A little over a week ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a four-part coalition of groups representing various sectors of Tunisian civil society. The coalition was lauded “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” The relative anonymity of the group to the general international community — especially in comparison to other figures competing for the honor — makes the honor a particularly unexpected, but pleasant, surprise. To understand this year’s awardee choice, we must first take a look at the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize in international humanitarian law and policy, as well as the Middle East’s current political situation.
In 2011, Tunisia set off the spark for the Arab Spring, and is the only country to emerge (thus far) as a pluralistic democracy. This was in large part because in 2011, the quartet, composed of the Tunisian General Labour Union, Human Rights League, Order of Lawyers, and the Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts, stepped in to prevent Tunisia’s fractured postrevolutionary government from collapse. Just when political violence between competing Tunisian political parties seemed likely, the quartet forced reconciliation and even convinced the ruling Islamist government at the time to agree to its plan for democracy. The quartet’s intervention is largely responsible for Tunisia’s successful emergence from dictatorship.
There is no doubt that the recognition of certain awardees from year to year impacts global politics and issues. The Nobel Peace Prize is inherently political both because of its prestige and its very nature as a competition among many highly qualified and prominent candidates. Furthermore, when he created the Nobel Peace Prize in his will, Alfred Nobel wrote that the committee should choose a group or person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Nobel’s vague wording has allowed the Nobel committee a certain amount of freedom in interpreting the text and thus the annual winner.
Such confusion and debate have surrounded the prize even from its first year. In 1901, the committee members wanted to honor both the founder of the Red Cross, Henri Durant, along with an international pacifist, Frédéric Passy. While the Red Cross’ work is not to be dismissed, the organization did not quite fit the Nobel’s exact requirements in preventing war or promoting world peace. Despite such misgivings, Durant won a share of the prize in 1901 and the International Committee of the Red Cross would go on to win the Nobel Prize a record three times throughout the twentieth century. That Durant and Passy jointly won the very first Nobel Peace Prize set a precedent for rewarding those whose work either fits the spirit or the letter of Nobel’s will.
The above example demonstrates how the committee can maneuver the will’s vague guidelines to honor those who have done tangible humanitarian work but were not explicitly mentioned as possible prize candidates. Such flexibility has allowed the Nobel committee to develop considerable prestige over the years that can be used to redirect public opinion or indirectly sway international opinion or policy. The honoring of 1991 laureate Aung San Suu Ky, then under house arrest, finally forced the wavering United Nations to finally take a stance and condemn the Burmese military government she was protesting. More controversially, in 2009, President Obama received the peace prize a mere few months into his presidency. Recent statements from Geir Lundestad, the former secretary of the Nobel committee, definitively show that the committee wanted to assist Obama’s idealized American diplomacy by awarding him the Peace Prize: “The committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for … we thought it would strengthen Obama and it didn’t have this effect.”
So, even as the international community celebrates the quartet’s accomplishments and what it represents in terms of future hopes for the region, it is important to step back and recall the Nobel committee’s role in all this. Before the 2015 laureate announcement, the quartet was hardly known outside the Arab world; solely thanks to the Nobel committee, their work is now lauded across the world. Hopefully, recognition of the quartet will rejuvenate Arab activists and demonstrate the virtues of peaceful democratic reform.
Still, no matter the motives behind awarding the quartet, this reminder of Tunisia’s ongoing success is a buoying hope for the new year as 2015 draws to a close. The quartet’s ability to bridge polar opposites along the political, religious, and social spectrum represents the fulfilled promise of the Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring’s original democratic spirit.
InHae Yap is a freshman studying anthropology.