Nobel Peace Prize Highlights Conflict Resolution Role of NGOs in Tunisia

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet of Tunisian NGOs who in 2013, when the country was on the brink of civil war, provided for negotiations among socio-political factions leading to more inclusive and democratic structures for the country. The National Dialogue Quartet were the representatives of the General Union of Tunisian Workers, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers − all non-governmental Organizations (NGOs).

The transition from the 23-year rule of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali began on December 17, 2010 with the suicide-protest of the young Mohamed Bouazizi, a college-educated street vender, and the police repression at his funeral.

Tunisia under Ben Ali was a police state in the literal sense of the word. There was a constant presence of the police with arrests, lengthy interrogations, torture and for those with luck, exile. The press and other media were closely watched and in some cases owned by the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family. The Trabelsi are the family of Ben Ali’s powerful wife, Leila, and held important business positions.

Tunisia had had only two presidents since the end of the French Protectorate in 1956. The first was Habib Bourguiba and his Destourian Socialist Party. At independence, the literacy rate was about 15 percent, but many of those considered literate had received only limited education at traditional Koranic schools and could not read secular works. In 1958, Bourgiba initiated educational reforms and a vast program of building schools and universities leading Tunisia to having today a well-educated Middle Class. Bourguiba also stressed education and employment for women saying “Female workers must be trained and given jobs. Work contributes to female emancipation. By her labor, a woman or young girl assumes her existence and becomes conscious of her dignity.”

Jobs in government and the private sector opened to the newly educated by the departure of the majority of the French, Jewish and Italian populations between 1956 and 1966. There was also a significant possibility of migration to Europe, especially to France, until the mid-1970s after which it became more difficult to get work permits.

In November 1987, Bourguiba named Ben Ali Prime Minister. Ben Ali, a General, came from the military and had no well-developed ideology or policy. Thus he continued the economic and social policies of Bourguiba. Shortly after having been named, in what has been called a “medical coup,” Ben Ali said that Bourguiba’s mental and physical health had made him incapable of governing. Ben Ali auto-proclaimed himself president promising to revitalize the country which had fallen into stagnation as Bourguiba had become increasingly senile but refused to delegate authority.

Ben Ali continued Bourguiba’s major policies. An emphasis was placed on developing tourism, but this opened relatively few jobs for the educated and led to speculation on land. The agricultural sector, especially in the central and south of the country, had more people employed than needed for the level of production. From an economic point of view, there was a migration to the cities and larger towns of the coastal area in a frustrating search for suitable occupations. The unemployment rate was high, and among the educated youth, unemployment, lack of social mobility and the flashy life-style of those with links to political power led to demands for change. The demands centered on the creation of jobs and an end to wide-spread and highly-visible corruption. The popular demands centered on the creation of jobs and an end to wide-spread and highly-visible corruption.

Under Ben Ali, there were no real political party structures. Even the party of the President had only a name but no real structure. Into the political void after the January 14, 2011 departure of Ben Ali for Saudi Arabia came socio-political factions, some of whose leaders had been long in exile abroad. Some were Islamic; other more secular; others had served Ben Ali but had needed administrative and business experience, and still others wanted change but had a minimum of ideological coloring. There was no opposition leader who stood out as a “natural” next President.

In 2013, there were several “high profile” assassinations of political leaders followed by demonstrations and violence. The danger of socio-economic disintegration was real. It was then that long-structured NGOs became active in conflict resolution efforts. The trade union movement had existed even prior to independence in 1956 with leaders trained by the French trade union movement. The Tunisian trade union leaders were used to some degree of collective bargaining and structured negotiations. The Tunisian trade union leaders turned to their natural opponents but dialogue partners of the Confederation of Industry. In turn, the economic actors associated the legal profession to the effort − the Order of Lawyers and the Human Rights League.

Representatives of the four groups started taking contacts concerning a new constitutional structure, election rules, the type of new laws needed. They worked to see on what topics negotiations and compromise were possible. Above all, they stressed that violence was counter-productive, would destroy the confidence needed for external investments, and would harm tourism − an important element of the Tunisian economy.

As a result of these efforts, there is a new constitution, laws which respect human rights, and a degree of “power sharing” of administrative posts among political factions. There is still a good deal of socio-political instability and little economic change. However, organized violence is rare, and there is a willingness for dialogue and compromise among groups − unlike the conditions in Libya and Egypt which had changes in government during the same period.

Thus the committee in Norway which selects the Nobel Peace Prize laureates has highlighted the patient, persistent conflict-resolution work of NGO representatives. The prize this year does not honor a well-known political figure as has often been the case in the past nor an intergovernmental organization such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. As has been said, the prize is also a recognition of the Tunisian people as a whole who were willing to step back from violence, to negotiate and to compromise − a reflection of the cry of the anti-Ben Ali revolution -”Liberty-Work-Dignity.”


Rene Wadlow is President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.