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From Jasmine revolution to Nobel peace prize


Peace sign. Image source Wikimedia

Peace sign. Image source Wikimedia

LATELY, the Tunisian national dialogue quartet – a motley civil society coalition of labour, industry, human rights activists, and lawyers – received the Nobel peace prize in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. They had defeated other famous nominees: Pope Francis; German chancellor, Angela Merkel; United States (US) secretary of state, John Kerry; and Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The five-member Norwegian Nobel committee praised the quartet’s “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy”, and noted that it had awarded the prize in a bid to safeguard democracy in Tunisia and inspire all those seeking to promote peace and democracy in North Africa, the Middle East, and the rest of the world. African Union (AU) chair, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, had earlier noted that “Tunisia has become a beacon of hope for peace in Africa.” The country has a long history of civil society activism and women empowerment.

Tunisia’s civil society coalition had helped their country avert civil war in 2013 by pushing political parties to accept a government of technocrats to organise democratic elections, negotiate a secular constitution that protected the rights of women, and coaxed the Islamist Ennahda party to surrender power. It was appropriate that Tunisia – the cradle of the “Afro-Arab Spring” – was awarded this prize which four South Africans – Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and F.W. De Klerk – have won. Other African winners include Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Mohamed El Baradei; Kenya’s Wangari Maathai; Ghana’s Kofi Annan; and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. Three Africans in the Diaspora – Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama – have also won the prize.

When an unemployed 26-year old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, immolated himself in December 2010 in the remote Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in a protest against government repression, his martyrdom triggered a political revolution that reverberated across the Arab world, toppling mummified Pharaohs in not just Tunisia, but also in Egypt and Libya and spreading the culture of protest to Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. This harmattan wind would also blow across the Sahara in 2014 to topple a 30-year autocracy in Burkina Faso. Following the “Jasmine Revolution” of 2011, however, the political situation in Tunisia became bleak within two years: suspected Salafist militants were carrying out political assassinations; street protests were being waged by secularists and their allies; and a weak military was being overwhelmed by local and regionally-fuelled Islamic insurgencies.

The moving force behind the Tunisian quartet in August 2013 was Houcine Abbassi, head of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) who convinced his adversaries in the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts (UTICA) to come together in the quest for peace. The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers later joined. The disputatious quartet first needed its own internal peacemaking before it could make peace for the country as a whole. Many believed that Abbassi really deserved the most credit for the democratic transition, and some felt that he alone should have won the Nobel peace prize. The veteran trade unionist was tenacious in convincing his historical foe, Ennahda, to stand aside and allow new elections; employed his formidable deal-making skills as a labour negotiator; and deployed his union’s superior economic clout (with 750,000 members) to stitch together complex political deals. As he noted on hearing of the award: “This prize is a message for our region to put down arms and sit and talk at the negotiation table.”

The quartet’s consensus-based strategy was to use its popular legitimacy, in representing a broad swathe of the middle and lower classes, to draw up a roadmap signed by 20 parties; disband the cabinet; establish an independent electoral commission; and force amendments in the draft constitution. The national dialogue lasted for three months from October 2013 to January 2014.

Rather like the South African peace process in the 1990s – that was similarly rewarded with a Nobel peace prize – Tunisia’s national dialogue was a home-grown one that crafted creative local solutions rather than relying on external mediators. As in South Africa, it needed much stamina, skill, ingenuity, and imagination. One of the most important elements in the success of Tunisia’s peacemakers was the political maturity of Ennahda – led by Rached Ghannouchi – which did not receive the credit it deserved in being the only Islamic party to have voluntarily stepped down from power. As Ghannouchi noted: “What good is staying in a house that’s collapsing on top of you?” If like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda had decided to dig in its heels and insist on its popular mandate from elections in October 2011, the outcome in Tunisia would doubtless have been very different. Unlike Egypt’s military junta which seized power in July 2013 and then persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s military brass hats stayed in their barracks, and Ennahda lost power through ballots rather than bullets. The “moderate” Islamists handed over to the secularist Nidas Tounes coalition – led by 88-year old president, Beji Caid Essebi – following elections in 2014.

Despite the optimism that has greeted Tunisia’s Nobel triumph, dark clouds loom over the horizon. Two terrorist attacks this year killed 21 tourists and a police officer at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March; while 38 tourists were gunned down at a resort in Sousse in June. The largest group of foreigners joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIL) are Tunisians. Amidst internal wrangling and splits, the country’s political system remains rife with cronyism and corruption. Some have even complained that the quartet’s peace deal represented an “elite pact” that shared the spoils of power among secularists and Islamist political players, but marginalised the masses who continue to bear the brunt of a weak economy and 15% unemployment. Regional tensions remain between the poor south and wealthier north. Tunisia itself is entrapped in a rough neighbourhood between anarchic Libya and turbulent Algeria.

The government in Tunis has been accused of clamping down on genuine dissent by passing anti-terrorism legislation and closing 80 mosques. Many members of the ancien régime of the ossified dictatorship of Ben Ali are now back in power, obstructing efforts to seek truth and reconciliation and instead pushing dubious political amnesties. Sporadic protests and strikes continue. The clear lesson from Tunisia, however, remains that supporting civil society efforts can be a cost-effective way of preventing violent conflicts. But despite this Nobel prize, the Jasmine revolution is far from being consolidated and appears to be devouring its own children.

• Dr. Adekeye Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and editor of Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent.

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