Tunisia’s labor union won the Nobel Peace Prize. But can it do its job?

On Jan. 22, Tunisians in the impoverished interior regions of the countrytook to the streets, demanding increased economic development. Five years ago, similar protests sparked a revolution centered on economic justice. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), a working- and middle-class-based labor union, played a leading role in the transition process that followed, winning the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize as part of the group of civil society organizations credited with preserving Tunisia’s democratic transition.

For all these contributions, however, the UGTT is first and foremost a labor union, and the democratic transition has yet to achieve the economic gains of most concern to its constituents. Tunisia’s unemployment rate is over 15 percent, worse than before the revolution, with more than half of college educated youth out of work. In a survey last month, 86 percent of Tunisians said the economy was bad or somewhat bad, the highest since 2011. The emergency measures promised by the Cabinet and appeals for calm from the president and prime minister may have ended protests for a moment, but structural problems persist.

Later this year, the UGTT holds its national congress, likely to coincide with regional and municipal elections throughout the country. With no presidential or parliamentary elections until 2019, national power will remain split between the Islamist Ennahda party and the governing Nidaa Tounes, which is riven by internal divisions. This means that the local elections and the UGTT national congress will be an important moment in determining the politics of economic reforms over the next few years. These elections will reveal the balance between competing forces both within the union and the country: secular and Islamist, coastal and interior, left wing and conservative, with serious ramifications for the unemployed youth who drove the revolution and still await its material benefits.