Civil society groups have been recognised for steering the country towards democracy.
Joining iconic fellow African peacemakers such as Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Clerk, four civic bodies became the first Tunisian winners of the annual Nobel peace prize.
The Nobel committee awarded the National Dialogue Quartet the 2015 prize for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia”.
The Nobel accolade provides a much-needed fillip to the Arab Spring.
This is the second time that the Arab Spring has been “endorsed” by Sweden’s Nobel Foundation. In 2011 Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman was the joint winner of the peace prize for her “struggle for women’s rights”.
So what does the second Nobel for the Arab Spring mean for Tunisia and the wider Arab world?
Historical pedigree and leadership have paid off.
Tunisia’s General Labour Union (UGTT: Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail), created more than 100 years ago, combines a rich history of anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian struggles.
With nearly 700,000 members, it stands as the most powerful organisation and a political heavyweight of leftist and secularist-leaning members. It was significant in leading the civic alliance’s mediator role in negotiating a democratic plan and timetable for its fulfilment.
In the early 1980s, it was successful in weakening Habib Bourguiba’s stranglehold on power and came close to ousting him as president.
The UGTT’s chief, Houcine Abbassi, assumed a prominent role in brokering the National Dialogue forum and its terms of reference, even if he initially was motivated by distrust of the moderate Islamist party, Ennahdha.
Like the UGTT, the long-established Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH: La Ligue Tunisienne pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme) is the oldest in the Arab world.
In the early 1980s, it was vociferous and powerful, recruiting and simultaneously training human rights supporters who proved to be a handful for both the Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regimes.
And like the UGTT, it had to be muzzled and policed heavily, especially under Ben Ali.
These two civic bodies possessed ample social capital in mediation, peaceful struggle, dialogue and the art of compromise – the fruition of which has been visible in the democratic acquisitions since the launch of the national dialogue process in early October 2013.
As a trade union body, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA: Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat) eventually responded to the UGTT’s invitation to endorse and join the national dialogue.
Unlike the UGTT and the LTHD, UTICA has generally played politics on the margins, safely. It has a different type of membership (the private sector’s bourgeoisie), generally secularist and liberal.
After the revolution, it has grown autonomous of the state and sharpened its skills as a visible and proactive actor in national politics.
It is headed by a woman, Widad Bouchamaoui, and historically, is a rival to the UGTT, and more or less aloof of the Islamists. As a group, they have a vested interest in a climate of freedom to conduct trade and business.
Lastly, another respected civic body, the country’s lawyers or bar association (ONAT: Ordre National des Avocats de Tunisie) added legal weight to the moral struggle through dialogue.
The lawyers were among the first groups to stage public protests, including sit-ins, against Ben Ali in January 2011.
The prize comes to vindicate bottom-up struggles by moral protesters and activists who are not in power.
The four groups have, since 2013, created their own “sites” of power when it mattered most to keep the formal process of democratisation on track.
They have jointly benefitted from the ouster of Ben Ali and struggled jointly to bolster democratic transition.
The brilliance of the quartet – and this is unique to Tunisia – is the capacity-building that led the four civic bodies to create a parallel peaceful democratic route that worked in tandem with the troika’s official process.
The National Dialogue process remained local, making it genuinely national with no foreign inputs or interference.
It relied on local social capital and Tunisians were in full possession of the process, denying foreign parties to meddle into it.
With the absence of foreign influence, the quartet was able to unify disparate political groups and actors, acting:
- As a lever: a facility whereby Tunisia created a parallel route to democratisation, working in tandem with the formal and state-led and sanctioned process of transition;
- As captors of frustration within civil society, moderating the business of politics by valorising the art to parley over alternative methods, be they exclusion or violence; and
- As civic agents and claimants to the right of collective ownership of the process of democratisation.
Thus, the quartet stamped Tunisia’s politics – in as many years – with the esprit de corps that millions enacted when they first ousted Ben Ali in January 2011.
As an equal stakeholder, the quartet opened up a “site” of moral protest and political activism noted for equality with the state absence. The troika led formal (top-down) politics; the quartet, informal (bottom-up) politics.
As peacemakers, Tunisia was at a flashpoint when the quartet’s initiative to lead the national dialogue forum in October 2013.
It redirected angst, discord and confusion towards a creative synergy unprecedented in the North African country and the embattled region, from Libya to Yemen.
Tunisia sailed smoothly towards its last election after serious incidents, such as the attack on the US embassy (September 14, 2012), two political assassinations (Chokri Belaid on February 6, 2013; Mohamed Brahmi on July 25, 2013), attacks on the country’s army, and at some stage even a partial boycott by 60 lawmakers of the National Constituent Assembly.
As interlocutors who saved the democratic process, which dragged on at the time for nearly 24 months after the October 2011 elections and the creation of the troika government, the official recognition of a national coalition, a group of individuals and organisations formed to carry off the monumental task of reconciliation among opposing Tunisian political actors, will now receive due attention on the international stage.
Dialogue is a good practise perfected by Tunisians and should potentially benefit Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.
Some of Tunisia’s neighbours in the Arab world will almost certainly ignore or subvert the significance of this award.
Talk of democracy is not part of the latest regional fads or fashions.
Nonetheless, the unequivocal message of the Nobel Peace Committee rings loud: National reconciliation is necessary without the resort to force in the forging of a pluralistic democracy.