North Africa, West Asia

What is Tunisia's Nobel prize rewarding?

By reassuring the political and economic elite and backing the privatisation operation led by sponsors and donors, this Nobel peace prize could well be one for ‘social peace at all costs’.

Hèla Yousfi Choukri Hmed
25 October 2015
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Demotix/Yann Bohac. All rights reserved.

The awarding of the 2015 Nobel peace prize to the 'Tunisian national dialogue quartet' has boosted morale in the region. As writer Guy Sorman explains, the solution to the current unrest in the Arab world will not be found in reforms to Islam or in hopeless military interventions, but through to a regional dialogue that restores political and economic freedoms. 

But what is the significance of the prize in the current context? The quartet’s member organisations undoubtedly helped preserve the new constitution and avert civil war, but are socially and politically distant from the principles of the 'jasmin revolution'. Minor economic and political changes to the Ben Ali regime are inadequate, and Tunisia, the pioneer of the ‘Arab Spring’, is still in part seen as ‘the exception’—as it was during the Ben Ali dictatorship—in a region devastated by foreign interventions and civil wars.

The nomination of the Tunisian national dialogue—led by a quartet comprising the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (Utica, employers’ union); the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH); and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for the 2015 Nobel peace prize was met with a chorus of praise and self-righteousness in Tunisia and abroad. Here are the facts: after the October 2011 elections, which led to the Islamist party Ennahdha gaining power alongside the two other parties of the troika, both the national constituent assembly and the government became targets of increasingly harsh criticism. While field marshal El Sisi was obliterating the memory of regime change in Egypt, in Tunisia the increasing number of political assassinations and the negligence of the government fanned the flames of an unprecedented dispute, shaking the troika’s legitimacy.

At the initiative of the National Salvation Front, composed of Nidaa Tounes (a conservative party formed primarily of seniors from the previous regime) and the Popular Front (far left), the Bardo sit-in demanded—over the course of the summer of 2013—the collapse of government and dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. Three groups, each claiming their own legitimacy, thus confronted one another: the Islamists and their allies, strengthened by their electoral legitimacy; the protest and social movements which glorified themselves through revolutionary legitimacy; and the previous regime leaders along with part of the partisan left who invoked consensual legitimacy in order to escape crisis and return to power.

It is the last group that prevailed. In this context of political crisis, UGTT succeeded in reviving the ‘national dialogue’ initiative it had proposed in June 2012, this time allying itself with Utica and two other longstanding civil institutions—a move which garnered them local and international backing as architects of the national consensus. Despite coming under criticism for challenging the weak institutions brought to power by the elections, the quartet managed, with the collaboration of every social and political force in the country, to neutralise the risk to the constituent assembly (the only body reflecting the people's will).

This move led to the adoption of the new constitution, and also succeeded in dispelling the phantom of civil war. At the same time, it contributed to a division of power between two political adversaries, the elites of the old regime and the Islamists, which explains—to some degree—their current alliance in government. Consequently, this compromise was rightfully seen by a large part of Tunisia as a negation of their choices as expressed through the ballot boxes, and as a diversion from the economic and social demands that were so critical to the revolutionary process.

The president of the republic, Béji Caïd Essebsi, and his supporters had the good fortune to see the Nobel Prize sanctioning the typically Tunisian 'consensual solutions': but this exhilaration can not conceal the blatant and frequent infringements written into the constitution as well as on public liberties.

Thus, the recent law on terrorism blithely violates human rights, while the national ‘economic reconciliation’ draft bill aims to destroy the legal institutions and mechanisms of transitional justice in order to whitewash businessmen and leaders accused of corruption. The declaration of the state of emergency, lifted only recently, had authorised a return to the security monitoring of social movements, which translated into an increase in torture and abuse cases. It confirms the unprecedented increase in corruption at the heart of the interior ministry cited by NGO's, even though the reform of this “state within a state” is one of the central demands of the revolution of 17 December 2010. Ultimately, this securitisation has failed to distract from the paltry social and economic advances made by the current government. There was never a rupture with the Ben Ali model.

The Nobel Prize's celebration of the political role played by the alliance of “employees and employers”—represented by the collaboration in national dialogue between UGTT and Utica—sounds, in effect, like a caution to all the fractions of the middle and working classes who hope for a more just and decent life. However, while Utica represents a network of businessmen at the service of power, UGTT is the only space for collective action that has been able—for better or worse—to materialise social advances.

Even though since 2011 its political role has taken priority over its social mission, the trade union has been torn between one wing extolling negotiations with political and economic elites in exchange for a few salary increases, and another more radical wing pushing the organisation to act on national social issues such as unemployment, the fight against the privatisation of public services prescribed by the ratification of the free exchange treaty with the EU, and respect of the right to employment. But those who were present at the birth of the dignity revolution (and not, as the Nobel Prize committee put it, the “jasmin revolution”) have not yet had their last word.

Translated from French by Asher Korner. Originally published as 'Que récompense le Nobel?' in Libération on 14 October 2015.

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