A selective Nobel Peace Prize for few Tunisians

Beside the important role played by the Tunisian Quartet, the decision to award them with the Nobel Peace Prize is a reinforcement of the Western comfortable narrative of secular civil society actors as the only promoters of democratic processes in the region.

Secular civil society organisations rallying in Tunis in June 2011

When Autumn approaches, we know the Norwegian Nobel committee is going to take the decision for the most important of its prices. After awarding Yemen activist Tawakkul Karman in 2011, the mainstream peace prize went again to another of the region actors involved in the Arab Spring, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Many considered the prize as an award for the whole Tunisian civil society and as an achievement in Tunisians struggle toward democracy. But it is not a prize for all Tunisians. Many of them, even if they made prominent contributions to Tunisia successful transition, have been left behind.

By picking up for the prize the Tunisian Quartet, the committee especially underlined “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy.” The Quartet was established in a moment the country was in a particularly polarized situation, with political assassinations, social unrests and serious risks of Tunisia following the other countries of the region toward chronicle instability. The Quartet prompted the dialogue among political actors and fixed political objectives, and indeed helped the country by-pass a risky situation. But at the same time, conscious of its mobilization power, it treated the elected Troika government to abide with the plan or face street protests and the country paralysis. The Quartet stance needs to be considered in light too of the events occurred earlier in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood government declined to abandon power, had to face street protests, a military coup d’état and then a violent repression. The Quarter started operating just after the shocking Egyptian events, but the Norwegian committee avoided considering similarities between the cases and its possible influence in Tunisia.

But it is when the prize committee explained the Quartet role as a mediator “to advance peaceful democratic development in Tunisia with great moral authority”, that the award highlights its inclination toward a selective narrative far from reality on the ground. Main troubles come not with the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) or the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, who always had a coherent stance against authoritarianism and in defense of the independence of civil society during and after Ben Ali era. It is the morality of the main actors of the Quartet which is under scrutiny: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA). UGTT, a workers organization which historically always played a political and social role in Tunisia, was already, even before the conformation of the Quartet, in an open political confrontation with Ennahda, the Islamist party and major player within the Troika. As it was possible to corroborates in the last years through several interviews in Tunis with activists and members of its executive bureau, UGTT has been promoting within the country and abroad the idea of being the main force behind the ousting of Ben Ali. It is no coincidence that ast year too it was launched its candidature for the peace prize, just alone, and finally unsuccesful. Instead, major players of the uprising have been its affiliates, who operated as single individuals, or its regional offices, and not its heads or secretary general, who have been always compromised with the regime. Also since 2011, UGTT intermittently used its mobilization power, not exclusively to defend workers’ rights, but mainly as a political threat and in order to maintain its voice strong in the country main political decisions. UTICA, the organization of Tunisian entrepreneurs, has been and it is still the field of action for many remnants of the Ben Ali era, a regime which has been characterized for being highly corrupted and conducting mafia style businesses. In Norway, political motivations behind the Quartet stance were not taken into consideration.

Even if the committee mentioned the importance of the positive dialogue between Islamists and secular party, a deserved prize for all Tunisians just went to the Quartet organizations. By choosing the Quartet and the political role played by their heads, it voluntarily left behind other main forces who contributed to Tunisian successful transition: common people and revolutionaries of the first days, and elected Islamic movements, both representing a consistent part of Tunisians. Common people, revolutionaries and small organizations have been the core of the uprising and they kept eyes open on the transition process since Ben Ali left for Jeddah. Beside mistakes and wrongdoings since their election in 2011, the Troika, but Ennahda in particular, found itself under threat and voluntarily left power. The party retreated then to a low profile position in name of survival and the nation good. Something the committee should have given more credit.

In a still polarized Tunisian political situation, implicitly favoring one side, the secular one, while marginating others, represents another Western mistake in the region. Unfortunately the prize is not an homage to the Arab Spring, but just to some of the actors actively involved in the uprising and its transitional process, the ones that better fit a Nobel Western and eurocentric narrative. Definitely not the most representatives.