Tunisia certainly deserves a Nobel Peace prize for being the only democratic success story in the wake of the Arab revolts. The political, economic, and security challenges of 2011 until now have been exceptionally tough. Shaking off decades of a Western-backed dictatorship was also (and still is) a huge challenge. Despite all of this, significant advances were made in creating a democratic structure of governance and a culture that Tunisians can be proud of; it’s one that provides a model for the world, not just the Middle East.
But there is a key problem with the Nobel Committee’s announcement on Friday that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet had won the prestigious award: The main actors who actually protested in the streets—those who made excruciating compromises, then facilitated a voluntary step-down, and then handed over power in early 2014—were actually the democratically-elected representatives of Tunisia and their political party leaders, not the four NGOs that ostensibly “steered” the negotiation process.
Indeed, if the Committee really wanted to show that “Islamist and secular political movements can work together to achieve significant results in the country’s best interests,” the logical choice would have been the leading Islamist party, An-Nahda, and any number of their “secularist” coalition allies, or perhaps even their current partner in government, the Nidaa Tounes party, which currently holds a plurality in the parliament, the presidency, and the prime ministership. In fact, this is exactly the duo that the International Crisis Group is recognizing in their annual Peacemakers celebration later this fall.
Additionally, one should not forget that the Quartet, which includes the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, is in significant ways part and parcel of the dictatorship era, with some of its four components not only occasionally offering opposition, but also sometimes standing in as regime support-bases—the very structures that helped keep key sectors of the Tunisian body politic and economy frozen in the monopolistic mold that many Tunisians found frustrating and oppressive.
As the Oxford University scholar Monica Marks explained in Foreign Policy in late 2013, there were also a number of problems with the Quartet’s stewardship of the whole dialogue and negotiation process (full disclosure, I helped co-direct the annual Tunis Exchange politics conference). Marks wrote:
“…important flaws [in] the National Dialogue process—flaws that, rather ironically, also plagued the NCA’s [National Constituent Assembly] constitutional drafting work. Like the NCA, the dialogue failed to adopt a robust public outreach plan. Communication with average Tunisians about what was actually happening inside the dialogue, its procedures, and the motivations behind its decisions was almost non-existent. Tunisian citizens, along with local journalists and NGOs trying to follow the negotiations, often found themselves confounded about what was happening behind closed doors. Foreign journalists, as indicated by the almost complete absence of coverage on Tunisia over the past few months, largely gave up trying to cover the dialogue, or found editors back home uninterested in detailed reports on Tunisian political wrangling—however important that political wrangling was for Tunisia’s future. I often confided in fellow Tunisia-watchers that, even as a person living here and speaking almost daily with parties involved in the negotiations, I often felt ignorantly mute—like a sportscaster stranded outside the stadium.
“Like the NCA, the National Dialogue repeatedly failed to honor self-imposed deadlines, operating on an amorphous timetable that Tunisians quickly began to treat with a grain of salt. Whether or not the dialogue should have been declared illegitimate on November 3, a day after it had promised to choose its nominee for prime minister, and a new, technocratic dialogue should have taken over is a tongue-in-cheek question that rarely elicits laughter from Nidaa Tounes supporters. “It’s totally different [from the NCA],” a leading candidate for prime minister who had been supported by Nidaa Tounes told me. “The dialogue is informal. The NCA is an official body that made an official promise. It’s different.
“Frustration with political parties across the board—and with the indecipherable, seemingly endless politicking going on inside the National Dialogue—grew steadily amongst Tunisians through the dialogue process. It seemed to many that this new, more “technocratically legitimate” body shared the same time management problems as the NCA, and may have been even less transparent about its internal procedures…”
Eventually, of course, the process came to a head and an agreement was forged that ended up facilitating the approval of a new Constitution and fresh elections, among other positive outcomes. All of these advancements are laudable, but the Quartet was a vehicle in the process, with the real sacrifices made by the political leaders and elected officials.
Furthermore, the Quartet is also mainly responsible for installing the notion that whenever matters get tough, one can and should go outside of democratic governance structures (like an elected Parliament) and sit with NGOs and whoever else can muscle their way into the back room to hammer out compromises.
Viewed in this sense, one can also say that the Quartet process may actually represent one of the main inflection points when democratic structures were elided and therefore weakened. Given the robust comeback of the old “parallel state” in Tunis—the de facto authority in the country before the revolution and now re-ascendant—perhaps we should look at the Quartet’s role from 2013 to 2014 as yet another moment when Tunisia and its external backers failed to replace the parallel state, composed of the security sector, some business elites, and the local mafia, with a durable democratic framework. As I argued in Tablet in September, this may yet prove to be a fatal flaw for Tunisia and the wider Mediterranean region.