Interview with Akiko Horiba(SPF Program Officer )

Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet: The Power of Dialogue as the Key to Peace-Building

The Sasakawa Peace Foundation will hold a seminar starting 16:00 on Wednesday, July 20 as part of its peace-building project, inviting the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Ahead of this event, we interviewed Akiko Horiba, the Program Officer of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation's International Program Department, responsible for organizing the seminar.

Interview summary:

Q: − Can you describe the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet?


A: In Tunisia, the pro-democracy movement that began in late 2010 toppled the 24-year dictatorship of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The Islamist Ennahda Party won post-revolution elections, heralding the tide of the Arab Spring. Seizing the leadership of the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia, the Ennahda Party presented a strongly Islam-influenced draft constitution, creating a conflict with the secular forces that have maintained a relatively liberal tradition. The assassination of two secular opposition leaders intensified the confrontation, triggering a political crisis. Alarmed by the prospect of following in the footsteps of Egypt, which returned to military rule after a coup d'état, Hassine Abassi of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) campaigned to avert further escalation of confrontation between the Islamist and secular forces and form a consensus. He approached three other influential civil societies, i.e. the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LDTH), and the Tunisian National Bar Association (ONAT) to form the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, bringing together ruling and opposition politicians for national dialogues. This initiative led to the development of a roadmap for compiling the nation's constitution, which set out the process of constitutional amendment and general elections for transition into democracy. The success of the national dialogue initiative pulled Tunisia out of the touch-and-go crisis that divided the nation, and facilitated fair elections. The resulting Constitution of Tunisia is one of the most democratic among constitutions of Arab nations.

Hassine Abassi, the Secretary General of the UGTT is a man of conviction. He has a solid support base from the national organization that politicians cannot ignore. Under his leadership, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet used 'dialogues' to overcome the crisis that divided the nation.

Engaging in a dialogue amounts to making a compromise. In the process of consensus building, it is essential to make rational judgment for compromise. In accepting national dialogues, the people of Tunisia demonstrated their culture of harmony and coordination, restraining themselves for the good of their country. In 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their grass-root campaigns to mediate political confrontation, giving hope to not only the Arab world but also the international community.

Q: − What was your impression of Tunisia after actually visiting the country?


A: I feel that, within the Middle Eastern society, Tunisia is a country that Japan can truly collaborate and work with for building peace. While Tunisia is a small country, it shares the principle of democracy with Japan, and guarantees women's rights in its Constitution. While the Middle East continues to be in turmoil, Tunisia is firmly upholding its democratic principle and systems. Once its economy picks up, the country has the potential to become a leader of the Arab world.

Tunisia also boasts a high level of education, and has many appeals to Japanese people, including its rich historical heritages and cultures, including culinary culture.

Q: - Can you explain the reason and significance of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation's decision to invite representatives of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet?

A:The Sasakawa Peace Foundation's International Program Department has engaged in peace-building projects on a full scale since 2010. Throughout these efforts, we have always wondered what Japan could do to resolve the on-going conflict in southern Thailand. With firm emphasis on increasing people who seek non-violent solutions, we have supported grass-roots youth campaigns and journalists. 'Dialogue' is a non-violent means of solving today's issues. Dialogue allows you to understand others and communicate your own stance. Compromise plays an important part. Establishing understanding toward this process from the level of small communities is essential in building peace. The 'power of dialogue' is the theme of this seminar. We want the representatives of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet to explain how 'dialogue' led to success. At the same time, the seminar will highlight the important roles civil societies played in bringing democracy to Tunisia. All the four members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet are civil organizations. In view of the roles of civil societies, there is a particular significance in the fact that these non-political groups led the way for building political consensus. In this sense, we have paid close attention to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for a long time with a view to eventually extend an invitation to Japan. In March this year, during my business trip to Tunisia, I had the opportunity to meet their representatives and ask them to come to Japan.

During their visit, we want to communicate information about the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet to as many Japanese people as possible, providing them with an opportunity to think about what roles Japan could play. What could our nation do in the field of peace-building? One answer would be for Japan to serve as an intermediary to facilitate 'dialogues.' I am certain that the seminar by the people of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet will inspire various thoughts about Japan's future roles.

Q: - What do you think about the growing misunderstanding about the religion of Islam amidst the threat of terrorism?

All the members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet are Muslims. In Japan, the threat of IS and other extremists has highlighted the image of fighting and violence as that of the Arab countries. Yet, those involved in terrorism is only a small minority of the world's 1.5-billion Muslim population. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet's peaceful dialog-based process is polar opposite to the approach of IS and other extremists. We want to present people of Muslim faith in a positive light to deepen Japanese people's understanding.


See here for details about the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.

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