This year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy… in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” The Quartet is a group of four organizations—two national labor unions, a business group, and a lawyers’ association—whose work helped prevent Tunisia from sliding into civil war in the years following that “revolution.”
Seeing the peace prize go to an organization that actually seems to have kept the peace is cheering news in a month that witnessed the military of one former Nobel laureate destroying a hospital run by another winner. Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) certainly earned its 1999 Peace Prize by providing medical services to people in more than 80 countries, often working in some of the most dangerous places on earth. On the other hand, as far as anyone can tell, a weary Nobel committee gave Barack Obama his prize in 2009 mostly for not being George W. Bush.
Tunisia, home of this year’s winners, is the country where the Arab Spring began when a vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death after the police confiscated the cart from which he made his living. His lingering death catalyzed a variety of social forces demanding an end to the US-backed dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. These included young people, students, and workers—all with deep economic grievances—as well as human rights supporters and some Islamists who hoped to see the country adopt a version of Sharia law. On January 14, 2011, 10 days after Bouazizi’s death and under popular pressure, Ben Ali gave up power and accepted asylum in Saudi Arabia.
In October 2011, Tunisia held parliamentary elections. A right-wing religious party, al-Nahda (“Renaissance”), took 37% of the vote and formed a coalition government with two other parties, one on the left and the other composed of secular liberals. Hamadi Jebali, a solar energy scientist and member of al-Nahda, became the first prime minister. He later stepped down when fellow party members pressured him to abandon his efforts to build a coalition government of national unity in favor of a more explicitly Islamist approach.
In the following years, while the al-Nahda party continued to rule, several prominent left-wing politicians were assassinated, for which the far right-wing Islamist militia Ansar al-Shariah claimed responsibility. Unhappy with the Islamist turn of their revolution and furious at what they saw as the government’s inaction after the assassination of leftwing Popular Front politician Mohamed Brahmi, Tunisians once again took to the streets. There, as Juan Cole wrote shortly afterwards, they staged “enormous demonstrations.” Unions, women’s organizations, and student groups all demanded that al-Nahda step down in favor of a more neutral, technocratic government.