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Nobel prize 2015 announced
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Tunisia must seize the Nobel moment

Sarah Yerkes

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize award to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet came as a surprise to many around the world, including in Tunisia. But despite some criticism of the Quartet both during and after Tunisia’s national dialogue, this award is well-deserved and it fits squarely into Alfred Nobel’s vision of rewarding those who have promoted peace and prevented conflict.

Even as civil society is being stifled and silenced across the Middle East and North Africa (as well as elsewhere around the globe), awarding the prize to these four unlikely partners is a powerful reminder of the importance and potential impact of civil society.

The recipients accomplished a tremendous feat in preventing Tunisia’s transition from derailing by engaging in real dialogue and consensus-building between disparate factions, a clear sign that civil society matters just as much as government in ensuring peaceful outcomes. As the Nobel Committee stated, “The transition in Tunisia shows that civil society institutions and organizations can play a crucial role in a country’s democratization, and that such a process, even under difficult circumstances, can lead to free elections and the peaceful transfer of power.”

Tunisian civil society and the government should seize the opportunities presented by the Nobel award to encourage further action to ensure Tunisia fully consolidates its democratic gains.

However, Tunisians should not see this award as the bookend to the democratic transition. The Tunisian government and society should celebrate the recognition this award brings to the country’s efforts and achievements. Then, after a quick victory lap, both Tunisian civil society and the government should seize the opportunities presented by the Nobel award to encourage further action to ensure Tunisia fully consolidates its democratic gains.

Over the past six months, Tunisia has made headlines only due to tragedy. The Nobel Peace Prize announcement focused the world’s attention on the positive developments taking place in Tunisia and on the unique ability of civil society, government, and the public to work together—sometimes comfortably, sometimes contentiously—to achieve a shared goal of democratic reform.

The international spotlight will soon move away from Tunisia to focus on something else, but in the interim, both the Tunisian government and civil society should use this increased international attention to push the democratic transition forward and to garner increased international support to do so.

To civil society: lean in

Civil society actors in Tunisia must capitalize on the confidence boost produced by the Nobel award and the concomitant international attention the prize has brought to the civil society environment in Tunisia. Civil society has a record of success, as exemplified by the Quartet and, more recently, by efforts to ensure that the state of emergency imposed following the terror attack in Sousse was lifted in a timely manner.

But civil society also faces many challenges, most clearly demonstrated in the failed efforts to stymie the country’s anti-terrorism law, passed overwhelmingly by parliament in July despite vociferous opposition by prominent NGOs. The government’s (and society’s) anxiety in the wake of the two large-scale terror attacks—at the Bardo Museum in March and a resort in Sousse in June—has created an environment in which civil society is often at odds with the government. Crackdowns on peaceful protests and forced closures of NGOs prove the precarious position of civil society today. The Nobel award presents some lessons and opportunities that could assist civil society in creating an atmosphere more conducive to its goals.

The government won’t always invite civil society to the table, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a seat.

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First, other Tunisian civil society groups should learn the lesson of the Quartet and take the initiative to insert themselves into the political process. The government won’t always invite civil society to the table, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a seat. For example, human rights and anti-corruption groups should play an active and meaningful role in revising the Economic Reconciliation Law, a bill that could provide amnesty to thousands of former officials accused of corruption under the Ben Ali regime. 

Second, activists should take advantage of renewed outside attention on its efforts to speak out loudly against perceived abuses. The government is less likely to crack down on civil society when officials think the world is watching.

Third, Tunisia’s civil society groups should unabashedly use the Nobel Prize to fundraise—primarily by lobbying for increased international donor support for civil society efforts instead of security assistance or funding for economic reforms, the two current priorities of the international community.

To the Tunisian government: deepen consensus

The Tunisian government can also benefit from the renewed focus on Tunisia generated by the Nobel announcement. Tunisia suffers from a prioritization problem within the international community. While officials in the United States and Europe largely view Tunisia positively and are happy to sing its praises, Tunisia has never been a top priority for donor support. The Tunisian government should use the Nobel award as evidence that its struggle has relevance far beyond its borders and therefore should be taken as seriously and supported as much as events taking place elsewhere in the region. That means developing consistent, reliable and substantial funding streams to support Tunisia, rather than ad hoc funding in response to crises. It also means increased diplomatic engagement. The U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue, scheduled for mid-November in Tunis, offers an opportunity for the United States to show strong support for Tunisia by sending a large high-level delegation led by Secretary of State John Kerry. The Tunisian government should insist on real and meaningful deliverables from the dialogue, rather than re-packaged existing programs.

The government would be well served by ensuring that consensus holds and that it is the driving factor in decision-making, rather than simply window-dressing.

The current unity government, a coalition of secularists, Islamists, liberals, and elements from the old guard, represents the same consensus and compromise exemplified by the Quartet’s success. Nidaa Tounes, the secular party that won a plurality in the 2014 parliamentary elections, could have chosen to govern without its Islamist rival, Ennahda. And Ennahda could have chosen to sit in the opposition and work against Nidaa’s efforts. But both parties recognized the importance of overcoming their differences for the greater good of Tunisia. Eight months in, the coalition is holding and both parties have behaved professionally despite deep differences in philosophy. The government would be well served by ensuring that consensus holds and that it is the driving factor in decision-making, rather than simply window-dressing.

The Nobel Prize was not awarded because Tunisia accomplished an easy task—rather, it rewards the difficult challenge of overcoming differences to achieve a common goal for the good of the nation. The current government should not take its success for granted, but rather should use the Nobel Prize as a reminder of the hazards lurking under the surface. This is particularly salient as Tunisia prepares to embark on another crucial step in its transition: the municipal and regional elections planned for late 2016.

The Nobel Peace Prize should inspire pride in all Tunisians. The world has recognized the great feat accomplished, in particular, by Tunisian civil society despite doubts regarding democratic successes in Tunisia. Today, Tunisia has a unique opportunity to seize the momentum gained by the award, both to reexamine the lessons of the past and to galvanize the Tunisian people and the international community to give the country a needed boost to take the next step on the path toward full democratic consolidation.

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