The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement this morning that the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – ahead of 273 formidable candidates including Pope Francis and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel – would have come as a surprise to pundits expecting the committee to select a more high-profile laureate.
The Quartet, comprising four diverse civil society organisations - the Tunisian General Labor Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers – is credited with salvaging the nation’s fragile transition from authoritarianism under longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to secular democracy and constitutionalism.
The group’s remarkable success in helping to birth modern democracy in Tunisia has much to teach us about the role of civil society organizations in building a democracy from a deeply fractured society.
Tunisia has managed to salvage a difficult peace and reconciliation process in the wake of its 2011 “Jasmine Revolution”. In this achievement Tunisia is alone amongst the nations of the “Arab Spring”, including Egypt, Syria and Libya, which have failed to translate the deep disenfranchisement of their grassroots into lasting political change.
Indeed, it was the tragic self-immolation by unemployed and frustrated street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, which first sparked the anti-authoritarian Arab Spring movement, which quickly spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East between 2011 and 2013.
Regional experts have proffered a number of contextual explanations for the uniqueness of the Tunisians’ achievement in this regard, but today’s Nobel Prize win surely confirms the unique capability of civil society organisations to intervene and negotiate a civil peace where traditional political structures have failed.
The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet today joins the ranks of 21 other Nobel laureates from Africa, 10 of whom have been awarded the Peace Prize.
The first such laureate was from my own country – Inkosi (Chief) Albert Luthuli, then-President of South Africa’s African National Congress, awarded the Peace Prize in 1960 for his work leading the non-violent liberation struggle against apartheid. Today, the Peace Prize has successfully traversed the African continent, from its southern-most nation to the northern-most.
Tunisia also shares in common with South Africa the awarding of the Peace Prize to the co-architects and leaders of a peaceful democratic transition in a country on the brink of civil war. The independence of the Quartet gave its constituent organisations the legitimacy necessary to act as an intermediary between the secular and Islamist factions of Tunisia’s polity, which in 2013 were in danger of jettisoning Tunisia’s hopes for a peaceful transition.
According to the Nobel Committee “the quartet paved the way for a peaceful dialogue between the citizens, the political parties and the authorities, and helped to find consensus-based solutions to a wide range of the challenges across political and religious divides”.
But as in South Africa, the work of democracy building in Tunisia is far from complete. Indeed, The Quartet was able only to begin the process; the country’s constituent groups, organizations and political factions must now work to ensure that their extraordinary work has not been in vain. In that respect, the best thing the Nobel Committee has done is to bring international attention to a democracy-under-construction which needs the assistance and support of the global community to make its peace a lasting one.
By Lindiwe Mazibuko, Fall 2015 IOP Fellow