Talking to Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, Tunisian Bar Association President and Nobel Laureate
TUNIS - A crowd waited outside his modest office in the Tunis Palais de Justice. I was told the Swedish ambassador had just left. Others were jostling inside to congratulate Mohamed Fadhel Mahfoudh, the head of the Tunisian Bar Association, who, along with three other members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, had just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Quartet played a crucial role in helping the country overcome the political polarisation that threatened to push Tunisia over the abyss of civil strife in 2013. An Islamist-led coalition held on to power, to which it had acceded after the 2011 elections, while an alliance of leftists and liberals took to the streets demanding an end to Islamist rule after leftist leaders were assassinated.
The National Dialogue led to the designation of a technocratic government that laid the ground for new elections in 2014.
“I could not believe it,” the Paris-educated, 50-year-old lawyer told The Arab Weekly as he described his reaction when he heard the news of the Nobel Peace Prize. The truth sank in moments later, when he consulted the Nobel Prize committee website.
Mahfoudh later started to reflect on the decision. “I felt it was the crowning not just of the Quartet but of Tunisia. It was the crowning of a historical process with all its manifestations, difficulties and positive results,” he said.
A prominent phase in that process, which started with the 2010 uprising, was the 2013 experience of the National Dialogue. It included most of the country’s political actors. Facilitated by the Quartet, the dialogue “helped speed up the democratic transition and the organisation of legislative and presidential elections under the supervision of a neutral and technocratic government”, Mahfoudh said.
The interim government, which led Tunisia for the most part of 2014, was presided over by former minister of industry Mehdi Jomaa, who, in compliance with the pledge he made during the National Dialogue, did not run for elected office.
Mahfoudh is proud of the role that lawyers have played for more than a century in Tunisia “whether against colonial rule or despotism.
“It was at the vanguard during the revolution and the democratic transition. It was also at the vanguard of the National Dialogue experience as part of the Quartet,” he said.
Elected head of the Tunisian Bar Association in 2013, Mahfoudh had been active in the Sfax section of the association. He is considered politically independent.
He sees the message behind the prize as going beyond politics. “It is intended for all of Tunisia, a country which may be small in geographic size but has a great history and deep-rooted civilisation,” Mahfoudh said.
As to the regional and international dimensions of the message contained in the Tunisian Quartet’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mahfoudh emphasises that “each country has its specificities so one cannot arbitrarily try to duplicate the experience of any one country in another”. But he said the message intended to the world is that “all political disputes can be resolved through dialogue and consensus building”.
Mahfoudh believes that negotiation is the logical path for conflict resolution. “All armed conflicts end up in negotiations. So why not go straight to the negotiations?” he asked.
In the Arab world, he also sees “dialogue and negotiation as the way to help achieve the necessary objectives of democracy, rights and freedoms”.
At home, the prize brings a “dose of hope” to Tunisians as they endeavour to meet the remaining challenges they face and introduce the social and economic reforms, “which need time”, Mahfoudh said, adding that he is “confident the political and civil classes will strive to find the necessary solutions”.
He is also hopeful “foreign operators” will “look at Tunisia differently now and with a lot of optimism”. They could see the stability in the country and the “possibility of investing not only in the economic field but also in the social and cultural fields”.
“We are in favour of all peoples of the world supporting the Tunisian people while preserving the independence of our national decisions,” Mahfoudh said.