Tunisians hope for more foreign support after Nobel Prize win
TUNIS - Tunisia is being hailed for being the only country to escape the “Arab spring” chaos and bloodshed after its main civic groups were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping the country advance on the path of democratic transition.
However, Tunisians fear economic stagnation and deteriorating security still provide ground for extremist Islamists to derail the nascent democracy if Western powers continue being tepid towards providing tangible support to jump-start the economy.
Finance experts predict the country could fail to repay its foreign debt in 2017 if its economic woes remain unaddressed. Economic growth in 2015 for Tunisia is expected to be flat or negative while the unemployment rate is more than 15% and inflation has been running around 6%.
An assassination attempt targeted a prominent parliament member on October 8th. Earlier this year, 20 foreign tourists were killed when terrorists stormed the Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Three months later, a gunman shot dead 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse, wreaking havoc on the tourism industry and causing Tunisia’s ailing economy to further deteriorate.
“The Nobel Prize award is good for Tunisia’s image abroad as a country striving for democracy and peace. It mitigates the effect of the two terrorist attacks,” said Jalloul Ayed, a former finance minister. Ayed said the country’s government and elites should shift their focus to the economy.
The National Dialogue Quartet was chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution to Tunisia’s peaceful advance towards democracy. The prize committee said the Quartet, a coalition of civic groups that heaved most political parties behind the constitutional process, “succeeded in establishing countered the spread of violence in Tunisia and its function is therefore comparable to that of the peace congresses to which Alfred Nobel refers in his will,” it added.
That progress has often looked uncertain and vulnerable, as Islamist and secular foes faced off over the relationship between the state and religion. The Quartet stepped in in 2013 when two political assassinations exacerbated a tense political climate pushing Tunisia to the brink of chaos.
The then-ruling Islamist Ennahda party agreed to step down in 2014. Voters then handed power to a governing coalition dominated by secularist Nidaa Tounes after a new progressive constitution was adopted.
The groups that shared the prize are the Tunisian General Labour Union; the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Bar Association.
Houcine Abbassi, the head of the labour union, is widely seen as having played a major role in the national dialogue. For months, he and other members of the Quartet prodded the Islamist-led ruling coalition and the opposition to sit down and agree on a new government of technocrats to end the crisis.
Talks at times stalled but Abbassi never seemed to lose faith. In November 2013, after another walkout by participants, he said: “We do not believe in failure because the dialogue has to succeed. It is our future and destiny.”
“Abbassi played an important role in the dialogue. He would sit down for hours and hours at the negotiations table. He would never lose temper even in the most difficult of moments,” said Kamel Morjane, head of the centrist Al-Moubadara Party and a participant in the dialogue.
Morjane, a former minister of foreign affairs and senior UN official, expressed hope that the country’s elites, in an outside government, espouse dialogue and compromise to tackle the challenges ahead.
Slaheddine Jourchi, a political analyst, says “it is difficult for Tunisia to face its problems alone at this stage,” he said.
Many Tunisians bemoan democracy has brought them little improvements despite an increased freedom of expression. Young people stayed away from the last election in massive display of apathy.
Since 2011, Tunisia has provided the largest contingent of foreign recruits of the al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups, with estimates of more than 3,000 having left to fight in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
“Tunisia might be forced to ask creditors to reschedule its foreign debt in 2017. It would be the first time Tunisia takes such a move since its independence [from France in 1956],” said financial expert Ezzedine Saidane.
Other economic experts, including former central bank governor Taoufik Baccar, voiced similar grim predictions should the government skirt enacting deep reforms, including slashing petrol and essential food subsidies. Such reforms could, however, anger the powerful labour unions and trigger social unrest, which Tunisians cannot anymore afford.