Why Tunisia Absolutely, Totally Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Even as the Arab Spring was falling apart around them, Tunisians opted for the difficult path of dialogue and compromise. Now their persistence has been rewarded.

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Almost all the countries of the Arab Spring are mired in conflict or are moving back toward authoritarianism. There is, however, one remarkable exception — and on Friday, Oct. 9, the Norwegian Nobel Committee moved to celebrate it.

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four civil society organizations whose collaboration exemplifies their country’s pragmatic and cautious transition toward democracy. Starting in 2011, the four members of the Quartet — the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts — have served as crucial mediators among Tunisia’s various political forces, pressing relentlessly for compromise. Without them, political leadership in Tunisia might have been more combative than collaborative, derailing the democratic transition.

In this context, the prize marks a remarkable achievement in the history of a nation that rose up five years ago and overthrew a strikingly durable and repressive regime. Since then Tunisians have exercised remarkable restraint and compromise as they have struggled to overcome the legacy of autocracy and the rise of new extremist threats.

That this success was not inevitable can be seen from the dramatic failures of so many other would-be democracies in the region. So how did Tunisia beat the odds?

Almost exactly two years ago, on a sunny autumn day in Tunis, I met with Said Ferjani. Ferjani, more than almost anyone, embodies Tunisia’s new democratic hopes. Ferjani grew up poor. He turned to Islam in his youth, at a time when Tunisia’s politics were unapologetically secular. He watched as then-President Habib Bourguiba sipped orange juice on television during the Ramadan fast, when Muslims are forbidden to eat or drink — a deliberately provocative act in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, one that signaled the official rejection of any role for religion in national politics. The moment spurred Ferjani to become more deeply involved with a politically minded group of Islamist intellectuals and activists.

By 1987, with Bourguiba seriously ill, Ferjani and his friends plotted an uprising against the government. Seventeen hours before they were to execute the plan, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali — Bourguiba’s interior minister — launched a coup of his own and succeeded in seizing power.

Ten days later, Ferjani and his co-conspirators were arrested. Ben Ali’s new government subjected them to torture. The abuse broke Ferjani’s back, but not his will. Five months after being released, still bound to a wheelchair, he managed to train himself to walk for short distances, partly in order to avoid raising suspicion at the airport. Traveling with a friend’s passport, he made it past security and fled the country. He settled in Britain, vowing to come back when Tunisia was ready to write a new chapter in its history.

In 2011, after 22 years in exile, Ferjani returned. He quickly became a top-level leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement, which had been forced underground during Ben Ali’s dictatorship, but soon found itself to be the most popular party in the country after the fall of the regime. Although Ennahda’s new leadership brought together a wide range of personalities, all of them shared tales of torture, exile, or long imprisonment under Ben Ali’s rule.

For people like Ferjani and his colleagues, then, a desire for vengeance would have been entirely understandable. They had suffered horrifically. Corrupt and ruthless leaders had taken away years of their lives, and sometimes their health or physical vitality.

Yet when I met Ferjani, revenge was the last thing on his mind. He was warm, friendly, and, above all, optimistic. Sporting a traditional full beard and attired in a Western business suit, he embodied the competing strains in Tunisian society, torn between nearby Europe (just across the Mediterranean) and a natural cultural affinity for the Arab kingdoms farther afield. Ferjani told me of his dream that Tunisia could thread this needle between Europe and the Arab world, forging a hybrid society where all would have a place to express their views, where democracy flourished, and where polarization gave way to progress.

Ferjani told me that vengeance would only lead to more suffering, the collapse of Tunisia, or the return to authoritarian rule. He told me that he hadn’t waited 22 years to watch this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip by; the chance to create a democracy was now, even if it meant that Ennahda had to fall on its proverbial sword to achieve it. “For us,” he told me, “the success of the democratic process is dearer to us than Ennahda itself; this is not negotiable. Patience is key in a transition. We are conscious of the fact that any mistakes now could make democracy reversible.”

At the time, I must admit that I was skeptical. Lofty rhetoric is easy. Managing a transition from dictatorship to democracy is hard.

But Ferjani wasn’t exaggerating. In early 2014, when two high-profile assassinations of secular politicians threatened to stall progress or whittle away the foundations of democracy built up in the previous two years, Ennahda voluntarily gave up power, transferring authority to a technocratic government that could steer Tunisia toward inclusive, democratic elections. In a subsequent national election, Ennahda refrained from putting forth a presidential candidate even though it had a genuine chance of victory, allowing others to manage the state while still competing for seats in parliament.

Ennahda proceeded to lose the elections. For some hard-liners within the party, this was hard to swallow, especially since the party that defeated it had ties to the former Ben Ali regime (even if those tainted by that authoritarian legacy had attempted to reinvent themselves politically by whitewashing their biographies). “It’s amazing how many people who were directly employed by the former regime are now claiming to be ‘opposition activists’ during the 1990s,” one activist told me.

Ferjani, for his part, was (understandably) not pleased with the result. Shortly after the elections, he told an interviewer he was worried about authoritarianism returning “through the back door.” But unlike some hard-liners, he accepted it, seeking to contribute to the new government through an inclusive power-sharing agreement and by focusing on progress to come rather than lingering over the crimes of the past.

Despite the Nobel Peace Prize, however, the story is a long way from over. Tunisians themselves are all too aware of how far their country still has to go. The new government has committed extremely troubling human rights abuses, and civil liberties have been curtailed as the country tries to cope with the threat of terrorism. On Thursday, an assassination attempt nearly killed a government official. Earlier this year, dozens were killed as gunmen stormed the National Bardo Museum in Tunis; just months later, a lone gunman massacred tourists on a beach at a resort in Sousse. These tragedies have had a devastating effect on tourism, one of the foundations of Tunisia’s ailing economy. Continuing political divides, deteriorating security, and economic stagnation are all gifts to the extremists, who want to see volatility turn into more violence.

To be sure, Tunisians should take a moment today to celebrate the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s recognition of their efforts. Tomorrow, it’s back to work for people like Ferjani and the political leadership in Tunis.

As I shook Ferjani’s hand and thanked him for the interview, he reminded me that this was all part of a long, long process: “The struggle between the old order and the nascent order is an ongoing fight.” Today’s award marks Tunisia’s progress toward a new democratic order. Yet it is still far too early to declare victory.

In the March 29, 2015, photo, Tunisians march against extremism outside the National Bardo Museum in Tunis.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College, London and the co-author of How to Rig An Election. Twitter: @brianklaas

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