Learning from Tunisia's Nobel Peace Prize winners

Learning from Tunisia's Nobel Peace Prize winners
Comment: The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet's Nobel Peace Prize highlights the importance and effectiveness of inclusive dialogue in democratic transitions (or lack thereof) in the post-Arab Spring era.
6 min read
20 Oct, 2015
Tunisia's national dialogue should inspire other Arab Spring countries in their pursuit of democracy [AFP]

At times the Nobel Peace Prize seems to be given more to encourage a person or institution to fulfill their potential, than it is to reward them for past achievements. Take for example, 2009 and 2014 winners - newly elected Barack Obama and teenager Malala Yousafzai.

In the case of the 2015 winners, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, the award is both a reward for the past and encouragement for the future.

The Quartet played an integral role in paving the way for the 2014 constitution and seemingly stabilised what could have been quite a tricky democratic transition.

Tunisia still, of course, has to go navigate further constitutional amendments, the formation of a high constitutional court, and solving its obvious problems with terrorism and religious extremism, as evidenced by recent terrorist attacks

There is "a long way to go", according to Abdel-Sattar Ben Moussa, the president of the Tunisian Human Rights Association - one member of the Quartet. The country exists in a region that is anything but static, but Tunisia must harness the internal factors that made dialogue possible in order to successfully navigate the road ahead.

Tunisia, like many of its neighbours, is facing an existential transition in politics and society that perhaps falls just short of redefining the nation. It does, however, involve a reorganisation of its entire social contract, and perhaps a crystallisation of its socio-political identity.

Experiments with the growing roles of civil society organisations and political pluralism since the Arab Spring have returned varied results. Some countries experienced full-blown civil war and others saw a return to more oppressive circumstances than before.

A spat of high-profile assassinations in 2013 raised fears that Tunisia may go down one of those two roads. Despite exhibiting some similar symptoms that led to the negative scenarios in other countries - political deadlock, religious zealotry and sectarian violence - the mere fact that Tunisia avoided these fates is grounds for celebrating the Tunisian experience.

     By late 2011, Egypt and Tunisia were seen to be the two emergent success stories of the Arab Spring

When the Jasmine Revolution broke out and culminated in the ousting of President Zein ElAbdin Ben Ali in January 2011, much ado was made in the Arab world about the Tunisian Exception.

Some Egyptians had felt that Tunisia's experience could not be replicated, as Tunisia had higher literacy rates, greater political maturity, a smaller population (more easily mobilised), less polarisation and a less brutal security apparatus.

The 25 January uprising eased this rhetoric and by late 2011, Egypt and Tunisia were seen to be the two emergent success stories of the Arab Spring. Many analysts had surmised that the strong constitutional history, patriotic militaries and relative cohesion and homogeneity of these countries allowed them to presumably make the democratic transitions that the popular uprisings had instigated.

However, now in 2015, it seems as though Tunisia has avoided the collision between Islamists and other secular groups, security forces and members of the old regime.

Part of the success of the Quartet was that it mediated between political factions that ultimately had the will to negotiate in good faith. Ennahdha, the Islamist group that had been in power since the Jasmine revolution, crucially gave consensus a chance, perhaps as a result of witnessing the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

In Egypt - the closest possible point of comparison - the Brotherhood was nominally in power and decided to act based on this presumption of power. It attempted to leverage its own position by hedging bets on other (sometimes violent) Islamist groups, clearly trying to consolidate its own power.

The Brotherhood's opponents, on the other hand, were all too ready to get rid of them - culminating in the massacre of around 1,000 Brotherhood supporters on August 14 and 16, 2013.

A supremely security-minded regime emerged alongside the public demonisation of many civil society organisations that perhaps could have played the same role as the Tunisian Quartet.

The strength of civil society in Tunisia cannot be understated.

The members of the Quartet represent a wide range of Tunisian society - the country's largest trade union (UGTT), the Tunisian Human Rights Association, The Lawyers' Association, and the Trade and Handicrafts Association  (UTICA).

They played major roles in the uprising to begin with, and maintained their credibility. Their mediation came from this position of legitimacy.

The UGTT, for example, supported the Jasmine Revolution from its inception. By contrast, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) has been an arm of the state since its inception in the 1960s and did not show up to Tahrir as a bloc.

Egypt does have a rich history of labour movements. But in recent times, these movements have been outlawed and marginalised if they did not operate under the ETUF. So, instead of labour movements playing a central role in Egypt's transition, independent trade unions were instead still trying to take shape.

Similarly, the largest human rights organisations and professional syndicates continued to operate in close proximity with the state, and so could not be counted on immediately to play mediatory roles in a democratic transition.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said that the Nobel "consecrates the maxim of dialogue to reach consensus".

     Wherever the blame lies in Egypt, none of the parties involved are deserving of any awards

In retrospect, we cannot discount the institutional factors within the country that made dialogue a viable option, such as the role of civil society.

Some Egyptian pundits, including a top cleric, believe that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also deserving of the award - since he too helped navigate the country from the grips of an increasingly theocratic tendency in government.

These claims do not take into account that in order for him to do it his way, Egypt took a road paved with corpses. Wherever the blame lies in Egypt, none of the parties involved are deserving of any awards.

If Tunisia is able to continue down the road of dialogue and consensus for the coming decade, then the euphoria and sense of optimism in wake of the Nobel prize will seem justified.

This optimism of course was born with the consensus of 2014. With the dangers of extremism still not far for Tunisia, the country must continue to reinforce the role of inclusive dialogue as its most effective defence.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focused on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.