Pride but also frustration one year after Tunisia Nobel Prize
TUNIS - Tunisia’s political and intellectual elites, wrestling with the country’s many challenges, express a lingering pride about the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to civil society groups in the country a year ago but also disappointment and frustration over the failure to build on the prestige of the honour.
The announcement last October of the award brought excitement to Tunisians. Many expected immediate gains to result from the attention given to the Peace Prize, including more foreign investment, increased aid from international powers, fewer hurdles to travel abroad to work or study, as well as enhancement of Tunisia’s reputation.
Tunisians wanted the world to appreciate the special traits that allowed the country to be a success in the “Arab spring”, rather than the dubious distinction of being one of the region’s largest exporters of jihadists.
Tunisia is mired in deep social and economic crises even if it remains the only promising Arab experiment with a bold multiparty democracy and liberal politics.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced on October 10th, 2015, the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 was to go to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for its contribution to ensuring Tunisia’s peaceful transition to democracy in the wake of the overthrow of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
The National Dialogue Quartet included four organisations in Tunisian civil society: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian Bar Association.
The Quartet members played the role of mediators to advance a peaceful political development and gained the peace prize committee’s attention for their collective facilitation of the process, not for the separate individual roles as organisations.
As a result, Tunisia has established a constitutional system that guarantees fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious faith and belief.
Before the Quartet stepped in, Tunisia’s nascent democracy was teetering, with secularists challenging the rule of the Islamist Ennahda party in the autumn of 2013.
The assassination of a left-wing politician prompted the opposition to boycott the constitutional assembly, leaving the government paralysed, the constitution unfinished and the country near civil war.
In Egypt, which had followed Tunisia in the “Arab spring” uprisings, the military, backed by massive civilian support, moved to oust the Islamist government, prompting radical secularists in Tunisia to consider taking a cue from Cairo.
The four civil society organisations jumped onto the fray at the end of 2013 to get the rival camps to reach a peaceful outcome. The Islamists agreed to step down and be replaced by a caretaker technocratic government that organised new elections and the mainly secularist opposition returned to work with Islamists to finish writing the constitution.
“I deem the win by the Quartet of the Nobel Peace Prize an important milestone in Tunisia’s history but unfortunately public opinion did not give it the significance it merits,” said Hatem Ben Salem, the head of the presidency-run Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies (ITES).
“Public opinion saw it as reward for the Quartet but the Nobel prize should have constituted an opportunity for Tunisia to build a new image and even fashion a new vision for the country that goes beyond the stature of the Quartet,” he said.
“We had to remember that the Nobel prize came to crown the success of dialogue in Tunisia. Today as we hear the drums of war between big powers and even in Europe, we have to remember that Tunisia was on the brink of a civil war and pulled back from that path thanks to dialogue.
“The dialogue helped all political and social parties forge a consensus and reach compromises to avoid a serious and very dangerous crisis,” he added.
Houcine Abassi, secretary-general of the UGTT, which was one of the recipients of the Nobel prize, said he deplored the insufficient support received by Tunisia from global powers and international financial institutions.
“The backing of the friends of Tunisia and its partners for the success of its democratic transition must take into account the circumstances of the country as it works to nurture its nascent democracy,” he said.
“They are not dealing with our country from that point of view. We need to explain to them the situation better to help it more, and that will benefit the whole Arab region.”
According to Hichem Elloumi, a senior official of the Tunisian business federation (UTICA): “Tunisia’s main challenge is to succeed in its economic transition. The crisis during the five years since 2011 had truncated the average growth threefold.”
Financial experts pointed to the latest report of Davos Economic Forum, which ranked Tunisia 95th out of 138 countries in economic competitiveness for the 2016-17 period down from 32nd in 2009-10 as an indication of the deterioration of the country’s economic standing.
“The Davos figures for Tunisia were frightening but the more worrying aspect is that Tunisians are not aware of the looming catastrophe that will hit their country if that deterioration was to continue and with it the freeze of investment by local businesses and the flight of foreign investors,” wrote Habib Lassoued, a senior editor with the large-circulation daily El-Chourouk.
Some Tunisians believe the Nobel Peace Prize should have been used to promote the crucial international investment conference, which it plans to have in November.
Ben Salem said: “I do not fathom why we did not take advantage of the large Nobel networks to help Tunisia organise the planned conference, which is vital for Tunisia’s economy. Behind these networks lay huge forces and great potential for money and investment.”