Nobel prize is a victory for Tunisian democracy

To worldwide surprise, including the recipients themselves, the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. After early troubles in the transition to democracy following the Arab Spring, the Quartet, a group of four civil society organizations, helped guide their country through new elections and the establishment of a stable parliamentary democracy. 

The Quartet's collaborative efforts exemplify their country's pragmatic and cautious transition toward democracy. Starting in 2011, the four organizations — the Tunisian General Labor Union, Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers — have served as patient mediators between Tunisia’s moderate Islamist and secular political forces, pressing relentlessly for compromise.

Without them, most observers believe that the democratic transition in Tunisia, still an ongoing process, might have been more combative than collaborative, resulting in a possible slip back towards authoritarianism whether secular or Islamist.

In this context, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in the country that was the birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2010 marks a remarkable achievement in the history of a nation that rose up five years ago and overthrew a strikingly durable and repressive regime.

Since then Tunisians have exercised great restraint and compromise as they have struggled to overcome the legacy of autocracy and the rise of new, largely foreign, extremist threats.

For proof that Tunisia's successful transition to democracy to-date was not inevitable, one needs only to look at the failures of so many other Arab countries in the region for whom the Arab Spring has turned into a cold winter of civil war, political paralysis or retrenched authoritarianism.

To understand how Tunisia has been the lonely Arab Spring success story, one must return to 2011, when Tunisian dictator President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali finally stepped down from power. Shortly after that, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party won the first elections. A constituent assembly adopted secular constitution, and then the moderate Renaissance Party (Ennahda) won a parliamentary majority.

By 2013, however, the country was on the brink of catastrophe; the country's fragile transition to democracy was threatened. Two high-profile political assassinations of leading left-wing secular politicians led to nationwide protests and a series of strikes that shook the country. Deadly clashes broke out between members of the country's secular and Islamist political parties. The secular opposition encouraged popular protests demanding that the country’s democratically elected Islamist-led government step down.  

The fate of Egypt’s failed revolution was foremost on everyone’s minds. There, a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government had itself set down the path of religious authoritarianism before it was deposed by Egypt's current president, military strongman and former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, signaling the restoration of autocratic rule.

Just when Tunisia seemed to be heading down the same path, the Quartet stepped in to mediate political talks and find a peaceful way to resolve the tension. The four organizations that made up the Quartet took it upon themselves to mediate talks between the ruling Islamist political parties, opposition secular parties, and representatives of civil society.

Prior to the Quartet's political discussions, leaders of the ruling Ennahda party had insisted they would not give up power. But after months of mediation, the Ennahda agreed to a national dialogue. Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh agreed to step down, and in December of 2014 Tunisia held a fair, democratic election, which was won by the secularist candidate Beji Caid Essebsi.

This unprecedented voluntary giving up of power by a democratically elected government was both a testimony to the work of the Quartet as well as testament to the political maturity of the Ennahda party which put Tunisia’s future and well-being first.

Said Ferjani, one of the top-level leaders of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party exemplifies this maturity. Arrested and severely tortured by the Ben-Ali government in 1987, Ferjani endured 22 years of exile after being released. Many of his colleagues in Ennahda share the same brutalized past, but surprisingly there was little desire for vengeance once they won the elections and came to power.

“For us,” Ferjani said, “the success of the democratic process is dearer to us than Ennahda itself; this is not negotiable. Patience is key in a transition. We are conscious of the fact that any mistakes now could make democracy reversible.”

This attitude explains why Ennahda accepted the nudging of the Quartet to voluntarily give up power and transfer authority to a technocratic government that could act as a caretaker while Tunisia planned inclusive, democratic elections.

In the 2014 national election, Ennahda even refrained from putting forth a presidential candidate even though it had a genuine chance of victory, but still competed for seats in parliament where they fared poorly.

Ferjani, though understandably not pleased with the result, nevertheless accepted it, though some hard-liners in his party did not. He chose to contribute to the new government through an inclusive power-sharing agreement and by focusing on progress to come rather than lingering over the crimes of the past.

It is still too early to declare Tunisia a success story. The year 2015 has seen attacks committed by radical Islamist terrorists at the national museum and at a beach resort that resulted in the death of dozens. It is plagued by economic challenges, shaky security and a crumbling Libya on its southeastern border.

Yet, the birthplace of the Arab Spring is now the only remaining hope for a genuine Arab democracy and drills home the point that a vibrant and healthy civil society and organizations, coupled with putting the interests of the country first and above sect and creed, are two critical foundations of democracy in the Middle East.

[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American political commentator; Jesuit Drew Christiansen is a distinguished professor of ethics and global human development at Georgetown University.]

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