Tunisia Leads the Way: Peaceful Dialogues After the Arab Spring

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By Ela Bhatt

Gandhian Activist
Founder, Self-Employed Women’s Association
Founding Chair, WIEGO Network

The news that a trade union and its partners in the National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia had been selected for the Nobel Peace Prize was heartening for all of us who believe in peaceful political processes to advance social and economic justice.

As the founder of a trade union of two-million women informal workers in India called the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), I was deeply distressed when I heard that Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 to protest the confiscation of his wares by a municipal official and her aides as part of an on-going campaign of harassment and humiliation inflicted on him and other street vendors. Street vendors face confiscation of their goods and eviction from their natural markets on a daily basis around the world.

The fact that Mohamed Bouazizi’s act helped catalyze wider protests against injustice that led to the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring gave me both hope and concern: hope because the powerless were being empowered to protest; concern that the protests would only lead to violence, not to peaceful negotiations and outcomes.

As a Gandhian, I watched the relatively peaceful transition in Tunisia with great interest – hoping to learn from Tunisia how it managed its transition or revolution. And I was overjoyed when the trade union and its partners in the National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The quartet comprises four organizations: the Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. But the Norwegian Nobel Committee emphasized that the prize “is awarded to this quartet, not to the four individual organizations as such.”

The Tunisian General Labour Union’s leadership created a common front by collaborating with lawyers, traders, and industry – all parts of the economy – informal and formal, poor and rich – to move towards both, peace and freedom. The method of protesting and negotiating by the trade union was peaceful dialogues and public demonstration. It was not only a symbolic protest fueled by social media but went far further and brought elections and democracy to Tunisia.

The efforts of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicraft (the labour union’s other partner) have been multidisciplinary and international. It addressed the everyday politics of peace where thousands were being denied the right to decent work and honest labor. Without decent work and honest labor, there cannot be peace or freedom.

The Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers showed that collaboration and cooperation work as much as competition. What is in our common interest can at times be far more important than what is in our individual interest. Such loss of commons—social, political, economic, natural, or even emotional—cannot be suffered too long if a peaceful society is to be created and sustained.

The approach of the National Dialogue Quartet, comprised of these four organizations, was of “co-creation”: that is, jointly creating a positive and prosperous future for all. The results were a jointly-owned constitution and a wide range of new democratic institutions essential for maintaining freedom. 

The dialogue by the Quartet was firmly established in the public domain and reflected the rising demand of the poor and citizens for the state to address the economic and political ills of society.

Peaceful political protests and processes are what Mahatma Gandhi preached and practiced as he led the fight for Indian’s Independence from British rule. They are as relevant and necessary today as then in struggles for political freedom and economic freedom: what Gandhi-ji referred to as the First and Second Freedoms.

Informal Economy Topic