Talking to Abdessattar Ben Moussa, Tunisian Human Rights League president and Nobel laureate
TUNIS - Abdessattar Ben Moussa has always had reason to be busy as head of the Tunisian Human Rights League, the oldest organisation of its kind in Africa and the Arab world. But since it was announced that he won the Nobel Peace Prize, with other members of the National Dialogue Quartet, he has been even busier with invitations from many parts of the world.
The Quartet includes the Human Rights League but also the country’s main trade unions, the business confederation and the bar association.
Like other recipients of the prize, Ben Moussa, a former head of the country’s Bar Association, sees “Tunisia, its people and civil society” as being honoured by the Nobel committee not just him.
Ben Moussa said the message of the Nobel Prize to the region is that “dialogue is necessary because the alternative is utter destruction”.
But he also said it will be difficult to duplicate the experience of the National Dialogue in other Arab countries that suffer from more tribal and sectarian cleavages and have less of a tradition of active civil society. “Tunisia is different,” he said.
In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Ben Moussa said many factors helped the Quartet succeed in moderating the National Dialogue, which laid the ground for free and fair elections in 2014.
Among such factors are the “independence and patriotism” of the Quartet members and in particular the role of the Tunisian trade unions. “They were the central force. The Dialogue could not have succeeded without them,” he said.
There was also “the role played by politicians and political parties” who accepted making concessions in order for the Dialogue not to fail.
“Regional events” were another factor, he said. Alluding to events that led to the removal of the Islamist government of president Muhammad Morsi in Egypt in 2013, he said: “What happened in Egypt was a message to us. It was either reaching an agreement by consensus or civil war.”
In a middle of a showdown between the ruling Islamist-led coalition and its secular opposition, the Quartet intervened, convincing the Islamists to resign and let a technocratic government rule the country until the forthcoming elections.
Looking to the future, Ben Moussa said he sees the Quartet continuing to play an important role in the country, even if its make-up changes. He said its future mission is that of “a force of suggestion” and a source of “moral pressure”. But he sets limits to the role it could play.
“I am against the National Dialogue becoming an institution. The National Dialogue cannot take the place of legitimate institutions, even if it can intervene in crises,” Ben Moussa said.
The Quartet will help organise a 2016 national conference on terrorism, which will bring together representatives of the government, security institutions and civil society. Ben Moussa sees the next local elections, expected in 2016 or early 2017, as an important milestone in the process of anchoring democracy and decentralisation.
He sees civil society as entrusted with “protecting values and institutions and striving to establish the rule of law in word and in deed”.
“We might need a cultural revolution to change the mindsets,” he said.
One of the immediate priorities Ben Moussa cites is using the Nobel Peace Prize as a pulpit to call for more international solidarity with Tunisia.
“Western and international support to Tunisia is not enough,” he said. “Economically, we are only receiving loans. The technical assistance in the field of security we are getting is limited. The country needs more advanced means to fight terrorism.”