Analysis: How Tunisia saved its ‘Arab Spring’
Tunisia has proved itself to be a counterexample to the rest of the region torn by civil strife and refugee crisis.
On Thursday, Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, were presented with the 2015 Nobel peace prize at a ceremony in Oslo.
The event came just a few days before the fifth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution that broke out when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself alight in a public outcry that unleashed a wave of protests that led to the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
However, the international community seems to celebrate the prize more joyously than Tunisians themselves.
The reason behind the disconnect between the prestige associated with a Nobel peace prize and Tunisians’ lukewarm reception to it has to do with an existing controversy elite on the desired nature of the transitional phase as well as on the political settlement which has taken shape over the past five years.
It also reflects a wider contention over whether the Quartet – to the exclusion of everybody else – deserves to be singled out for praise.
For Tunisia, this was an undoubtedly well-deserved award, and the encouragement it provided could not have come at a better time, when the rest of the Arab world is being torn asunder by civil strife and refugee crises.
So far, Tunisia has proved itself to be a counterexample to the rest of the region, demonstrating the triumph of coexistence and the spirit of compromise between rivals. This is not to say that Tunisia’s revolution has been an unmitigated success, or that all of the aims of the revolution were accomplished.
Equally, however, that Jasmine Revolution was not a total failure, frustrating the acolytes of the former regime whose power is now relatively restricted.
It is the ability to maintain such a delicate equilibrium between outright victory for the revolution and its complete failure that has earned the international community’s respect.
WATCH: Will Tunisia’s Nobel prize be an inspiration?
Looking to the East, one possible outcome was for Tunisia to fall into a cycle of military coups, like Egypt. In the Tunisian case, however, the military institution opted instead to commit itself to the barracks and to well defined lines of professionalism, sticking to its mandate of protecting national borders.
The first hurdle for the new, post-Revolution Tunisia was crossed successfully following the departure of Ben Ali.
It could have all ended differently if the country had descended into chaos.
Instead, the transition to a new Tunisia was smooth and followed constitutional procedures, allowing for leading figures of the ancien regime to remain in place, albeit with much-constricted powers.
Organising the elections of a Constituent Assembly (the body that will draft a new constitution) was the main responsibility of an interim cabinet led by Beji Caid Essebsi, now President of Tunisia.
Election results gave the Islamist Ennahda political party a plurality of seats and overall dominance of the Constituent Assembly.
Here again, Tunisia successfully cleared another hurdle: Ennahda declined to wield its power single-handedly, opting instead to create a political coalition – unofficially dubbed the “Troika”, and which tied Ennahda to two left-wing secular parties:The Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, and the Congress for the Republic.
In North African terms, this was an unprecedented alliance between Islamist and secularist politicians. After the Troika had replaced Beji Caid Essebsi, and following a mass wave of labour strikes that was supported by the General Labour Union, the ruling interim government managed to achieve positive growth rates compared with minus 1.8 percent under Essebsi’s cabinet.
Economic calamity was thus avoided.
Looking to the East, one possible outcome was for Tunisia to fall into a cycle of military coups, like Egypt. In the Tunisian case, however, the military institution opted instead to commit itself to the barracks and to well-defined lines of professionalism, sticking to its mandate of protecting national borders.
READ MORE: How Tunisia’s revolution began
Equally, the country could easily have slipped into a trap of civil strife and political violence following on from a spate of political assassinations during the Troika’s rule.
Here again, it was the wisdom and foresight of Tunisia’s political and societal leadership that prevented the collapse and destruction of a nascent democracy through violence.
Indeed, it was this continued policy of dialogue and compromise which has been the guiding principle in Tunisia from the earliest days of the revolution, and was embodied in the creation of the country’s “Higher Committee for [the] Realisation of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic Transition” in February 2011.
Bringing together the entire spectrum of Tunisia’s myriad political forces, it was this committee that provided the framework for a national dialogue, paving the way for a smooth transition leading to the Constituent Assembly elections.
Following the October 2011 elections and the formation of the Troika government, national debate about the new constitution took place under the auspices of the Constitutional Assembly.
For almost two years, a wide range of the country’s elite, political parties and civil society organisations took part in the debate, which was televised live into millions of Tunisian homes.
However, and as transition processes are always subject to tensions and uncertainties, the Tunisian transition faced its most serious challenge when political assassinations took place in 2013, claiming the lives of two opposition figures.
This was the crucial moment when the “Quartet” (the General Labour Union; the Tunisian Order of Lawyers; the Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; and the Tunisian Human Rights League) stepped in to lead a national dialogue that facilitated the departure of the Troika government and allowed for the birth of a non-partisan government of technocrats.
This was the real achievement of the Quartet and its significant contribution to the transition process.
ANALYSIS: The identity crisis in Tunisia’s ruling part
Even then, Tunisia’s own national debate continued after the Quartet ceased to play a role in it. Following the end of the transitional period by the end of 2014, Tunisia’s competing political factions continued to adopt the same approach of negotiation and the building of consensuses and coalitions.
If anything, the present state of affairs invites even more amazement and controversial. Today, the Nidaa Tounes party, seen as a reincarnation of the former Ben Ali regime, has come to the fore and started to dominate politics in the post-revolutionary scene.
This contrasts with the status of the Ennahda movement, which had thus far been a byword for the revolution and had been held up as the antithesis of the former regime.
Ironically, however, political expediencies and the need to strike a balance between the old and new regimes have compelled the two political foes to make a tactical compromise which may even, one day, mature into a type of strategic alliance – an eventuality that would be welcomed by members of both of these parties.
The Nobel peace prize may have been granted to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, but in truth it belongs to all of the political forces which contributed in their own way to the success of the country’s transition process.
They all contributed to Tunisia avoiding the fate of other Arab Spring countries, which suffered the fallout from civil war and military coups.
In other words, the Nobel Prize is also, equally, awarded in recognition of the efforts of those groups, and a slap in the face of those, inside Tunisia and abroad, who worked – and continue to work – to serve their own sectorial, political and ideological agendas by derailing their country’s democratic transition.