Nobel Peace Prize for Tunisian democracy group comes amid violence, economic struggles

The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group credited with helping the country develop a peaceful political process when it was on the brink of civil war, is this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Award for National Dialogue Quartet sends message that 'the language of weapons leads us nowhere,' lawyer says

This composite image shows National Dialogue Quartet leaders (left to right) Houcine Abbassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, Wided Bouchamaoui, president of the Tunisian employers union, Abdessattar ben Moussa, president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, and Tunisian lawyer Fadhel Mahfoudh. The quartet won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Commitee announced Friday. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the fall of 2013 and Tunisia's newfound democracy was in grave danger. The assassination of a left-wing politician had prompted the opposition to walk out of the constitutional assembly. The government was paralyzed, the constitution unfinished and the country on the brink of war.

In nearby Egypt, which had followed Tunisia in a democratic revolution, a coup had just overthrown the Islamist government, and some sectors in Tunisia wanted to follow suit.

Then four civil society groups — the main labor union, the bar association, the employers' association and the human rights league — stepped into the fray. Working together, they got the Islamists to agree to resign in favour of a caretaker government that would organize new elections, while the angry opposition returned to the table to complete the constitution.

On Friday, that coalition — the National Dialogue Quartet — received the Nobel Peace Prize for its patient negotiating efforts, which carried Tunisia through an extended constitutional crisis and laid the groundwork for the only democracy that remains following the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

The prize comes at an important time, as Tunisia faces a new crisis that is nearly as critical as the one it confronted in the fall of 2013: A pair of attacks against tourists earlier this year left more than 60 people dead, provoking fear and devastating tourism, even as the faltering economy dragged support for the democratic process to historic lows. ISIS claimed responsibility for both.

The award also draws international attention to a region that is increasingly known more for the harrowing actions of ISIS than the kind of compromise and negotiations that have allowed Tunisia to succeed.

Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Labour Union, right, is congratulated by unidentified union members in his office at the headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, on Friday. (The Associated Press)

The quartet was a long shot for the prize and none were more surprised than its actual members. Houcine Abbasi, the head of the labour union and the driving force in the 2013 negotiations, learned about the win from The Associated Press when reached for comment.

"I am overwhelmed by this," he said, recalling how the country had been on the brink of war. "It's a prize that crowns more than two years of efforts deployed by the quartet when the country was in danger on all fronts."

For months, Abbassi and his colleagues tried to convince the Islamist-led government and the opposition to sit down together and agree on a new government of technocrats to end the crisis.

Several times talks broke down but Abbas never seemed to lose faith. In November 2013, after another walkout by the parties, he said "we do not believe in failure because the dialogue has to succeed — it is our destiny."

'Tunisia proves that democracy is possible in the Arab world. The international community now needs to step up and support the Tunisian government and the Tunisian people."- William Lawrence, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy

In the end, despite acrimonious negotiations, the two sides were brought together and agreed on a caretaker prime minister and government. While elsewhere in the region, war raged in Syria, militias battled each other in Libya as politicians looked on helplessly and thousands were jailed in Egypt.

"It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war," the Nobel Prize committee said in its citation about the quartet's efforts.

'Democracy is possible and necessary'

In a region known so much for violence and belief in the zero sum game of power, the quartet's achievement in Tunisia stood out as a key Middle East exception, said Mohammed Fadhel Mafoudh, the head of the Bar Association that participated in the negotiations.

"It's a message to all parties present in certain political conflicts, to tell them that everything can be settled with dialogue and all can be settled in a climate of peace, and that the language of weapons leads us nowhere," he said.

The chairwoman of the Nobel committee, Kaci Kullmann Five, said the selection of Tunisia was made with a regional context in mind: "These are different countries but some of the main root causes of social upheaval often resemble each other."

Kaci Kullmann Five, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announces Friday in Oslo that the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. (Heiko Junge/AFP/Getty Images)

William Lawrence, the director of Middle East and North Africa for the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said the prize shows the world that the democratic process is alive in Tunisia despite the twin threats of economic crisis and terrorist attacks.

"Tunisia proves that democracy is possible in the Arab world," he said. "The international community now needs to step up and support the Tunisian government and the Tunisian people."

His organization estimates that the country needs some $5 billion in aid over the next few years to support an economy brought to its knees by terrorist attacks and has called for at least $800 million in aid from the U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama had originally earmarked $134 million for Tunisia in 2015 but the Senate cut that by $50 million, though it could still be restored in conference.

Obama on Friday said the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a coalition of Tunisian groups is a tribute to the perseverance and courage of all Tunisians.​.

He said the group is a reminder that lasting peace and security can only be achieved when people are empowered to chart their own future. He says it also shows "that democracy is possible and necessary in North Africa and the Middle East."

Economic struggles

Growth in 2015 for Tunisia is expected to be flat or negative while unemployment is over 15 per cent and inflation has been running around 6 percent provoking a great deal of dissatisfaction.

Tunisia's revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of a young itinerant fruit seller after he was harassed by police, and occurred against a backdrop of high unemployment and economic troubles that have yet to be solved by the new elected governments.

Many Tunisians complain that the revolution and democracy has brought them little improvements despite an increased freedom of expression, and young people in particular stayed away from the last election in droves.

Despite its small size, Tunisia provides the most foreign recruits to the armies of the Islamic State with estimates of more than 3,000 having left to fight in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

"Everyone in this country feels a heavy sense of negativity on the streets, it's very common to hear things were better before the revolution," said Monica Marks, a research fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Having an injection of positivity — a congratulations from the international community — is a really good thing."

Last year, children's rights activist Malala Yousafzai, at the age of 17, became the youngest Nobel laureate, when she shared the prize with India's Kailash Satyarthi.



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