In November 2015 – almost five years after the revolution that set off a chain of events around the region – a quartet of Tunisian civil society organisations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to bring the country together.
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By Nissaf Slama
Beating the German chancellor Angela Merkel, the American Secretary of State John Kerry and even Pope Francis, my beloved Tunisia beat all odds in the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
This is a welcome development after the last five years, which have been a trying time for Tunisia, since the uprising of December 2010 that led to ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship.
At the time, slogans demanding freedom, dignity and – mainly – employment were raised from Bizerte to Ben Garden, the two extremes on the map of Tunisia.
Plucking thorns from a rose – the reason for revolution
Despite the clear economic, social and security challenges the country faces, a group of Tunisian unionists, employers, lawyers and human rights activists – labelled the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – has been awarded the prize for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic society in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution”.
These words were uttered by the head of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee as it recognised the quartet’s role in “helping bring back the country from the brink of civil war”.
I have my reservations about calling the events of 2010/2011 a “Jasmine Revolution”, which is a Western description for a Tunisian revolt. I also tend to think of our uprising as society plucking thorns out of a beautiful rose. Tunisians managed to get rid of the thorns that surrounded them for a long time.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but shiver out of excitement and pride when I listened to the coronation speech. I am sure that every Tunisian did. My inbox was swamped with the congratulation notes I received from friends and colleagues. It was a historic day for my country and I like to believe that all Tunisians earned this praise. After all, we started a revolution, scared a dictator of a president into fleeing the country, and sparked a series of revolutions in the North Africa region. “We are an inspiration”, I realised.
The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet
This body of four organisations was named the national dialogue quartet because it led talks between the major political forces and got them to agree on a road map that included significant agreements on the country’s new constitution, next to a new technocratic government that would lead the country to its 2014 legislative and presidential elections.
The Norwegian committee recognised the role the quartet played as a mediator and driving force to advance peaceful democratic development in Tunisia. This included the country’s work to resolve emerging security challenges, deal with the extremist groups that inhabited Tunisian’s mountain regions in 2013, and the political turmoil between the ruling troika and secularist opposition that put a halt to the works of the National Constituent Assembly.
The head of the Peace Prize committee declared that “among Arab spring states, Tunisia has kept its democratic aspirations alive in the wake of the Egyptian coup and the conflicts that have consumed Libya, Syria and Yemen”.
Building bridges across Tunisian divides
Tunisia suffered from an Islamist government that ignored the views of the secular opposition when writing the new constitution, street clashes, high-profile assassinations and extremist gangs on the borders and in the mountains. But the country managed to survive these threats, proving that tolerance and dialogue are powerful tools.
Houcine Abassi, the general secretary of the country’s biggest and oldest employers’ organisation, the Tunisian General Labour Union, said that he was overwhelmed by the prize. Abassi sees the prize as “a message that dialogue can lead us on the right path. This prize is a message for our region to put down arms and sit and talk at the negotiation table.”
The situation was perhaps best described by the head of the Norwegian committee: “If every country had done as Tunisia has done, and paved the way for dialogue, tolerance, democracy and equal rights, far fewer people would have been forced to flee. Tunisia has shown the world that Islamist and secular political movements can negotiate with one another to reach solutions in the country’s best interests, if only they are willing to do so!”
Mokhtar Trifi, president of one of the quartet members, the Tunisian Human Rights League, said that the prize was “extraordinary news”.
“It’s a clear encouragement for the wider process in Tunisia, and for all the work and dialogue that went into the move to elections and democracy”
Amna Guellali, the Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch, said the prize was a reward for sticking with democratic principles. “People here will hope the award is not just a token celebration, but will bring Tunisia real help,” she told the Guardian.
The civil society view – welcome recognition for the role of peaceful mediation
“The work done by the National Quartet is unprecedented compared with other civil society initiatives around the world. It was a direct intervention in the state’s political affairs, and they managed to convince diverse political forces to come together and look for a unified solution.”
“But Tunisian civil society has always worked on conflict resolution and this is not new to us,” Hamza added.
“Now, thanks to the efforts of the quartet, Tunisia has become a model in this area. The Nobel Peace Prize has given activists more confidence in their work. It has helped improve their image in the world, and, most importantly, in the eyes of regular Tunisians.
“They realise that it was thanks to civil society that we overcame the political crisis.”
Nissaf Slama is Insight on Conflict’s Local Correspondent in Tunisia. A social activist and former reporter and fixer with Tunisia Live, she has collaborated with the New York Times, Vice Magazine, The Financial Times, CBS News and Human Rights Watch.
This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.