The news has just been released: The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” This news is cause for rejoicing given the symbolic weight attributed to the role the Quartet played in 2013 in managing to force both a very unpopular government to step down and a stalled parliament to take radical steps in adopting a new constitution. Nevertheless, the presentation of these events by the Nobel Committee introduces a couple of lingering question marks — in particular, regarding the future of the alleged “pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.” The official Nobel Committee press release adopts flowery and possibly over-optimistic language that lionizes the role of four organizations, but overlooks what is the substantial achievement of the Tunisian “revolution”: the direct involvement of the people in at least three critical moments within Tunisian politics.

Lukewarm Reactions in Tunisia

It might come as a surprise, but in Tunisia on the morning of this news announcement, the reaction by La Presse, one of the nation’s dailies, was rather lukewarm for two reasons. First, the article wondered whether this announcement was a joke because some of the Quartet actors are currently involved in a series of strikes against and negotiations with the Tunisian government over a new form of national dialogue, namely on economic issues. In that realm, progress has been very slow, and the chaotic reopening of schools in the fall has been hampered by many strikes, all signs that the idea of “national dialogue” still presented as a panacea for Tunisian ills has not been so successful. Indeed, since 2011, Tunisian politicians have been very slow to make important decisions, and the sense of dissatisfaction associated with some actors dragging their feet explains the skepticism in response to the Nobel announcement. Second, the article questioned whether international media attention to this news will be as high as it was after the terrorist attacks in March and June 2015 that, respectively, left 22 and 38 tourists dead and that have been used to shed a negative light on the “Revolution.” As to this second concern, rest reassured: the international media will seize the opportunity to speak of Tunisia in positive terms. At least for a while. (I will return to this issue in a subsequent post on the consequences of an extremely difficult economic situation.)

Other more general criticisms of the Nobel decision will surely appear. Some still cringe at the attributions of past Nobel Peace prizes: was it justified to award the 2009 Prize to President Obama so early in his presidency when controversial measures, such as the use of drone strikes that necessitate presidential approval, had not only continued, but also intensified, despite George W. Bush’s departure from the Oval Office? Was it justified to grant the 2012 Prize to the European Union, which had surely made significant achievements in terms of internal reconciliation after World War II, but which was already entangled in harsh decisions regarding the question of Greek debt and the flow of asylum seekers risking their lives to abandon war-torn regions?

There is a sense that some recent attributions of the Prize are more attuned to wishful thinking that its award will have a positive future effect, rather than giving due recognition for a really significant past achievement. A sobering reminder of this is the fate of the first Nobel Peace Prize attributed to another Arab actor involved the so-called Arab Spring: Tawakkul Karman, a female political activist and journalist from Yemen involved in the popular mobilization against Ali Abdallah Salah, another Arab dictator. This award did not prevent Yemen, despite a couple of years of hope for an effective redistribution of power through another “National Dialogue,” from sliding into the horrendous and underreported war that has torn the country apart in the past year.

Very Good Decision

Notwithstanding all these real and problematic issues, today’s announcement is, in my view, very good news for at least two reasons. First, the National Dialogue that the Quartet steered from the end of summer 2013 to January 2014 really forced formal politics to find innovative ways to get out of a dead end. Second, this year’s award provides formal recognition of bottom-up attempts by the people to steer the course of political transition. Without the creativity and stubbornness of various segments of the Tunisian population from diverse geographical origins throughout 2011, which foregrounded and inspired more-inclusive mechanisms of representation, the Quartet might never have been able to achieve what it did in 2013. Thus, the Prize is also a tribute to the active citizen involvement of the Tunisian population at large, and not just of four organizations. The National Dialogue Quartet has comprised, in the words of the Nobel Committee, “four key organizations in Tunisian civil society”: the Tunisian General Labour 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 (LTDH, Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme); and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers (Ordre National des Avocats de Tunisie).

The Quartet came together during the summer of 2013, after the killings of two secular human rights activists the previous spring. Accusations that Ennahda, the largest component in a tripartite ruling coalition (the “Troika”), did not do enough to arrest the radical Salafi militants behind the assassinations were combined with other grievances against the government and its parliament. When a second activist, Mohamed Brahmi, was killed on July 25, 2013, many feared either that a military coup would take place or that the country would slide into civil war. There were widespread sit-ins near Parliament and top-down attempts by President Moncef Marzouki to organize a national dialogue to calm people’s spirits. Rather than this top-down dialogue, however, what occurred was that UGTT, the largest trade union confederation, took the lead and coordinated a coalition of formal civil society organizations that joined forces, yielding the so-called Quartet and the positive results we now know.

The official press release correctly insists that the Prize is “awarded to the Quartet and not to the individual organizations as such.” The tone of the release still gives the impression that the necessary work was that of formal civil society organizations, which is, in my view, misleading. The Quartet managed to bring gravitas and some structure to the pressure exerted on the then-ruling Troika government. But one should never forget that the Quartet is just an emanation of a principle to topple Ben Ali that was set in motion early in January 2011, as groups and individuals from various walks of life with multiple economic grievances first mobilized in peripheral zones throughout Tunisia (for example, in Sidi Bouzid where a street vendor immolated himself in December 2010). Only then did more affluent groups from the large coastal cities follow, adding a new repertoire of grievances, namely political ones. This surprising alliance between members of different classes and geographic origins made possible the toppling of Ben Ali in January 2011. But when the transition government dragged its feet in taking effective measures to eradicate Ben Ali’s former cronies, it was again a motley alliance of youth and marginalized Tunisians who joined and breathed life into the second Qasbah protests, which lasted until March 2011. These new sit-ins in the old city (qasbah in Arabic) and near key ministries kept pressure on the transition government and raised public awareness among the population at large on the need to keep the train of reforms going. It is widely accepted that these manifestations in February and March 2011 paved the way for a collective agreement and compromises on how the autumn elections would be held.

These genuinely popular protests were then followed by the creation of more formal coalitions or institutions. Thus, the Higher Authority for the Realization of the Revolution (or Haute Instance), led by Yadh Ben Achour in 2011, and the High Electoral Committee (ISIE, Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections) transformed, through a presidential decree, this direct popular mandate to establish much more transparent rules to deepen the political transition. Similarly, it could be argued that the Quartet took its cue, two years later, from this model and cycle of popular protest turned into more or less formal coordination to pressure the existing government.

In my view, the particularity of the Tunisian “transition” resides in the success, partly dependent on weak military institutions and on the legitimacy acquired historically by some of the Quartet organizations, of keeping alive two tracks of direct representation: informal street politics and semiformal coalitions. The popular and mass mobilizations first in January 2011, then during the Qasbah protests, and again during summer 2013, expressed clear political demands that formal coalitions (such as the Haute Instance, the High Electoral Committee, and the Quartet) simply took on.

Thus, the people moved from popular direct representation to self-regulated bodies putting pressure on formal political institutions. It remains to be seen whether these successes will eventually be turned into more inclusive rules of participation. As such, the Nobel Peace Prize goes as much to this variety of actors, which Mondher Kilani called the Tunisian multitude. The magic of the Tunisian case was that the informality characteristic of the early months of civic engagement in all Arab revolts managed to be preserved, whereas the reimposition of violence by incumbent powers crushed those dynamics in other Arab countries. Thus, in a way, this Nobel Prize bestows an award to a key principle of democratic politics, by reminding us of the capacity of lay people to reconstitute and exercise sovereign power. This is, in my view, the reason why Tunisian people along with other people around the world should rejoice at the news of this announcement: let’s celebrate not just the “peaceful Quartet,” but also the democratic movement that gave rise to it.