On December 17th 2010, fruit seller Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at the political and economic repression of the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sparking the first uprising of the Arab Spring. Just a month later, President Ben Ali fled the country. This was “the first time in the modern history of the Arab world a popular uprising forced the ouster of a ruler”. These events triggered dramatic protest movements across the entire Middle East, the fall-out of which we are still seeing today in the civil wars of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These are not even the only countries where problems remain unsolved. In fact, every Middle-Eastern uprising other than that in Tunisia has lead to either ongoing war or a return to largely the same status quo as existed five years ago. On the other hand, Tunisia has overcome enormous odds and is still enjoying its successful transition to democracy.
This resulted, this week, in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the national dialogue quartet that is credited with being largely responsible for the aversion of civil conflict.This quartet included the Tunisian human rights league, the employer’s institute, the order of lawyers and the powerful union federation called UGGT. When war seemed almost inevitable, these groups, rising above their own disputes, unified as a quartet and stepped in to organise a national dialogue that resulted in compromise, peace and the consolidation of Tunisia’s new democratic system. Thus, the group prevented a move towards the escalation of violence and unresolved conflict that we have seen in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. The Nobel Prize has faced criticism in recent years for being misdirected, awarding prizes based on future hope rather than actual achievements. President Barack Obama was a notable case of this when he won the award in 2009. This year contestants included Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Pope Francis, and US Secretary of State John Kerry. This more obscure group of Tunisians is surely a deserving winner though, considering their immense achievement in retaining peace in Tunisia.
The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, as it is now known, happened over a period of just a month. However, as we have clearly seen from events in other Arab countries, a rebel victory in no way guarantees a successful democracy. Indeed, the overthrowing of leaders in Egypt and Libya marked just the start of the immense violence those countries have seen. Tunisia accomplished this through the remarkable willingness of many, including this prize-winning quartet, to bargain and compromise. Tunisia did have some advantages over other Arab countries, such as its relative wealth, homogeneity, and long legacy of political institutions and little military intervention. Nevertheless, in 2013 there was what has now become a familiar situation all over the Arab world: polarization between Islamists and secularists. In Tunisia, this took the form of rivalry between the Islamist Ennahda party and the Nida Tounis party, made up of former members of the secular old regime.
The leaders of these parties, rather than moving towards conflict as happened in other countries, were willing to meet and reach a compromise in a national dialogue. This was mediated by the quartet that just won the Nobel Prize. This group brought about a compromise that ended with all parties agreeing on a constitution, followed by elections hailed around the world as being open and free.The role of the Islamist Ennahda party, and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, was also crucial. Ghannouchi, who is a renowned proponent of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, abdicated his leadership that he had won through elections to allow the national dialogue to take place and then agreed to a constitution with no mention of Islamic law and staunchly in favor of gender equality. This calmed fears of extremism and ushered in a secular democracy in which Islamist parties could participate.
Two years later from these events, despite economic crisis and several violent terrorist attacks, Tunisia’s democracy remains intact. The newly elected President Essebsi has raised concerns due to some constraining “emergency” measures he has taken to combat terrorism as well as his links with members of the former regime of Ben Ali. However, the country remains largely peaceful, and there has been no challenge to the holding of regular democratic elections. Tunisia has shown that willingness to engage in dialogue and balanced, tactful leadership can bring about a successful, largely non-violent transition to democracy in the Arab world. The key to success was this quartet group that was able to mediate between Islamists and secularists associated with the old order, and which has now been rewarded for their efforts with the Nobel Prize. The country’s success took place without any military aid from foreign countries, which has produced so few positive results in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Perhaps Tunisia’s story shows that the best option for the West and other foreign powers in the Middle East could be to find, build and support coalitions such as the Tunisian quartet, which have some chance of bringing about national unity, rather than inherently divisive military action.
- Xan Northcott