The Nobel Committee justified its attribution of the Prize for Peace by saying that the National Dialogue led by the quartet, a group of civil society organizations made up of The Tunisian General Labor Union, The Tunisian Human Rights League, The Tunisian Order of Lawyers and The Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and handicrafts, had countered violence in Tunisia and consequently is “comparable to peace congresses to which Alfred Nobel refers to in his will.” In other words, the Prize is an acknowledgement of the role played by this quartet as mediators between political protagonists, urging them for concessions and pressing them for compromises.
It is true that the quartet helped save the nascent democracy, through “a road map” that eased the political deadlock between a government led by the Islamist Party Ennahda and the more secular opposition, thus paving the way to a new government that prepared a new set of democratic elections.
Here a little reminder of how far we’ve come. In the summer of 2013, Tunisia was on the brink of anarchy and violence after two political assassinations, that of the outspoken lawyer Chokri Belaid and of the National Constituent Assembly member, Mohamed Brahmi. A further important event helped develop momentum that summer: the poor political performance of the Muslim Brotherhood government, their incapacity to address the problems that caused the revolution, led millions of Egyptians to take to the streets and provide the army with the opportunity to seize the power and wreak havoc in Egypt, dashing all the hopes for freedom and opening the door for another era of dictatorship. That was a warning, not only to the Islamist Party in Tunisia, but also to all Tunisians who realized, before it was too late, that the only condition to make democracy succeed is to work together and make sometimes painful concessions. The give-and- take policy is a sine quo non condition to a smooth cohabitation.
In fact, historically speaking, dialogue is an inherent part of Tunisia politics. In the mid twentieth century, Tunisia won its independence through both resistance and dialogue. Non-violent civil resistance is also a culture. Four years before the independence, protesting against the assassination of Farhat Hached, the leader of the Labor Union, tens of thousands of Tunisians demonstrated peacefully in the streets to denounce the assassination and to ask for independence. Leading French media hailed “Tunisian civism” when facing the barbarity of “la main rouge”. Same scenario of peaceful protest was repeated some sixty years later after the assassination of the two emblematic leaders, Belaid and Brahmi.
Even during Ben Ali dark years, and in the absence of strong political parties, civil society has never lost its resilience, openness and readiness to work for a deal. During the four-week revolt, it channeled the popular anger, gave it a meaning in the slogans chanted for democracy, gender equality, freedom and social justice. Its absence would have led to anarchy and violence.
It is true that the political void caused by the repression under Ben Ali’s regime has led political parties to stumble, but civil society has always been there to bring things back on track.
An outstanding example: in the wake of 14th, 2011, there was a legislative void after the dissolution of the two pre-revolution chambers. That was when civil society took over. The High Authority for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, political Reforms and Democratic Transition was set up. It was, once again, a rehearsal of political dialogue. Civic organizations (labor union, bar association, magistrates, human rights activists…) along with political parties settled the legal mechanisms to ensure the smooth transition and gave birth to the High Commission for the elections that was entrusted with the first free and transparent elections.
By the same token, much credit is to be given to political parties. Decades of repression have led to more cohesion, to willingness to compromise. That’s why, and despite political divergences and clashes, leaders have always kept conciliatory attitudes.
Ennahda, having in mind a decade of civil war in neighboring Algeria and a military coup that had ended the Muslim Brotherhood government and put its leaders in jail in Egypt, decided to cope: they consummated a tacit alliance with Ansar Sharia , the extremist group accused of assassinating Belaid and Brahmi, gave up on drafting Sharia laws in the constitution and finally, under increasing pressure from both civil society and opposition, decided to step down from government.
Likewise, the opposition and civil society activists gathered under the National Salvage Front never claimed a ban on the Islamist party. The tens of thousands who were for weeks in the Bardo square sit-ins demanded the government to resign, the quick draft of a modern constitution and a caretaker government that would ensure the next elections. The roadmap of the quartet reflected all these demands and that helped calm down the street.
But not everything is rosy in the Tunisian garden. Two main challenges threaten to undermine the democratic experience: a daunting economy (with high unemployment, slow economic recovery, a devastated tourism sector, a rampant corruption...) and major security threats.
With thousands of desperate youth joining extremist groups in the region and a threatening civil war in bordering Libya, Tunisia cannot be forever “a tranquil island of stability” in a sea of a violent and chaotic region.
In short, several historical factors have contributed to make of Tunisia a success story. A success story that could be summed up in two words: a culture of dialogue and compromise. However, its fragile democracy remains conditional on social and economic progress and the isolation of terrorism.
The Nobel Prize is recognition of this “Tunisian specificity” and an encouragement to both Tunisians and other peoples in the region to foster dialogue and peaceful reconciliation. Tunisians are proud of the Prize but, they do not seem to be happy. They are surely aware of the hardships ahead of them.
While they are grateful for being rewarded, they would like to say to their friends who’ve been paying lip service to their remarkable achievements since 2011 (quoting Hussein Ibish) “Thank you very much for this pat on the back, but what we really need is systematic help with our economy and counterterrorism efforts, which, by the way, are inextricably linked.”
So a word to the wise….
The Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia