Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Tunisia earns the Nobel Prize

Tunisia’s Quartet group made up of unions and political and civil society bodies has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace, reports Haitham Nori in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

A coalition of unionists, politicians and public figures that helped end the Tunisian standoff two years ago has won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement, made in Oslo on 9 October, hailed the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for overseeing “a democratic transition based on a vibrant civil society and a respect for basic human rights.”

“The Quartet paved the way for a peaceful dialogue between citizens, political parties, and the authorities, and helped to find consensus-based solutions to a wide range of challenges across political and religious divides,” said Kaci Kullmann Five, chair of the Nobel Committee that awards the prizes.

This is the second time a Nobel Peace Prize has gone to Arab figures or organisations involved in the pro-democracy uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring. Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni rights activist and member of the country’s Al-Islah Party, was a co-recipient of the prize in 2011.

Adel Chaouch, a key figure in Nida Tounes, a liberal party in Tunisia, said that in Karman’s case the prize was awarded in recognition of change. In the Quartet’s case, the prize “acknowledged tangible success” since “the Quartet pulled Tunisia back from the brink of the abyss to the democratic path,” he added.

Formed in summer 2013, the Quartet aimed to break the deadlock between the Ennahda-dominated governing coalition in Tunisia and the opposition. Ennahda, Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, won the most votes in the country’s first parliamentary elections after the removal of President Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali in the country’s 2011 Revolution.

But when Ennahda proposed a constitution that would undermine women’s rights, it ran into fierce opposition, and the assassination of two prominent leftist politicians in 2013 led to calls for the Ennahda-led government to resign.

On 29 July 2013, Houcine Abbasi, head of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) called for the formation of a Committee for National Dialogue to find a solution to the crisis. The Quartet was then formed from four organisations: the UGTT, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

The Nobel Committee made it clear in its announcement that the Prize was “awarded to this Quartet, not to the four individual organisations as such.”

In October 2011, Ennahda took the lead in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, eventually controlling 90 out of 217 seats in the legislative assembly. It formed a government in coalition with the Congress for Democracy, led by former rights activist Moncef Marzouki. But the coalition’s inability to oversee the writing of a consensual constitution, and the subsequent appointment of thousands of Ennahda supporters to government posts fuelled a wave of public resentment, said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Amin Ghali, a researcher at the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Centre in Tunis, said that Ennahda had given government jobs to nearly 30,000 of its supporters. By early 2013, the country was seething with discontent over the perceived “brotherisation” of the bureaucracy. By the time Egypt unseated its Muslim Brotherhood government over similar charges in the summer of 2013, Tunisia was on the brink of crisis.

At the heart of the conflict was the quest by the ultra-conservative Tunisian Salafists to impose a strict interpretation of Islam on the country. They went on repeated rampages, smashing liquor stores and disrupting art shows. The government imposed a state of emergency in eight regions of the country when the Salafists staged protests in August 2012 denouncing Tunisia’s 1956 Constitution, which grants women substantial rights.

With the violence spreading, two assassinations rocked the country: leftist figure Chokri Belaid was murdered on 6 February 2013 and opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi was killed on 25 July 2013. Opposition MPs withdrew from the parliament on 6 August, rendering it powerless.

Accused of aiding and abetting the assassins, Ennahda could no longer take the heat. Its leaders agreed voluntarily to leave power, and in October the Quartet arranged for the leaders of 20 parties to sign a roadmap addressing the country’s constitutional and governmental crisis.

A government of technocrats led by Mehdi Gomaa took office in late January 2014, and a month later the new constitution, with women’s rights kept intact was ratified. For Adel Chaouch, this achievement would have been hard without the persuasive powers of the UGTT.

“This success is proof of the role of civil society in periods of political transition to democracy. Not all countries have a strong civil society. But the UGTT has a long history,” Chaouch said.

Formed in 1946, the UGTT has about 517,000 members and played a key role in the 2011 Revolution. “The UGTT is the organisation most representative of Tunisians,” said Tunisian journalist Mohamed Monji. “This enabled it to mediate in the crisis and lead the dialogue.”

He added, “During the entire Ben Ali era, the UGTT headquarters was the only place to which ordinary people would go to hear their wishes articulated, even when these were frowned upon by the government.”

But winning the Nobel Prize is not the end of the road for the Quartet, Monji said. “We still have a long way to go.”

Chaouch concurred with this assessment, saying, “We need to end the economic slump, fight terrorism and at the same time protect rights and freedoms.”

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