People Power in Tunisia and the Nobel Peace Prize

Published on Nov 27, 2015 by Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos

Filed under: Tunisia

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Behind the Nobel Peace Prize that was recently awarded for 2015 to four civil society trailblazers in Tunisia stand millions of ordinary unsung Tunisians who deserve recognition. Without them the hands of the National Dialogue Quartet would have been tied.

I spent five months in Tunisia in 2012 and saw the strengths of the country. It has a well-educated population, its people believe in pluralism, and it has a vibrant civil society base.

Ordinary people feel they have rights and are prepared to fight for them. In the spring of 2012, for example, Ennahda, the ruling Islamic minority government, announced it intended to base the new constitution on sharia law.

Under sharia, women would have lost the equality they had gained from legislation passed in 1957 by the first Tunisian president after independence from the French. Also, a state dominated by Islam would have killed the idea of a secular, pluralistic society.

I was in a crowd of thousands who came out in the capital of Tunis to say NO.

Two weeks later, Ennahda dropped the idea.

After two assassinations of leftist political leaders and months of violent disruptions by extremists, in 2013 Tunisians flooded the streets in protest.

They accused the ruling Islamist government of being soft on fundamentalist Salafists who had invaded the mosques and had unemployed youth under their influence. Three thousand young Tunisians had joined Al Qaeda or affiliates in Syria and Iraq and some were returning to cause trouble.

Dégage,” meaning , they cried out from across the country. The opposition walked out of the constituent assembly. The country was falling apart and the population had had enough.

Without massive street protests, the National Dialogue Quartet composed of leaders from labour, business, law and human rights organizations would have had no legitimacy. They could never have pushed Ennahda to resign and then negotiate to allow a transitional administration to take power until a new election.

A constitution respecting rights was passed in January 2014 largely because of support by opposition members in the legislative assembly, pressure from civil society, and the union movement.

A caretaker government then took over from the Ennahda-led coalition in January 2014 and the second national election took place in October 2014, ending Islamic control.

A new government uniting secularists, trade unionists, liberals and players from the pre-Arab Spring era won national elections and took office early this year.

They are tackling the control of many mosques by Salafist fundamentalists, widespread youth unemployment, and the extremism responsible for two violent attacks this year against tourists.

Why, if they believed in rights, did the Tunisian people elect an Islamic government in the first place in October 2011 after the Arab Spring? 

They were reacting, in part, to the persecution of Islamic party members by Ben Ali, the dictator who resigned during the protests in January 2011. Also the Ennahda party was organized, and the population decided to give it a chance.

However, Tunisians were able to counter the Islamists who ruled in a minority government by electing two major influential secular parties.

Also the idea of a dynamic civil society is part of Tunisian life. After the Arab Spring, 2,000 new non-government organizations sprung up to promote employment, grassroots participation, and democracy.

Organizations well-established in areas of human rights, economic development, and advancement of women served as models.

One was Enda Inter-Arab, a microfinance organization. After the Arab Spring it created programs to help 2000 unemployed young people start their own enterprises and worked throughout the country to help members become involved in democratic processes. Since 1995, Enda has helped more than 400,000 clients, most of them women, move out of poverty through loans for business as well as financial training.

The Centre of Arab Woman for Training and Research, a pan-Arab organization, trained hundreds of men and women wanting to set up associations in rural areas and city slums to help people find work. Rights issues were always emphasized with a top woman judge versed in international rights issues doing the training.

Tunisia still faces enormous economic and social problems. The Nobel Peace Prize, which acknowledges the capacities of civil society, will act as a needed encouragement in the country’s push for peace and stability. But more than anything, success will lie in the hands of ordinary Tunisians whose common sense and steely vigilance will keep the country on track.