Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition of labour unions, businesses, lawyers and human rights activists, won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for helping build democracy in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, an example of peaceful transition in a region otherwise struggling with violence and upheaval.
The quartet of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers was formed in the summer of 2013.
It was awarded “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011”. The Nobel Peace Prize, worth 8 million Swedish crowns ($972,000), will be presented in Oslo on December 10.
The Nobel Committee’s choice came as a surprise. The quartet had not been mentioned in any of the speculation in the run-up to the announcement, which instead focused on Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and anti-nuclear weapon campaigners.
With a new constitution, free elections and a compromise politics between Islamist and secular leaders, Tunisia has been held up as a model of how to make the transition to a democracy from dictatorship.
The quartet supported the democratisation process when it was in danger of collapsing, the Norwegian Nobel committee said in its citation.
The group with a cumbersome name and some unlikely partners played a determining role in pulling Tunisia from the edge of civil war - and guiding it to the doorstep of democracy. Here are some things to know about this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize:
The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was formed in October 2013 in the face of political chaos, including an opposition boycott of Parliament, extremist violence and a staggering economy. Two left-wing politicians had been assassinated and nearly two years after overthrowing its long-time autocratic president, Zine el-Azidine Ben Ali - triggering the Arab Spring - Tunisia was teetering on the edge of civil war.
The group came together at the initiative of Houcine Abassi, leader of the Tunisian General Labor Union, and Wided Bouchamaoui, president of the employers’ union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, to try to put the nation back on course. The pair drew in the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. Known as the Quartet, the group initiated a National Dialogue of 21 political parties tasked with forming a new technocratic government to organize elections for a permanent government.
In the ensuing months, the National Dialogue led by the Quartet succeeded in negotiating the transition from the elected government, led by the Islamist Ennahda Party, to the interim government team. On December 14, 2013, industry minister Mehdi Jomaa was chosen as the new caretaker prime minister. The following month, Jomaa swore in a new caretaker government following the resignation of the prime minister of the Ennahda and his coalition government.
In January 2015, a new permanent government was sworn in after parliamentary and presidential elections that resulted in the victory of the nationalist Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls) party led by Beji Caid Essebsi, the nation’s current president. Ennahda took a strong second.
The dialogue nearly broke down several times but ultimately succeeded and has been held up as a stark contrast to the coup in Egypt that removed the elected Islamist government there during the summer of 2013.
Problems remain, however. In March, Islamist gunmen killed 21 tourists in an attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and 38 foreigners were killed in an assault on a Sousse beach hotel in June.
More than 3,000 Tunisians have also left to fight for Islamist militant groups in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring Libya. Some of those jihadists have threatened to return home and carry out attacks on Tunisian soil.
World leaders and international organisations hailed the national dialogue mediators of Tunisia as a beacon of hope for the region.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said the award recognises the “path of consensus” chosen by the country after the 2011 revolution. “Tunisia has no other solution than dialogue despite ideological disagreements.”
Here’s how other world leaders reacted to the recognition to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet.
# Houcine Abassi, the head of the UGTT trade union which is a part of the winning Quartet, said the prize is a “tribute to martyrs of a democratic Tunisia... This effort by our youth has allowed the country to turn the page on dictatorship.”
# British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that the mediators deserved the prize for “helping make Tunisia a beacon of hope for the region”.
# German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson said: “It is a deserved reward for work for democracy, for holding to the idea that people who have rejected a dictatorship deserve better than another dictatorship.”
# French President Francois Hollande said the prize “rewards the success of the democratic transition in Tunisia”.
# Finland’s former president Martti Ahtisaari, who won the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, said it was “an excellent decision... We all know how the Arab spring started and what the aim of it was. In the countries where the change was demanded people wanted to make it clear that they want to have the same values that are in place in democratic societies in the world”.
# Unesco director-general Irina Bokova described the award as “a call to support all civil society forces engaged in the fight for democracy, pluralism and rule of law. A few months after the attack on the Bardo Museum, a place of knowledge and dialogue among cultures, this message has never been more topical,” she said, referring to the March attack in Tunis in which two jihadists shot dead 21 foreign tourists and a policeman.
# EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini tweeted that the prize “shows the way out of the crises in the region: national unity and democracy.”
# EU president Donald Tusk tweeted: “Congrats to National Dialogue Quartet for Nobel Prize. After visit to Tunisia on March I understand and respect (the) choice.”
# UN spokesperson Ahmad Fawzi said: “I congratulate the Tunisian national dialogue quartet... We need civil society to help us to move peace processes forward.”
# Ahmed Samih, general director of Cairo-based Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies, said the award is “a recognition from the world that NGOs and labour syndicates in Tunisia rescued the country from a political fighting between the civil and Islamic forces.”