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Tunisian civil society – life behind the Nobel Prize

Though civil society organizations are allowed to operate, their recommendations are often sidelined to accommodate ‘security’-centric approaches to ‘counterterrorism’. 

'National dialogue' talks initiated by the UGTT, Tunis, 2013. 'National dialogue' talks initiated by the UGTT, Tunis, 2013. Demotix/ Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved. Tunisian civil society leaders winning the prize surprised both the world and the Tunisians. On October 9, 2015, when news of the attribution of the Peace Nobel Prize to the four civil society organizations forming the Tunisian Quartet - the Tunisian General Labor Union ( UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handcrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers - no one, including the majority of commentators, was expecting it. Many neither knew that the Quartet had been nominated for the Prize, or had heard about its existence prior to the announcement.

But it goes without saying that the majority of the Tunisians received the news happily and proudly - it comes just in time. The award comes as a message of hope and confidence to Tunisians. For us, the Prize is an acknowledgement of relentless and continuous efforts and sacrifices to get rid of a dictatorship. It is a kind of booster for our fledgling democratic process and a ray of hope for a country that has been struggling and resisting against all odds for almost five years.

It is a crowning achievement so far for the resistance of Tunisians in general and the Tunisian civil society in particular, a tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the country, to the wounded of the revolution and to every single person who has made a sacrifice for a better Tunisia.

Awarding the medal, Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairwoman Kaci Kullman declared: “More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries”.

Tunisian civil society helped us avoid civil war. In the summer 2013, when the tension was at its highest following two political assassinations and amidst a state of political lethargy and an economic decline as well as the growth of an underground extremist movement, the quartet laid the basis and guided a dialogue that manufactured consent and compromise between extremely adversarial political parties.

Later, when some communities staged a sit-in outside the headquarters of the Constituent Assembly in Bardo asking the government to step down, and the country was on the brink of a civil war, the Quartet intervened. It facilitated a dialogue and helped organize a new reconciliation government, the drafting of the constitution, and the first free transparent and fair legislative and presidential elections.

But despite the Quartet's achievements, we cannot forget two important points. First, the role of the civil society should not be limited to the period of the National Dialogue. Second, the winning of the Peace Nobel Prize should not overshadow the reality of things and the challenges that Tunisia and its civil society still has to face.

Since the departure of the dictator Ben Ali from Tunisia on January 14, 2011, civil society has continued to play an important and crucial role on different levels. The activities of civil society, once stifled by the authoritarian regime, flourished from the beginning of the revolution. It saved the country on numerous occasions and played the role of watchdog during the drafting of the constitution and the different stages of the democratic transition.

The militants of civil society have worked relentlessly and made a plethora of sacrifices to avoid the sad fate that other countries of the so called ‘Arab spring’ are experiencing today. Despite all those efforts and despite the semblance of the success of the Tunisian Revolution, crowned with a Nobel Peace Prize, several problems are still destabilizing the country. The revolution is far from being already ‘a success’. Just one day before the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel prize, a Tunisian politician was shot while he was driving his car in Sousse. Less than a week after the announcement of the Prize, a terrorist group executed two soldiers and a shepherd in Mount Semmama in Kasserine. The chaotic situation in neighbouring Libya continues to endanger Tunisia.

Terrorism is threatening our country. Tunisia has already been hit by two terrorist attacks targeting tourists in the middle of the year as well as by several deadly terrorist attacks targeting security and military forces in different parts of the Tunisian territory over the last four years. In 2013, two political assassinations targeted the leftist political leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. And while government security initiatives are necessary to work against these attacks, civil society has a critical role to play.

It is not “anti-terrorism” laws or reinforced borders that will prevent terrorist attacks in Tunisia. Civil society groups that target poverty, oppression, and help in the reform of the educational system are crucial. Most importantly, rights groups need to remain vigilant in the face of counterterrorism policies that will almost certainly usher in human rights violations.

Indeed, Tunisian and international human rights defense organizations continue to release reports of mistreatment, torture, and even suspicious deaths in police custody, police stations, and prisons. Violations of the articles of the Constitution, especially those related to freedoms and rights are a recurrent practice, and, disturbingly, are sometimes perpetrated in the name of increasing state security.

Though civil society organizations are allowed to operate with significantly more freedom and independence than they were under Ben Ali, their recommendations are often sidelined to accommodate ‘security’-centric approaches to ‘counterterrorism’.

The attribution of this Prize to Tunisian civil society should be welcomed and celebrated. It should renew Tunisian hopes, while not veiling the reality of life in Tunisia. The singling out of four civil society organizations cannot be taken as proof positive that all other civil society organisations are allowed to operate freely. What we can say is this. The prize is clear evidence that the international community values the work of Tunisian civil society – we need our government to do the same.

About the author

Lina Ben Mhenni is a Tunisian Internet activist, blogger and assistant lecturer in linguistics at Tunis University. She is, among Tunisia's prominent bloggers, one of few who blogged under her own name during the revolution. Mhenni has been awarded the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize, and will attend the 8th Dublin Platform hosted by Front Line Defenders this week.

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