interest in maintaining the status quo ante. Together, these groups represented large segments of Tunisia’s old political and economic elite – an elite that felt cheated by the victory of three largely non-establishment parties in 2011.
For months prior to Brahmi’s assassination, Nidaa’s leadership had been calling for not just the resignation of the government but also the dissolution of Tunisia’s core transitional body: the elected National Constituent Assembly. Beji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa’s founder and president, appeared on Tunisian television February 7, 2013 – one day after Belaid’s assassination – to demand the Assembly’s resignation. Essebsi and other opponents of Ennahda claimed that replacing the elected Assembly with an unelected group of supposedly apolitical “technocrats” was necessary because the Assembly had overstayed its mandate and was therefore illegitimate. Incidentally, the Assembly’s one-year mandate, which international experts labeled unrealistically short, was created by Tunisia’s 2011 transitional government, which Essebsi headed .
Against these demands, the UGTT cast itself as a neutral mediator determined to negotiate a peaceful solution to the standoff. In August 2013, UGTT made the surprising decision to invite the Employer’s Association, a group with which it had traditionally been at loggerheads, to form a 3+1 mediation Quartet leading the Dialogue. In September 2013, this Quartet presented Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis with a roadmap to resolve their differences through a two-way compromise. Ennahda and its Troika partners would leave government completely within the space of just three weeks, while the Assembly would stay on to complete the constitution and pave the way for Tunisia’s 2014 elections.
UGTT and the Employer’s Union, the Quartet’s other heavyweight, were not neutral actors. Both overlapped politically and ideologically with Nidaa Tunis, and both shared Nidaa’s goal of booting Ennahda from power. Yet under the UGTT’s leadership, the Quartet opposed Nidaa’s demand of dissolving the Constituent Assembly. Had it decided otherwise, Tunisia’s transition would likely be in tatters.
The 2013 political crisis presented the UGTT with an important opportunity to regain “national savior” status, recouping lost credibility after decades of regime persecution and manipulation. UGTT burnished its reputation both locally and internationally through its successful mediation efforts. This so-called Bardo Crisis also presented UGTT with a platform on which to display its political and ideological weight. Indeed, though Ennahda ultimately succeeded in negotiating the terms of its exit, the UGTT’s chief negotiator Houcine Abbasi did not shy from using union power to cajole desired concessions.
Ultimately, the National Dialogue managed to quell the highly politicized three-way struggle that produced Tunisia’s 2013 political standoff. The Quartet resolved this impasse without dissolving the Constituent Assembly – a crucial decision that helped keep Tunisia’s transition afloat. The National Dialogue also forged a fragile consensus among Tunisia’s major power players: the UGTT, Ennahda and Tunisia’s traditional political and economic elites, represented jointly by Nidaa Tunis and the Employer’s Union. Throughout the 2013 Dialogue and the crisis that catalyzed it, each of these groups asserted themselves as powerful forces on Tunisia’s post-revolutionary stage, demanding to be integrated – or, in the case of the old elites, re-integrated – in Tunisian politics.
Despite overcoming a major political hurdle, the National Dialogue did little to concretely advance Tunisia’s pursuit of revolutionary goals, including socio-economic dignity, institutional reform, and transitional justice. Rather than collaborating to address these critical issues, the Dialogue’s protagonists spent much of 2012 and 2013 aggravating, exploiting, and eventually resolving a diversionary political crisis. That crisis sapped political and civil society leaders’ energies at a critical transitional moment during which far-reaching changes may have been possible.
With the Nobel Peace Prize, Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet has been rightly applauded for helping Tunisia overcome a major political crisis. History should learn from their efforts. But history should also remember that the Dialogue’s principal protagonists resolved a conflict that, to varying degrees, each one helped create, and that political power players were the primary winners in this saga. For average citizens to taste the fruits of Tunisia’s revolution, their leaders must transcend opportunistic infighting that characterized 2012 and 2013 to enact far-reaching economic and institutional reforms. Long after global applause for the Quartet has faded, Tunisians will keep asking what, if any, dividends their revolution has delivered.
Monica Marks is a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral researcher with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University.