External Affairs

Tunisia Wins the Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 has gone to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The quartet group includes the main Tunisian trade union (the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, or UGTT), the Tunisian employer’s association (UTICA), the Tunisian lawyers’ association (ONAT) and the Tunisian human rights association (LTDH).

The UGTT comprises 20% of Tunisia’s population. It is the most representative civil society organisation in the country. When the new period in Tunisia, after 2011, seemed to be on the verge of falling apart, the UGTT dragged its historical enemy, the employers’ association, and its allies in the human rights field to draw up a roadmap for the country. That roadmap, created by these social forces, handcuffed the political parties into a dialogue that led to the new constitution. It was the Tunisian working-class, therefore, that created the basis for stability in the new Tunisia. It is this working-class that has won the Nobel Prize for this year.

The classical gesture of the Nobel Committee would have been to honour the two main political luminaries, Rached Ghannouchi of the Islamist Ennahda Party and Beji Caid Essebi of the Nidaa Tounes Party. After all, when the former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country as a result of mass protests in 2011, it was the Ennahda – largely in exile – that seized the political opportunity. But the old order did not fall easily. Beji Caid Essebi had been appointed the interim Prime Minister. Between the Ennahda leadership and Essebi a modus vivendi was established, despite great rancour. After elections in October 2011, Essebi handed over power to the Ennahda candidate, Moncef Marzouki. Three years later, Essebi defeated Marzouki and is the current president. If the Nobel had been awarded in the conventional way, the prize would have gone to the leadership of Ennahda and Essebi for the peaceful transition from the reign of Ben Ali to the new dispensation based on the 2014 Constitution.

But that would not have captured the essence of what happened in Tunisia. When matters seemed bleak in 2013, it was not the political parties that broke the mould and aligned themselves to a peaceful path. That task was taken up by the Tunisian working class. The UGTT stretched out its arm to its historical adversary, the employers’ association, and to the two leaders in the rights movement, so that these four would be able to create a pathway – the roadmap – for their country.

A woman at the funeral of Chokri Belaid in February 2013 holds a photograph of the assassinated trade union leader. Credit: Sarah Mersch/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A woman at the funeral of Chokri Belaid in February 2013 holds a photograph of the assassinated trade union leader. Credit: Sarah Mersch/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Danger stalked their approach. Two important left leaders fell to the assassins’ bullets in 2013. Chokri Belaid of the Democratic Patriots’ Movement was shot dead on February 6 and Mohammed Brahimi of the Popular Front was assassinated on July 25. The Revolution of Freedom and Dignity – the name the Tunisians use to describe their accomplishment rather than the phrase ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which the Nobel committee uses in its citation – seemed to be moving into perilous waters. Anything could have happened. Strikes and protests were met with violence. Tunisia was on the knife’s edge.

It was at this point that the Quartet’s manoeuvre was essential. As the representatives of society, they forced the political parties to come to the table. Ghannouchi’s Ennahda had been accused of being behind the assassinations. This was the summer when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Morsi, was removed from power by a Western-backed coup in Egypt. Ennahda, which is allied to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was on the back foot. It also needed a way out. The forces led by Essebi, some of the old regime, knew that they could not crack down on the workers in the streets and on Ennahda. The army did not move on their behalf as it did against Morsi in Egypt. Tunisia required a compromise. That is what the Quartet delivered. Absent that, Tunisia might have gone down the road of Egypt. It was saved from that travesty.

Forces from outside Tunisia had also moved against the possibility of chaos. The IMF and the World Bank held back their loan guarantees if the parties did not come together and secure a Constitution. The political parties and the employers’ association had this pressure before them. The UGTT was able to get the employers to move because both faced different kinds of burdens. The employers needed to satisfy the IMF-World Bank and the trade unions needed to respond to the energy from the streets. While the trade unions were able to secure a roadmap for the Constitution, they could not determine the future of Tunisia. That remained in the hands of the employers and the two main political parties – all of whom are pledged to the IMF-World Bank neoliberal policy approach. The working class saved Tunisia from civil war, but it could not save Tunisia from the fate of social cannibalism.

The Nobel Committee understood precisely the role played by the Quartet. It noted that the Quartet “established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.” The award is to the Quartet, in which leadership was in the hands of the UGTT. But it is also for the Tunisian people, who have held fast against the fissiparous pressures that tore apart Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution.

Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and teaches at Trinity College.