TUNIS, Tunisia — It was the fall of 2013 and Tunisia’s newfound democracy was in grave danger. The assassination of a left-wing politician had prompted the opposition to walk out of the constitutional assembly. The government was paralyzed, the constitution unfinished and the country on the brink of war.
In nearby Egypt, which had followed Tunisia in a democratic revolution, a coup had just overthrown the Islamist government, and some sectors in Tunisia wanted to follow suit.
Then four civil society groups — the main labour union, the bar association, the employers’ association and the human rights league — stepped into the fray. Working together, they got the Islamists to agree to resign in favour of a caretaker government that would organize new elections, while the angry opposition returned to the table to complete the country’s constitution.
On Friday, that coalition — the National Dialogue Quartet — received the Nobel Peace Prize for its patient negotiating efforts, which carried Tunisia through an extended constitutional crisis and laid the groundwork for the only democracy that remains following the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.
The prize comes at an important time, as Tunisia faces a new crisis that is nearly as critical as the one it confronted in the fall of 2013: A pair of attacks against tourists earlier this year left more than 60 people dead, provoking fear and devastating Tunisia’s vital tourism sector, even as the faltering economy dragged support for the democratic process to historic lows.
The Nobel award also draws international attention to a region that is increasingly known more for the harrowing actions of the Islamic State group than the kind of compromise and negotiations that have allowed Tunisia to succeed.
The quartet was a long shot for the prize and none were more surprised than its actual members. Houcine Abbassi, the head of the labour union and the driving force in the 2013 negotiations, learned about the win from an Associated Press journalist.
“I am overwhelmed by this,” he said, recalling how the country had been on the brink of war. “It’s a prize that crowns more than two years of efforts deployed by the quartet when the country was in danger on all fronts.”
For months, Abbassi and his colleagues tried to convince the Islamist-led government and the opposition to sit down together and agree on a new government of technocrats to end the crisis.
Several times talks broke down but Abbassi never seemed to lose faith. In November 2013, after another walkout by the parties, he said “we do not believe in failure because the dialogue has to succeed — it is our destiny.”
In the end, despite acrimonious negotiations, the two sides agreed on a caretaker prime minister and government. Elsewhere in the region, war raged on in Syria, militias battled each other in Libya as politicians looked on helplessly and thousands were jailed in Egypt.
“(The quartet) established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war,” the Nobel Prize committee said in its citation.
In region known for violence and a belief in zero-sum power games, the quartet’s achievement in Tunisia stood out as a key Middle East exception, said Mohammed Fadhel Mafoudh, the head of the Bar Association that participated in the negotiations.
“It’s a message to all parties present in certain political conflicts, to tell them that everything can be settled with dialogue and all can be settled in a climate of peace. And that the language of weapons leads us nowhere,” he said.
The chairwoman of the Nobel committee, Kaci Kullmann Five, said the selection of Tunisia was made with a regional context in mind: “These are different countries but some of the main root causes of social upheaval often resemble each other.”
William Lawrence, the director of Middle East and North Africa for the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, said the prize shows the world that the democratic process is alive in Tunisia despite the twin threats of economic crisis and terrorist attacks.
“Tunisia proves that democracy is possible in the Arab world,” he said. “The international community now needs to step up and support the Tunisian government and the Tunisian people.”
Growth in 2015 for Tunisia is expected to be flat or negative while unemployment is over 15 per cent and inflation has been running around 6 per cent.
Lawrence’s organization estimates that the country needs some $5 billion in aid over the next few years to support an economy brought to its knees by attacks and has called for at least $800 million in aid from the U.S.
President Barack Obama had originally earmarked $134 million for Tunisia in 2015 but the Senate cut that by $50 million, though it could still be restored in conference.
Obama praised the Nobel winners on behalf of the American people.
“This brave coalition of workers, industry, lawyers and human rights advocates is an inspiring reminder that lasting peace and security can only be achieved when citizens are empowered to forge their own future and that democracy is both possible and necessary in the North Africa and the Middle East,” Obama said in a statement.
Tunisia’s revolution was sparked by the self-immolation of a young itinerant fruit seller after he was harassed by police and occurred against a backdrop of high unemployment and economic troubles that have yet to be solved by the new elected governments.
Many Tunisians complain that the revolution and democracy has brought them little improvements despite an increased freedom of expression, and young people in particular stayed away from the last election in droves.
Despite its small size, Tunisia provides the most foreign recruits to the armies of the Islamic State group, with estimates of more than 3,000 having left to fight in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
“Everyone in this country feels a heavy sense of negativity on the streets, it’s very common to hear things were better before the revolution,” said Monica Marks, a research fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Having an injection of positivity — a congratulations from the international community — is a really good thing.”