At a time when Libya has become a failed state, Syria has become a humanitarian catastrophe, and Yemen has become a foreign powers’ battleground, Tunisia serves as a welcome relief. Today, Tunisia, the pioneer of the grandiose Arab Spring, is the only standing testament to the Spring’s partial success. This was recently recognized by Nobel Committee, which decided to award the National Dialogue Quartet the Nobel Peace Prize. But even the most devout Arab Spring enthusiasts will probably shrug upon hearing the name of this organization, which played a highly specific role in tackling a specific contingency in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary trajectory. Here, we attempt to analyze the origins, nature and achievements of the Quartet and consider some controversies that expectedly surround the Peace Prize decision.

What is the National Dialogue Quartet? 

The National Dialogue Quartet is a civil society alliance composed of – as the name suggests – four sub-organizations: the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) led by Houcine Abbassi, Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) led by Wided Bouchamaoui, the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) led by Abdessattar Ben Moussa and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers led by Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh.

Where along Tunisia’s transition does this organization come in? 

It is instrumental to understand and view the Quartet in terms of Tunisia’s ingrained civil society tradition and its place in Tunisia’s protracted Arab Spring trajectory. The first and most dramatic phase of Tunisia’s Arab Spring ended in February 2011, when Ben Ali, the 23-years strong President-cum-dictator, was ousted from power. But as expected, the post-revolutionary period, albeit less dramatic and newsworthy, has been dotted with the successes and failures that truly matter.

In November 2011, historic elections brought the moderate Islamist party, An-Nahda to power. Even though the elections were seen as fair by well-organized by most, agitated secularists across the country remained skeptical and the fact that An-Nahda won just 89 of the 217 seats in the new constituent assembly spoke to the level of national polarization.

The ensuing months saw a nation torn apart by pro-Islamic demonstrations on one side and secular protests on the others. Ironically, the first signs of post-revolutionary freedom only manifested as freedom to commit violence. There was violence on both sides but the Salafist groups became increasingly emboldened given An-Nahda’s strategic indifference to their criminal activities. This struggle can be seen in light of Tunisia’s history. Tunisia is time and time again quoted as the secular role model for the Arab and Islamic world. A product of liberal, secular French colonization, Tunisia prides itself as being the birthplace of the tolerant and practical Maliki school of Islam. But regardless of the way Tunisia is portrayed and brandished, Islamist elements did and do have sway in the country. In the past, they were bottled up by hardline secularist dictatorships until the vessel exploded. Before Ben Ali, for example, Tunisia was ruled by Habib Bourghiba, who advocated for many arguably anti-Islamic policies in the name of economic development, progressivism and education, often labeling conservatives as terrorists. Although this was a prejudiced attack on religious liberties, this pattern of secularist dictatorial suppression of Islamist elements successfully tempered radical terrorism in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia before the Arab Spring.

Once the Spring took hold, the artificially suppressed Islamist-secularist divides in Tunisian society gave way. An-Nahda, on the other hand, first referred to the Salafists as “our sons” and under various circumstances and conditions, tried to appease, co-opt and control them particularly because the party shared an ideologically conservative voter base with some of these violent groups. However, what began as Salafist clashes with the police soon became the storming of the US embassy in Tunis and even An-Nahda’s patience started wearing thin.

But it was too late by 2013 when two popular mainstream politicians were assassinated in broad daylight – Chokri Belaid in February 2013 and Mohammed Brahmi in July 2013. Since the victims belonged to the opposition party National Front, the public immediately pointed fingers at the ruling party, An-Nahda, whose earlier popularity had chipped away due to economic failings, poor security conditions and by the inherent virtue of incumbency. Beyond this, security forces clashed with the most radical and violent Salafist group, Ansar-al-Sharia while border incursions by and skirmishes with Libyan and Algerian terrorists continued. Against this hodgepodge of security, economic and political crises, civil society stepped in as a force of reason and compromise.

This is not to say that civil soviet finally stepped in. In fact, civil society was part of the Jasmine Revolution and the transition from the onset. Before the Arab Spring, many academics cited the weakness of Middle Eastern civil society as a prime reason for the “robustness of authoritarianism” in the region, but were taken off-guard when the civil society-driven Jasmine Revolution erupted from the mere self-immolation of one vegetable-seller. Many alternative explanations of civil society culture in the Arab world now hold more sway. The first is that since opposition parties were essentially non-existent before the Arab Spring in dictatorship states, civil society groups, albeit weak, were the prime forces for opposition, dissent and checks and balances. For example, one of the members of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quartet, the Tunisian Human Rights Defense League (LTDH) has been called the “first human rights group in the Arab world.” Armed with a subversive leadership of political prisoners and popular defectors, the LTDH continued to form ad hoc committees and became the government’s “most outspoken critic.” Since political parties that were not puppets of the government party, the RCD, could not stand for election, political leaders instead joined and bolstered renegade civil society groups, standing strong despite arrests and raids by Ben Ali’s forces. The same applies to lawyers and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. During the Spring itself, lawyers often became the focal point of national interest and international pressure because they were arrested after leading landmark strikes and demonstrations.

A relatively odd case is that of the behemoth, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the de facto leader of the Quartet. UGTT was fully operational during Ben Ali’s regime because it cooperated with the regime and worked within the system. In 2008, civil society groups organized protests in the southern mining town of Gafsa and even though they were quickly crushed, Gafsa is seen as a precursor to the January 2011 revolution. Oddly, the Gafsa protests were partially directed against the UGTT’s local chapter for coopting with the regime and granting its members exclusive benefits. In May 2010, the same Gafsa groups spearheaded one of the most unique protests in history: Tunisia in White, whereby hordes of Tunisians simply dressed in white and had coffee at a shop in Avenue Habib Bourghiba, a memorable site for the Jasmine Revolution later on. Of course, in 2011, the UGTT completely reversed course and joined the anti-dictatorship forces, bringing with it a wealth of resources, experience and clout.

The second explanation for civil society’s importance highlights Tunisia’s high rates of literacy, well-established borders and relative national homogeneity, conditions considered ripe for a prosperous democracy and civil activism. This suggests that civil society groups were always strong and active and basically emerged when they saw signs of weakness in the regime and opportunities for success during and after the Arab Spring.

What exactly did the Quartet do? 

In summary, the group created political consensus at a time when Tunisia was at the brink of civil war and earned the country time for the democratic process to blossom. In the summer of 2013, there was a national consensus that the incumbent government under An-Nahda had failed on security terms in light of the recent assassinations and terrorist acts and also lacked all legitimacy because they still hadn’t completed the constitution-drafting process. Under overbearing emotional pressure, An-Nahda agreed to form a new government by the end of July 2013. The big contention was regarding the nature of the new government: whether it should be led by a fresh An-Nahda face or by a neutral set of actors. In the same month, the UGTT proposed its national reconciliation plan. In August, after a series of serious sit-ins and protests, An-Nahda agreed to begin national dialogue based on the UGTT’s proposed framework. In the interim period of haggling and bargaining, four key civil society groups put aside their own differences and came together, under the umbrella of this UGTT-suggested plan and called themselves the National Dialogue Quartet. The Quartet was new but its constituents were seasoned. After a “marathon of meetings” led by the newly formed Quartet, the parties agreed on three key terms: the existing government would be dissolved, a new non-partisan, technocratic government under industry minister, Mehdi Jomaa will take over and, legislative and judicial elections would be held by the end of 2014.

Does the Quartet deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

This question hits at the heart of the nature of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is the most subjective and ambitious of all. While a Nobel Prize for Chemistry committee can reduce its options by zeroing in on a specific academic discipline, shortlist breakthrough papers and obtain recommendations from a well-informed and well-connected academic community, the same cannot be done for a Nobel Peace Prize. ‘Peace’ is the broadest of all academic disciplines, does not normally have published academic research or papers and involves people who are often hard to communicate with like the Soviet dissident Sakharov or Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

The reality is that very few academic or political leaders acknowledged the Quartet before this prize. The Quartet was not a mainstream actor like President Obama or Nelson Mandela. And that is exactly why it serves as a welcome reminder of forces and people who act behind the scenes to achieve resolutions, ceasefires and reforms across the world but are not necessarily the newsworthy, attention-catching public face of those important events.

Having said that, it must be reaffirmed that Peace Prize decisions will always be a tad arbitrary. There were many groups and actors involved in Tunisia’s revolution. Many suffered enormously during the first wave of protests and were instrumental in overturning the dictatorship. Others like the military leader Rachid Ammar boldly defected from the regime and chose not to shoot the protesters, setting a disarming precedent for the entire region and the subsequent Spring. Others are working now to consolidate Tunisia’s nascent democracy. The Quartet performed a highly specific function at a specific time to resolve a specific issue. For better or worse, the Norweigans decided to choose them for the Prize but the message and recognition is for all of Tunisia and all of its actors who are taking their country in a positive new direction. Today, Tunisia is arguably more stable than it was in June 2013 and definitely closer to democracy than it was in January 2011 – it stands strong as the Arab Spring exception.

A final philosophical idea is whether the Peace Prize should not just recognize peace but verily promote it through the very act of rewarding. In 2010, the Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident, partially to pressurize China to do more for human rights and freedom of speech. Last year, it was awarded to one Pakistani, Malala Yousufzai and one Indian, Kailash Satyarti, partly to foster more cordial relations between the two bitter nuclear rivals, India and Pakistan. This year’s Peace Prize definitely also has a deeper purpose. It could’ve gone to Snowden or Merkel or the Pope. But the Prize comes at a time when crisis-riddled Tunisia most needs moral encouragement and that is what we all hope the Prize will achieve – encourage Tunisia to take the Peace Prize as a means, not an end and make this Prize the first of many more to come in the future.

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