Nobel Prize for Tunisia: Jubilation and Reality Check

Tunisians have celebrated for more than a week now since its National Dialogue Quartet—a coalition of civil society organizations—was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” While many contenders were rumored to be in line for the prize, including Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose the Quartet to give “encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity, which the Committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries.”

The Quartet is composed of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry Trade and Handicraft (UTICA), led by a prominent businesswoman; the Tunisian Human Right League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. They came together nearly two years ago to forcefully launch an inclusive national dialogue that pulled Tunisia back from the precipice. It was a time of deep political polarization between Islamist and secular movements following the assassination of two prominent leftist political leaders, of sit-ins by opposition parliamentarians, and of massive street protests that were paralyzing the country.

The outcome following weeks of protracted and difficult negotiations was a road map that paved the way for the establishment of an independent caretaker government, the crafting of a progressive new constitution and the adoption of a new electoral law, all by consensus. It was a remarkable achievement, as was acknowledged by 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 challenges across political and religious divides.”

Outside Tunisia, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize generated a great deal of praise and congratulations for the Tunisian people, mostly from Western nations’ leaders and media. French daily La Liberation featured the encouraging front-page headline, “Tiens Bon Tunisie” (Hold Tight Tunisia.)

The news also resonated across the Middle East and North Africa. Civil society leaders and political reformers from Morocco to Egypt and Syria hoped the prize would energize citizen engagement and further promote the virtues of peaceful democratic change, a wish shared by the Nobel Committee members, who also expressed the hope that “this year’s prize will contribute towards safeguarding democracy in Tunisia and be an inspiration to all those who seek to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East, North Africa and the rest of the world.”

For Tunisians, this award could not come at a more opportune time. The country is still wrestling with the lingering shadows of the devastation of the two terror attacks that occurred in the first half of this year. The announcement also came a day after an unknown gunman opened fire on a member of Tunisia’s national assembly, a grim reminder that the “war on terror” the country had reluctantly embarked on is far from over.

The euphoria was palpable in the social and printed media, on talk shows, and on the lips of ordinary citizens. For many Tunisians, the prize is a vindication of the role a vibrant, independent civil society can play when it is afforded safe and independent spaces to participate in the management of political transitions, particularly during times of uncertainty.

This is not the first time civil society in Tunisia has seized the initiative. In 2011, right after the ousting of the dictatorial regime of former president Ben Ali, eminent civil society leaders—after getting a nod from the then caretaker prime minister—organized themselves and created the Higher Authority for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, Political Reform and Democratic transition. For six months, this body served as the de facto legislative transitional authority, initiating and shepherding the necessary legal reforms that paved the way for the election of a Constituent Assembly in October 2011.

The Nobel award also sent an unmistakable message to those politicians more concerned with preserving power than engaging in responsive governance, that dialogue and internal mediation are the only means for nurturing a fraying social contract, for overcoming differences, and peacefully resolving conflict. Finally, the prize recognizes Tunisia’s historic spirit of compromise, where people of opposing economic, political, and religious views can find common ground.

Yet, as the euphoria wears off, Tunisians are casting back a dispassionate look at the familiar harsh realities of their daily lives. They are asking themselves whether the spirit and the letter of the Prize will linger on long enough to help bring about meaningful changes in the way they are governed. Will the divisions between old elites and newer political forces empowered by the uprising in late 2010 put aside their entrenched positions and start working together to implement the long overdue social and economic reforms, deliver justice to victims and opportunities to all? Will elected officials and citizens roll up their sleeves and start repairing decaying public schools and hospitals, cleaning up their neighborhood streets, reforming a moribund educational system that has failed young people? Will the economic reconciliation draft law being pushed by the President’s camp which, in the view of many, reward those who have plundered the country, legalize impunity and bring to the surface the demons of the authoritarian past? Will UTICA and UGTT—the two most prominent members of the Quartet—thrash out their own divisions over salary increases and other contentious issues, without paralyzing the country?

Insurmountable as these problems may seem, Tunisians have not given up hope that they will rise to the challenge and live up to their reputation as a beacon of hope in a region awash with the wreckages of lost “springs.”

May the spirit of Nobel endure.