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Tunisian Quartet Wins Nobel Peace Prize as Lone Standout in Violence-Wracked Region

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to a quartet of Tunisian civil society groups that mediated political talks there.

Tunisians wave their national flag and shout slogans as they attend a rally marking the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2014 in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. Tunisia celebrated the third anniversary of the overthrow of a decades-old dictatorship in the first Arab Spring uprising, but political divisions have hampered the adoption of a new constitution by this symbolic deadline. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID        (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Tunisians wave their national flag and shout slogans as they attend a rally marking the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2014 in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. Tunisia celebrated the third anniversary of the overthrow of a decades-old dictatorship in the first Arab Spring uprising, but political divisions have hampered the adoption of a new constitution by this symbolic deadline. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

In a year of continued violence and instability across the Middle East and parts of North Africa, leading to a mass migration to Europe, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose to honor a group that it says prevented Tunisia from descending into civil war.

On Friday, the committee awarded its annual Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, for offering an “alternative, peaceful process” for political change in a country where protests sparked the Arab Spring in late 2010 and 2011.

The coalition of four groups beat out other leading contenders for the prize, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel for leading European dialogue on the ongoing migration crisis and Pope Francis, the Argentine pontiff who is reforming controversial policies within the Catholic Church.

Nobel Committee Chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five said awarding the Quartet with the world’s most prestigious peace prize was a signal to other countries in the midst of conflict that dialogue is the most effective tool for democracy and peace.

“More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries,” she said Friday.

The Quartet, assembled in 2013, is made up of four civil society groups: the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

It was established a little more than two years after Tunisia’s political revolution, which began when fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, after he was mistreated by police.

The self-immolation — a symptom of Bouazizi’s humiliation and desperation in the Tunisian autocratic system where he had few opportunities to improve his economic situation — acted as the catalyst for massive pro-democracy protests that quickly took over the country’s larger cities and spread throughout the Arab world.

The Islamist Ennahda party won the first elections after President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down in early 2011. But in 2013, when left-wing politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were assassinated, deadly clashes broke out between members of the country’s secular and Islamist political parties, threatening Tunisia’s fragile transition to democracy. That’s when the Quartet, which mediated between the country’s various political, social, and religious groups, launched its talks and sought a solution to the political standoff. Prior to the Quartet’s political discussions, Ennahda leaders insisted they would not give up power. But after months of mediation, the group agreed to a national dialogue, which came as Tunisians grew increasingly disenchanted with the group they said was no longer committed to the goals of the revolution. Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh stepped down in 2014, and last year Tunisia held its first free and fair democratic election, which was won by secular Beji Caid Essebsi.

On Friday, Kullmann Five said the committee’s work was “directly comparable to the peace conferences mentioned by Alfred Nobel in his will.”

Despite Tunisia’s political progress, the country has not managed to establish total security. In March, extremist gunmen attacked the country’s Bardo museum in Tunis, leaving 22 dead. In June, 38 people — mainly British tourists — were killed in another gun attack at a beach resort in Sousse. Libya, its neighbor to the east, is increasingly unstable and could threaten Tunisia’s still delicate democracy.

Friday’s award serves as a reminder of the idealism that defined the Arab Spring’s early protests in 2011, when normal citizens across the Middle East and North Africa demanded a larger role in the governance of their autocratic countries.

But it is also a bitter reminder of the failures of some of those countries to effect positive change, including most notably Syria, where strongman Bashar al-Assad has refused to step down, sparking a civil war that has killed more than 200,000, displaced millions more, and allowed for the rise of the Islamic State.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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