All eyes are on Tunisia again, with the recent award of the 2015 Nobel peace prize to its civil society organizations. The award—which honored the efforts of four Tunisian organizations in brokering a peaceful resolution to the political impasse and social unrest that emerged in the wake of the assassinations of politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi—has profound significance for Tunisia and the world. For Tunisians, winning the Nobel Prize evoked a great sense of pride, but it also stirred up profound concerns about the fate of their budding political transition.
Bestowing the prize to Tunisia and its four civil society institutions represents the international community's appreciation for the efforts undertaken to ingrain the principle of consensus as a fundamental pillar of governance in the new Tunisia. It is also a categorical sign of the pivotal role of civil society in building the present and shaping the future, especially in light of the complex and troubling political shifts that are plaguing not only Tunisia, but the Arab region as a whole.
The four civil society organizations that won the prize include the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA, Union Tunisienne de l'Industrie, du Commerce et de l'Artisanat), the Tunisian Human Rights League (La Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme), and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers (Ordre National des Avocats de Tunisie). Together, they came to be known as the quartet that sponsored the dialogue. In its statement, the Nobel Committee highlighted the quartet’s “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia”, pulling the country back from the brink of chaos and violence, by laying the foundations for a national dialogue, in which 21 parties of different political persuasions participated. This dialogue set the course for establishing equal citizenship and justice as fundamental principles for Tunisia's new constitution, and for defining the relationship between the post-Ben Ali state with its citizens, and amongst different societal groups. The dialogue also facilitated the organization of presidential and legislative elections and enabled the peaceful transition of power.
However, this consensus is under threat today.
The political landscape emerging from the last elections consecrated the secular party Nidaa Tounes as the country’s major political actor. Indeed, Nidaa controls the country’s vital political positions, including the presidency of both the republic and the parliament, while an independent figure, who is close to the party, heads the council of ministers. Nidaa Tounes’s choice to adopt a consensus-based approach to politics means that the government comprises a coalition of the top four winning parties in the parliamentary elections, including the Islamist Ennahdha movement.
Political divisions within Nidaa Tounes threaten to topple the government, especially the conflict between the left and the constitutional wings of the party represented respectively by the Secretary General of the party Mohsen Marzouk, and Hafez Caid Essebsi, President Essebsi’s son, and the party’s vice-president. The recent resignation of pro-Marzouki Minister Azhar Akrami from the government under the pretext that his party is incapable of confronting "rampant corruption," is but the latest manifestation of this conflict. Meanwhile, many party members are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Habib Essid because he has not met the hopes and expectations of Tunisians. They advocate the replacement of the prime minister by a strong party candidate who is not constrained by the rules of consensus building imposed on the current government, especially with respect to the Ennahdha party.
The fragmentation within Nidaa Tounes would make Ennahdha the principle political player in the country, and this in spite of the latter’s own internal divisions. Indeed, Ennahdha is broadly divided into two groups. The first group defends the party's participation in the government and its partnership with Nidaa Tounes as the best strategy to protect the party from political marginalization and to ensure that its priorities are accounted for in decisionmaking processes. The second group, reflecting regional and local considerations, fears that Ennahdha is losing its credibility by participating in the government. However, the cohesion of Ennahdha is currently not at stake, due to the status that the party’s Secretary General Rached Ghannouchi enjoys among Tunisians as a religious, moral and political authority.
The quartet may also fragment due to the evident divergence between UGTT and UTICA on economic issues. UTICA enjoys considerable political support because a sizeable number of its members, who belong to active political parties including Nidaa Tounes, have been able to influence decisionmaking. A central part of the UGTT–UTICA dispute centres on the structural reforms required to boost the Tunisian economy and to lay the foundations for social justice, which was a primary impetus for the Tunisian revolution. This includes the necessary reform of fiscal and pricing policies, basic goods subsidies, private sector wage increases and others. Currently, UTICA’s economic vision dominates the government’s five-year development strategy. This includes prioritizing partnerships between the private and public sectors, and reviewing investment codes. In parallel, UTICA has refused to discuss ways to address demands for increase in private sector wages.
Meanwhile, the government has proposed a controversial economic national reconciliation project that aims to accelerate the closure of financial corruption files and bolster trust in the country's investment structure. The proposed law has garnered considerable criticism for enshrining impunity and violating the Constitution by overstepping the legislative authority and the Truth and Dignity Commission, which is officially in charge of transitional justice files in Tunisia. In a historical precedent, the UGTT threatened to go on general strike in the public and private sectors, indicating the extent of the current crisis between the two blocs of the quartet.
Granting the Nobel prize to Tunisian civil society is a recognition of its primary role as a key partner in formulating and implementing the political vision for a post Ben Ali Tunisia. This is particularly important at a time when Tunisians are being asked to trade off their freedoms, which are enshrined in the Tunisian Constitution, for security and stability. Calls to prioritize security and the economy at the expense of basic freedoms went as far as the president of UTICA Ouided Bouchamaoui, demanding the prevention and even criminalization of all demonstrations. The security forces have also closed several institutions under the pretext of an alleged relationship with the Salafi organization Ansar al-Sharia. Collectively, such actions threaten the individual rights of Tunisians, including the right to demonstrate for better economic rights or to express social discontent.
These accelerating developments point to the potential outbreak of a fierce conflict among the various parties, stripping the political elite of their ability to govern effectively. It may also hasten the pace of economic decline and increase the chance for security breaches such as those observed months ago in Sousse and the Bardo Museum in Tunis. The upcoming 2016 elections, including municipal elections as well as those planned for the UGTT raise fears that candidates will favor populist policies to garner political support. The municipal elections, if not undermined by political bargaining, offer an opportunity to involve local communities in identifying their priorities and formulating their developmental agenda.
The Nobel prize is a vibrant reminder to everyone, especially Tunisia’s peacemakers of the importance of consensus during this critical phase of the country’s history. It encourages them not to disregard public interest, especially that of ordinary Tunisian men and women, in favor of the narrow interests of a political elite. Such actions would only reproduce the political and economic dynamics of the era of Ben Ali.