The dividing line between the young Tunisians was evident as they gathered to attempt a dialogue between their university’s two rival student unions, groups tied to the country’s main political parties. On the right side of the room sat the Islamists, whose politics are closely bound to their religion. On the left were the secularists, adherents of an array of left-leaning ideologies.

students in Tunisia

For years, their unions have clashed, sometimes violently, in ways that could escalate when these young leaders move on to the national stage. Now, with guidance from a group of expert Tunisian facilitators, the students agreed to see if they could talk to one another or perhaps even work together.

The importance of fostering a dialogue between Tunisia’s student unions goes far beyond cooling campus tensions.

The country’s small size belies its importance to the future of the region. Its still-fragile democracy is an argument for how democratic values can succeed in a Muslim country and serves as a rebuke to the violent extremism that made Tunisia a key recruiting ground for militant groups like ISIS. Since 2011, Tunisians have overthrown a dictatorship largely without violence, held free elections and approved a new constitution. Islamists and secularists negotiated their way to power-sharing and to compromise on governance.

Universities—and student unions in particular—are the launching pad for the country’s future leadership. If the only democracy to come out of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 is to succeed, its national leaders must learn to deal more effectively—and nonviolently—with conflicts similar to those in the student-union standoff, said Darine El Hage, a regional program manager in USIP’s Center for the Middle East and Africa.

The most difficult thing in the beginning was how to behave with these people.

Houssem Ayari, Manouba University Business School

To help Tunisians navigate the tensions arising from their democratic transition, the U.S. Institute of Peace in 2014 established the Alliance of Tunisian Facilitators. USIP serves as the group’s secretariat and provides the knowledge, skills and mutual-learning opportunities they need to hone their craft and strengthen their impact.

The facilitators have a deep understanding of local dynamics and causes of conflict. In late 2014, for example, the facilitators shuttled among street vendors and municipal authorities in the west-central market town of Kasserine, helping mediate a nonviolent resolution to the same type of clash that sparked the 2011 revolts of the Arab Spring.

Deep Mutual Distrust

At the University of Manouba, outside of Tunis, the two student unions came to their initial meeting with deep mutual distrust bred by history and by Tunisia’s recent political climate.

Decades of suppression under dictatorial regimes that enforced pro-secular policies left the Islamist Union Generale Tunisienne des Etudiants (UGTE) feeling wary and insecure, even though its allied Islamist Ennahda party is now one of Tunisia’s biggest. Its rivalry with the now-secularist Union des Etudiants Tunisiens (UGET) dates to 1985, when right-wing Islamists who split from the older student union formed the UGTE. The UGTE gained official recognition only when Ennahda came to power after the 2011 revolution that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

For their part, the secularists of UGET, which still considers itself the only legitimate student union, remain mistrustful of their rival’s intentions regarding religion and public life. That’s despite Ennahda’s pledge that it will never seek to impose religious values through governmental action.

The goal of the facilitators was to teach conflict-management skills that may help the students cooperate someday as parliamentarians, union leaders or city mayors. Today, badly needed economic and administrative reforms are stuck because lawmakers and ministers deadlock on ideology, El Hage said.

“This is redefining democracy upstream, where that seed of civic participation and nonviolence begins,” said Maral Noori, a USIP senior program specialist for North Africa.

The initiative began last year when Tunisian facilitators and USIP chose the University of Manouba School of Business and Management as a promising site for a pilot project on student union dialogue. Its pragmatic, business-oriented student body of about 1,650 had a track record of less violence and conflict than many other institutions, making it a ripe, but less risky, bet for the trial run. It also helped that members of the alliance had a significant, established network at the school.

Earlier Failures

It was not the first attempt since the revolution to spur reconciliation and dialogue between the unions. An effort by an institute associated with Ennahda failed in 2015. Another try, orchestrated in 2013 by the higher education ministry, also collapsed without result.

The Manouba project opened with the selection by USIP and the facilitators of 18 key male and female union representatives, divided evenly between UGET and UGTE.

When five days of dialogue and training in mediation and conflict resolution began in May 2016, the facilitators and USIP staff were pleasantly surprised that the two unions were willing from the outset to meet in the same room.

Even so, the students “were asking a lot of questions about who are we, what are we doing, what is USIP, what is this alliance, why are you inviting us for this training?” said Saber Louhichi, the lead facilitator in the project.

Louhichi, a lawyer and consultant for UNESCO and Tunisia’s Ministry of Education, was a uniquely suited go-between for the unions, said Souhir Chaari, a USIP regional program specialist and coordinator for the alliance. During the Ben Ali era, he had developed a good understanding of a range of ideologies related to Islam. Yet, as a human rights activist, Louhichi is well-acquainted with the left.

Some common ground emerged over the next few days. The unions shared an interest in addressing student demands to improve transportation, upgrade dormitories and reform academic policies to make their education more likely to lead to employment.

Shared Pride in Democratic Uprising

Discussions of the Tunisian revolution revealed a shared pride in the victory of the democratic uprising that put Islamists and left-wing secularists on the same side for a time. Fatigue with the country’s economic malaise was another point in common. They agreed, too, that a faculty- and administration-dominated council that sets many university policies wrongly excludes students from a decision-making role.

Despite common views on various issues of university life, the unions displayed significant mistrust, the facilitators noted. Throughout, the unions’ national headquarters had to be consulted, as is customary for local offices, slowing the pace of the conversations.

Yet after five days of dialogue and conflict-resolution training, the participants managed to build bridges and reach a consensus of sorts: They agreed to continue exploring concrete actions they could take to ease their conflicts.

"The most difficult thing in the beginning was how to behave with these people,” said Houssem Ayari, who is now secretary general of the UGTE at the business school. “Our ideology is very different. It seemed hard to imagine talking with them, eating together, much less collaborating with them.”

Unprecedented Code of Conduct

Five months later, the facilitators and USIP brought together a group of 12 students, six from each side, for a post-workshop project they had all agreed to undertake: writing an unprecedented code of conduct to govern the two unions’ relations. Its core premise required the unions to respect each other and resolve any conflicts through mediation and facilitation that would be overseen by a new, formal university association for conflict resolution. 

The new code was signed in front of the minister of higher education on October 28, 2016, during a celebration of the business school’s 30th anniversary. The minister said the students had created a model that should be emulated across Tunisia’s academic institution, according to El Hage.

“Adding that section to the code was not easy,” said Meriem Mazzaoul, an alliance facilitator who is a professor of management and marketing and an expert in conflict resolution. “Neither union had previously allowed collaboration with its rival, so it was difficult to convince the head offices of each to put recognition of the other in their documents. It took many meetings and a lot of lobbying,” she said.

In March this year, the project moved to a third phase—training the new student mediators in how to train others. A group of 20 students, some union leaders from the first workshop, met off campus. This time, there was no dividing line in the room. Instead, the opening hours were marked by relaxed dialogue and plenty of laughter, El Hage said.

As positive a sign as that may be, it’s too early to know if the current peaceful atmosphere at the business school will prove durable, El Hage said. Conflict between the two unions historically peaks during student government campaigns; the next vote will take place before the end of November.

“As one of the students said to me, ‘If you really want to monitor the impact, wait until the elections,’” El Hage said.

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