The Nobel Committee’s announcement Friday had a bittersweet taste. With their surprise decision to grant the Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, the Committee unlocked the rusted gates of memory, flooding the present with images and emotions from the early days of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East, when we still used the words “Arab Spring” without a hint of irony.
This is the second time this decade that the world’s most prestigious award has gone to activists working to bring democracy to an Arab country. But awarding this year’s prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet reflects a maturing of the process against a backdrop of a regional crisis that reminds us that the stakes are even higher than we realized when the Arab Spring first exploded.
It began in December 2010 in Tunisia, before spreading across the region. The following year, Yemen’s Tawakul Karman, a key democracy activist, was selected as one of the Peace Prize winners. Since then, though, Yemen has descended into a catastrophic war. Meanwhile, other countries where the people rose up to topple dictators and demand democracy have also seen outcomes that seem to mock the high-minded efforts of those who launched the revolution.
Syria, for example, has become a killing field, a maelstrom of carnage and ideological poison that is now spilling into many other countries. Libya is also in turmoil, a failed state. Egypt, which followed Tunisia’s example in the earlier days of the uprisings, has reverted to harsh authoritarian rule.
And then there’s Tunisia — and this well-deserved, deeply poignant Nobel Peace Prize choice.
In choosing the Quartet — comprising the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers — the Nobel Prize committee seemed to be saying to the Middle East, “Look at Tunisia. It can work. It is possible to solve political differences without war.”
And by explaining that it was not awarding the prize to any single group but instead to the Quartet they formed, the Committee no doubt sought to highlight the inclusive nature of the Tunisian process, which, to the entire world’s astonishment, appears so far to be succeeding.
Remember, democratic success in that tiny North African country was never guaranteed, and at times it looked like it was about to go off the rails. And many challenges still remain. But thanks in large part to the Quartet’s carefully calibrated efforts, Tunisia has a good chance of showing the Arab world that democracy is possible.
This would be fitting, because it was a Tunisian man, the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who inadvertently launched the pro-democracy revolutions half a decade ago when he set himself on fire in despair over abuses from government officials. But although he could not have known what his act would spark, it quickly became clear that even a single vendor could shake the world.
Back then I wrote that “We didn’t need a gifted oracle, eminent historian or brilliant political scientist to tell us that the Mideast will one day undergo drastic changes. And we know that an earthquake in that part of the world can set off a giant tsunami. That’s why what happened in Tunisia matters everywhere.”
Yet the fact that the push for democratic change has succeeded in Tunisia while it has failed elsewhere owes much to the Quartet. That’s because there have been many times when Tunisia, too, seemed set to lose its way — two major democratic leaders were assassinated, Islamist parties and liberal activists clashed, and ISIS-linked terrorists have carried out mass-casualty terrorist attacks while recruiting thousands of Tunisians to fight in Syria.
So, when opposing political groups seemed unable to agree on the path forward, and when it seemed peaceful resolution of political disputes could not be reached, conflict looked possible. That is until the Quartet — made up of influential, respected but mostly non-political players — helped devise a path forward.
After guiding negotiations between Islamists, liberals, and others, the Quarter prodded all of Tunisia’s main political groups to sign on to the Road Map, which set out the way towards a transitional government, a new constitution, and a successful election. The process itself, meanwhile, arguably helped set the tone that made all the main players became more conciliatory, more willing to compromise even after elections were held.
Of course, Tunisia’s success to date is not only the result of the Quartet’s work — the country had better odds than any of its neighbors. Even before the Arab Spring, Tunisia, nestled on the Mediterranean Sea with a bustling European tourism industry, had one of the most liberal, most educated populations in the Arab Middle East. Even its Islamist party, Ennahda, was more flexible than most of its counterparts in the region.
And yet, Tunisia also faced, as it still does, many of the same problems that doomed other revolutions, including high levels of corruption, ideological extremism, and deep economic problems. History suggests that any celebration of democratic progress should be tempered because there are no guarantees for Tunisia, and there is faint optimism for other countries struggling with war. But all that said, today is still a moment to celebrate the way in which the Tunisia Quartet has demonstrated inspiring, indigenous, method of conflict revolution.
The Nobel Peace Prize has shone a bright spotlight on the Quartet’s work, and the way it has itself sent a small ray of light across the Middle East. In doing so, it has revived memories of a more hopeful time, and dares to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the optimism of the past can bear fruit in the future.
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.