The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on Thursday to four civil society groups who led Tunisia’s transition to democracy, though the country has now been plunged into a state of emergency as it battles the threat of jihadism. After a suicide attack on a bus belonging to the president’s security entourage that killed 12 people on November 24, authorities enforced a night-time curfew in Tunis, temporarily closed the Libyan border, and announced a state of emergency, for the second time this year.
These developments illustrate just how fragile the country’s prizewinning democracy process is. In honouring the National Dialogue Quartet, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted to shine the spotlight on Tunisia as a rare success story to emerge from the Arab Spring, the movement of popular uprisings that started in the country. Formed in 2013 when the process of democratisation was in danger of collapsing because of widespread social unrest, the quartet established an alternative, peaceful political process as Tunisia was on the brink of civil war. It is made up of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the Human Rights League and the Order of Lawyers.
A bloody year
While the wave of Arab Spring uprisings has led to chaos in neighbouring Libya, Yemen and Syria, and to the return of repression in Egypt, Tunisia adopted a new constitution in January 2014 and held democratic elections at the end of last year. The Tunisian example has demonstrated that “Islamist and secular political movements can work together to achieve significant results in the country’s best interests”, Nobel committee chief Kaci Kullmann Five said after the prize was announced on October 9. But almost five years after the ousting of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the threat of jihadism hangs heavily over Tunisia. Two other major attacks had rocked the country before last month’s bombing of the presidential guard bus, for which the ISIS claimed responsibility. In March, 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and 38 tourists were killed in a beach resort massacre in June. Last month, a group claiming to be part of IS also slit the throat of a 16-year-old shepherd they accused of being an informant for authorities. And last week, the interior ministry announced the arrest of two jihadists suspected of planning suicide attacks. A UN working group has meanwhile estimated at 5 500 the number of Tunisians who have left to fight in Syria, Iraq and Libya, making the country one of the biggest jihadist breeding grounds. A quartet divided The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at Oslo’s City Hall on Thursday comes as two members of the quartet, the UGTT union and the employers’ organisation UTICA, are at odds over private sector salary increases. “It is possible that the quartet will go to Oslo without UTICA and UGTT having reached an agreement. It would have been preferable to reach an agreement but they (UTICA) are insisting on salary hikes of around five percent,” one of UGTT’s deputy secretary generals, Belgacem Ayari, told AFP. UTICA official Khalil Ghariani said the country’s “difficult economic situation” made it impossible to push wages higher. Pointing to the recent spate of attacks, he added: “We’ve been hit three times this year.” The disagreement has tarnished the group’s efforts. “At the very moment when Tunisia needs unity, harmony, and certainty more than ever to counter the terrorist threat, our two Nobel laureates continue, in despair, to fuel division, suspicion, doubt, and misunderstanding,” Tunisian newspaper La Presse wrote on Monday. “The announcement of these failed negotiations risks once again plunging the entire country into a cycle of social instability.” Regardless, the Tunisians won’t be leaving Oslo empty-handed after Thursday’s ceremony. While the quartet as such is the entity being honoured with the official Nobel gold medal, the Nobel Institute has agreed to also give four solid gold replicas to each of the four individual organisations… but at their own expense.