The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition of four distinct civil society groups that came together in 2013 and ultimately brokered a deal that kept Tunisia on the path to democracy.
Despite some criticism, the quartet managed to keep the promise of the Arab Spring alive there, unlike in neighboring countries: Libya, a nation that has faced two civil wars; Egypt, which has returned to brutal military rule; and Syria, where there seems to be no foreseeable end to the bloody civil war.
But Tunisia’s democratic future is not yet assured.
“This great news is one of celebration for the achievements of civil society and the quartet,” Amna Guellali, a leading activist in Tunisia and Human Rights Watch researcher said. “But the celebration should not overshadow the many challenges and underlying problems that still lie at heart of transition while Tunisia is still very fragile and vulnerable.”
There are two pieces of legislation that alarm civil society activists: a counterterrorism law that was passed in July and an economic reconciliation bill that has been proposed by the government but not yet voted on.
After the June 26 terrorist attack at a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia’s government faced valid criticism for not improving security measures after an earlier attack, March 18, at the Bardo Museum. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks, although the government blamed a local al Qaeda affiliate.
The parliament responded by passing a counterterrorism law that included security measures meant to address the rising threats from radical Islamists. It includes prerogatives for security forces to detain individuals for up to 15 days incommunicado, conduct broad surveillance, and intercept communications. It also criminalizes “denigration” of security forces without detailing specifically what that means. These resemble security measures under the former dictator.
The other law, proposed by President Beji Caïd Essebsi and his cabinet this summer, would arguably give a free pass to many of the business and government figures widely seen to have contributed to the economic injustices that led to the Tunisian revolution in the first place.
The bill would allow individuals accused of financial corruption and embezzlement of public funds to simply pay what they stole from the government in exchange for the dropping of all charges and freedom to work in any government institution, “as long as such acts did not seek to achieve personal gain.”
Al Jazeera English quoted Samia Abbou, a member of parliament from the opposition Congress for the Republic Party (CRP) saying the law “could lead to the return of dictatorship.”
“If the law passes, from a symbolic point, it will send the wrong message to the world after winning the Nobel,” said Guellali. “The Nobel was a message of hope that only inclusive democracy with civil society is a way forward, and this law on impunity will send the opposite message that we are accepting corruption to give broad impunity to those who stole the wealth of this nation, like a last stroke for the Tunisian revolution.”
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the quartet — composed of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers – “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”
When fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame in the fall of 2010, he sparked a revolution that in January 2011 ultimately ousted Tunisia’s dictator of 24 years, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. Tunisians took to the streets demanding social and economic justice and an end to the government’s financial corruption and cronyism. When democratic elections took place in October of that year, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda — composed of many individuals who were persecuted under the deposed dictator — was elected into power.
However, by the summer of 2013, two opposition leaders had been assassinated, and their killers remained on the loose. After Tunisian activists, lawmakers, and citizens again went to the streets in protest, the National Dialogue Quartet was formed.
The quartet was intended to bring individuals from across civil society together to find a way to reconcile the Tunisian public’s demands for accountability with the democratically elected government, and in that way preventing the democracy from being dismantled. They succeeded.
In December 2013, the quartet reached a deal with the ruling Ennahda party. Ennahda would hand over its power to a technocratic government after the adoption of a constitution, while the party would still hold its seats in the National Constituent Assembly, where it held a majority. The new technocratic government would then make arrangements for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in the fall of 2014.
Now, Guellali said, “I’m cautiously optimistic. … We are not off the hook. In light of the Nobel that awarded civil society’s achievements in Tunisia, the strength of our civil society must prove itself now more than ever now that everybody’s watching.”
Kiran Alvi is a multimedia journalist currently based in Washington, after working for two years in Tunisia. You can follow her on Twitter @kiranalvi.
Caption: A protester wearing a Tunisian flag, makes his way past closed shops in the Casbah toward sporadic gunfire in Tunis, Tunisia, on Saturday, February 26, 2011.