How the Nobel committee's pick for the Peace Prize obscures the country's struggle.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” The Quartet formed in August-September 2013 and functioned until January 2014. It was comprised of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT, the main trade union federation), the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA, similar to a chamber of commerce), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), and the Bar Association (Ordre des Avocats). The Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the entire Quartet, “not to the four individual organizations as such.”
The committee announcement’s emphasis on the peaceful dialogue and mediation led by the Quartet obscures much of what actually transpired in Tunisia.
There is much to applaud about this award. It highlights that the Arab popular uprisings of 2011 were not for naught. There is a social base and a deep desire for democracy in at least some Arab countries. The future of Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, whose uprisings followed Tunisia’s in 2011, looks dismal today. But popular movements for democracy and social justice in the Arab world are no longer simply a utopian hope.
Nonetheless, the committee announcement’s emphasis on the peaceful dialogue and mediation led by the Quartet obscures much of what actually transpired in Tunisia.
In October 2011, nine months after the ouster of former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the Islamist Ennahda won a plurality of the seats in the democratically elected National Constituent Assembly. The assembly’s task was to draft a constitution and form an interim government to assume executive power. Ennahda led the interim government in partnership with the much smaller social democratic Ettakattol and the Congress for the Republic, whose political orientation is a vague blend of human rights advocacy with an Islamic sensibility and a dash of populism.
During 2012 and 2013, local unions affiliated with the UGTT engaged in hundreds of wildcat strikes, seeking to realize the demands for social justice that propelled the movement to oust Ben Ali. Militias, many of them sympathetic or linked to Ennahda and the Congress for the Republic, frequently clashed with the UGTT and attacked its members and offices. Ennahda charged that the strikes sought to destabilize the government. In February and July 2013, members of the jihadi salafi Partisans of the Sharia (Ansar al-Shari‘a), assassinated two leftist political leaders, Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi. The UGTT responded to the assassinations by calling national general strikes and demonstrations.
Following Brahmi’s assassination in July, tens of thousands gathered in Bardo Square in front of the National Constituent Assembly and demanded its dissolution. Many Tunisians believed that the Ennahda-led government, while not guilty of pulling the triggers, had been too lenient towards militant Islamists who had violated the law and attempted to impose their agenda with force. They charged Ennahda with ultimate responsibility for the assassinations and two years of misrule. In October 2013 demonstrators occupied Bardo Square for over two weeks as protests continued throughout the country.
Most of the international media followed the Nobel committee’s lead in constructing a narrative that ignored the intense social struggle that forced Ennahda from power.
The popular movement subsided after October 25, when Ennahda agreed to join the Quartet and the opposition parties in a National Dialogue to resolve the political impasse and draft a consensual constitution. With well over half a million members, the UGTT is by far the largest civic organization in Tunisia and the only organization with a national apparatus to rival the government and Ennahda. The UGTT was the leading force in the Quartet and the National Dialogue. Its Secretary General, Houcine Abassi, threatened and cajoled the political parties to reach consensus.
In January 2014, a cabinet of technocrats replaced the Ennahda led government. Twelve days later, a constitution guaranteeing full equality of men and women and acknowledging Islam as the religion of Tunisia but without mentioning shari‘a was adopted. Parliamentary elections were scheduled for October 2014. Houcine Abasi emerged as the hero of the day.
The Nobel Committee characterizes the Quartet as “pav[ing] the way for a peaceful dialogue between the citizens, the political parties and the authorities . . . to find consensus-based solutions to a wide range of challenges across political and religious divides.” Most of the international media (with the partial exception of the Guardian) followed the committee’s lead in constructing a narrative that ignored the leading role of the UGTT in the Quartet and the intense social struggle that forced Ennahda from power. For example, the New York Times posted a video collage explaining the awarding of the prize that includes footage of the occupation of Bardo Square but does not explain what was happening.
It is perhaps not coincidental that Nobel Committee Chair Kaci Kullmann Five is a former chairwoman of the Norwegian Conservative Party, a business consultant, a managing director of one of Norway’s largest holding companies, and a member of the board of directors of several other large privately held corporations as well as Norway’s largest petroleum company, Statoil. A committee led by someone with these credentials might not recognize, or might not wish to acknowledge, that it was the preeminent role of the UGTT along with strikes, occupations of public space, and street demonstrations that broke Tunisia’s political logjam, not simply “peaceful dialogue . . . to find consensus. . . .”
The Nobel Committee correctly noted that Tunisia still faces political, economic, and security challenges. The security issue has received the most attention after the major terrorist attacks in March and June of this year. The government subsequently proclaimed a state of emergency and adopted a new anti-terrorist law. Eight international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Carter Center, and the International Federation of Human Rights criticized the new law as “imperil[ing] human rights and lack[ing] the necessary safeguards against abuse.” Many consider the new law uncomfortably similar to the 2003 law enacted by the Ben Ali regime, which was largely unenforced from his departure in January 2011 until May 2015.
This poses the question: How much has changed since Ben Ali’s ouster?
The opposition that ousted Ennahda in 2013-14 comprised a broad coalition: trade unionists, feminists, human rights defenders, business people with a secularist inclination, and former supporters or collaborators with the Ben Ali regime. Many of the latter now support the Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) party led by Tunisia’s current president Béji Caïd Essebsi.
Essebsi is a mixed figure. His political legitimacy rests on having successfully defended a UGTT leader on a capital charge during the struggle for independence in the 1950s. But he also served as President of the Chamber of Deputies under Ben Ali and General Director of National Security and Minister of Interior under the no less autocratic regime of Tunisia’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba. Call of Tunisia won a plurality in the October 2014 parliamentary election and dominates the government.
This poses the question: How much has changed since Ben Ali’s ouster? Much of the old business class, minus the kleptocrats associated with the family of Ben Ali’s wife, has remained in place. The current government is attempting to follow the economic prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund, which greatly contributed to the unemployment and highly unequal distribution of wealth that stoked the uprising against Ben Ali. The repressive security apparatus of the old regime may be on the way to full restoration. The government has proposed a Reconciliation Law, which undermines the already existing transitional justice mechanism (The Truth and Dignity Commission). Opponents suspect it will allow businesspeople guilty of corruption under Ben Ali to get off lightly to encourage them to reinvest in Tunisia.
The division between the coast and the interior is Tunisia’s most fundamental challenge. The richer coastal and northern regions comprised the primary electoral base of Call of Tunisia, while the impoverished interior and southern regions mostly voted for Ennahda in the parliamentary election. A similar divide emerged in the presidential runoff of December 2014, which pitted Béji Caïd Essebsi against Congress for the Republic leader Moncef Marzouki.
While the geographical division substantially overlaps the divide between Call of Tunisia and Ennahda, the fundamental issue is not “secularism” vs. “Islamism.” It is the high unemployment, economic and social marginalization, and lack of opportunity in the interior and the south. Those regions were the social base of several different opposition movements as far back as the 1940s. Broad-based, inclusive economic development and a fair distribution of the national wealth, not the economic policies advocated by the IMF and the international financial institutions, is the way to resolve this division. This is a much firmer basis for national consensus than “peaceful dialogue.”
(Thanks to Monica Marks and Max Ajl for comments on an early draft of this essay).