Transitions

Tunisia Celebrates Its Big Norwegian Triumph

The past five years haven’t been all great for Tunisia, but Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize is a welcome recognition of the achievements of a young democracy.

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Four Tunisian civil society organizations — two labor unions, a human rights group, and a lawyers’ association (known together as the National Dialogue Quartet) — have just won the Nobel Peace Prize. The news took everyone here in Tunisia by surprise (including the leaders of the four organizations themselves). But the recognition is fitting and appropriate. The Quartet played a key role in holding Tunisia together in the wake of the political turmoil which threatened to undo the achievements of the country’s 2011 revolution. And if that revolution had failed, the only concrete achievement of the Arab Spring — a democratic Tunisia — would have been swept away.

The Quartet officially launched its work in October 2013. The group proved its worth following two high-profile political assassinations, a nationwide wave of protests, and a series of strikes which shook the country in 2013. (Even though a list of suspects was issued by the Interior Ministry, it is still unclear who exactly is behind the assassinations.) This resulted in political deadlock as the opposition encouraged popular protests demanding that the country’s democratically elected Islamist-led government step down. Everyone feared the worst, as exemplified by the grim fate of Egypt’s revolution. There a widely supported military coup in 2013 had deposed an Islamist government democratically elected in the wake of the revolution, ultimately leading to the restoration of autocratic rule. Just when Tunisia seemed to be heading down the same path, the Quartet stepped in to mediate political talks and find a peaceful way to resolve the tension.

The four organizations took it upon themselves to mediate talks between ruling political parties, opposition parties, and representatives of civil society. Following months of growing political instability, the Islamist-led government agreed to step down. A caretaker government of “technocrats” was handpicked by the Quartet and its dialogue partners. The main goal was to hold the country together until legislative and presidential elections could be organized for 2014 to maintain democratic continuity.

As a journalist who covered the 2013 political talks, I recall the frustration as we waited hours for delayed statements — which all too often ended with a spokesman coming out to inform us that “no consensus was reached.” The talks were held at the building of the former Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice. I remember watching frustrated politicians storm out the front door. Rumors proliferated: This group was protesting, that one was threatening to withdraw from the talks. During short breaks, politicians took to their phones to consult with their colleagues and leaders; you could see how anxious and impatient most of them were. Meetings were long, and the official statements were brief and bland. It is no exaggeration to say that every Tunisian or foreign journalist who closely covered the national dialogue was sick of it at one point or another.

In those confusing days, some activists and politicians were very critical of the Quartet, not only for the incessant delays, but also because the four civil society organizations were making critical decisions in the name of everyone else. The dynamics within the Quartet, as well as their relationship to the various political parties, were often unclear. But in the end, they succeeded in mediating between all the different forces — the Islamist-led government, the leftist opposition, and the protesters in the streets who demanded “a government that has failed to resign” — and helped end the political crisis.

Houcine Abbassi, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union, a member of the Quartet, stated Friday that his organization hadn’t expected to win the prize this time around, since it had only filed its candidacy in Oslo last year. Needless to say, he welcomed it anyway, noting that the timing was fortuitous given the challenges, such as terrorism, that are still threatening Tunisia today.

Numerous activists, politicians, and ordinary Tunisians have gone online to express their pride at the historic event. Yet others have used the occasion to express harsh criticism of the Quartet; some even described the award as “a joke,” saying that the Quartet failed to solve all of the problems set before it and thus doesn’t really deserve the recognition it has received.

Although the Quartet played a crucial role in advancing Tunisian democracy, its members have endured harsh criticism from the beginning of the process. To name but one example, the Tunisian General Labor Union has been attacked in some quarters since the revolution for allegedly showing sympathy with the old regime; other critics have accused it of corruption. (It’s worth noting that the union played a vital historical role in fighting French colonialism and also earned widespread respect for calling for protests at crucial moments during the uprisings of 2010 and 2011.) Many members of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts — the other union in the Quartet — are known for having cultivated close ties with President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his entourage in the old days.

Despite such problems, though, it is important to acknowledge the Quartet’s members did manage to get along, and thus ultimately succeeded in pushing the political parties toward a vital consensus based on dialogue and peace. This is indeed an achievement that Tunisia is perfectly entitled to cherish and celebrate. While the Nobel Committee chose to single out the Quartet in its prize citation, the award should really be seen as a much broader recognition of the vital role played by all of the country’s activist organizations. It was really Tunisia’s civil society that won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the photo, the president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, Abdessattar Ben Moussa, celebrates after he was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize with other members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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