The Tunisian Nobel Prize: Dialogue as a Political Virtue

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The refugee crisis will no doubt reshape the geopolitical, cultural , global economic policies  and challenge the core principles of the Europe Union. The Syria crisis will not only continue to drive the refugee crisis but also potentially trigger revolution in Syria and other Middle East countries. We would like to share a mosaic view of these complicated issues. France has historical ties with Syria, North Africa and the Middle East,and in general, the French have a rich knowledge about the issues in the region. I was fortunate to be introduced to Patrice Barrat, founder  of Bridge Initiative International, by my good friends Byron Janis and his wife, Maria Cooper Janis.**

Patrice has worked at the grass-roots level for many years on his concept to build the bridge to transcend traditional barriers of culture and ideology.  In recent years, he lived in Tunisia to promote his mission at the fount of the Arab Spring and witness the activities of the Quartet, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates. I am very pleased to introduce his noble work.

(**Byron Janis, the world famous concert pianist, composed the Global Forum theme song “One World “ – with lyrics by the four time Oscar winner Sammy Cahn and sung by John Denver. Maria Cooper Janis is the daughter of the renowned actor Gary Cooper.)

— Akio Matsumura

The Tunisian Nobel Prize

Dialogue as a Political Virtue

Patrice Barrat

Patrice Barrat is founder and executive director of Bridge Initiative International

It seemed so simple. They were here, on stage, all together for the first time since the news came from Oslo – on October 9, 2015, a week earlier – that the union of their forces in the summer of 2013 had earned them the Nobel Peace Prize.

Before our eyes, in Paris, at the Institute for the Arab World, the Quartet talked about its own birth, its vision for the future and the fate of the Tunisian people who, in their mind, were the real Laureate. They were not lying. The Quartet’s initiative was indeed civil society at its best, the national dialogue they had stood for until now is seen as real and sincere.

What allows me to speak this way is that I have been there almost every month since 2012, with the NGO Bridge Initiative International, to try and build a mediation process between the Youth and the Government. And, as a journalist, I have “covered” Tunisia since the Eighties, including the “Bread Riots” which shook the country in 1984 and almost provoked a Revolution.

quartetA revolution was to come but it took place after 23 years of Ben Ali’s regime. In 1987, he had overthrown Habib Bourguiba, widely seen as the father of the nation, liberating it as he did from French colonization, and as a modernist who gave Tunisian women unique rights in the Arab World. Almost until the last minute, on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali’s corrupted dictatorship benefited from the support of the West (US and Europe) which saw him as an economic ally and a strategic one against radical islamists. But the Tunisian Arab Spring, led by its youth, which was to launch a wave of revolutions elsewhere, was stronger than geopolitics. And the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” prevailed.

Two years later though, in 2013, the country was about to fall into civil war. Having formed a coalition – known as the Troïka – with two non religious political parties (Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic), Ennahda, a “moderate” Muslim political movement, had been governing continuously. And it was seen as quite indulgent with Salafist Muslim extremists. Hundreds of young Tunisians would at least not be prevented from joining radical groups in Iraq, Syria or Libya. Political assassinations of democratic leaders were at a peak and an economic and social crisis was ignited.The original idea of a National Dialogue to address such a dangerous situation came from Houcine Abassi, Secretary General of UGTT (General Tunisian Union for Work), the main trade union. Then he called his adversary Ouided Bouchamaoui, the secretary general of UGTT (General Tunisian Union for Work), the main trade union. Then, Houcine Abassi called his adversary Ouided Bouchamaoui, the woman who runs UTICA (Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade and Crafts), and they agreed to agree for the country’s sake. Together, they brought on board the president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, Abdessatar Benmoussa , and the president of the Bar, Fadhel Mahfudh.

This is how these four entities – the Quartet – came up with a plan. Priority should be given to the preservation of a state of law. To avoid a political vacuum, a new electoral process would start as soon as possible and the adoption of a new constitution for the republic which had been talked about for far too long would have to be accelerated. Such a constitution was sorely needed to prevent any return of a dictatorship framework and to ensure a secular civil state. The Quartet was so determined to have all political parties, even Enahda, endorse their plan, which was initiated by civil society and not by the political elite.

A Lesson

This is the main lesson from this Nobel Peace Prize: intelligent, inclusive dialogue within a strong civil society won this prize.

It was pure joy to read that same morning of October 15, 2015, of the Paris celebration of a famous Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud: “ Tunisian” does not mean a nationality but us all”. It was music to my ears when the former French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, said “this is a symbol whose light propagates itself throughout the Arab World, throughout the entire world.” It was a great satisfaction to see that this very event was held simply because Mouhieddine Cherbib – a committed and respected Tunisian activist in his sixties who makes a living working as a receptionist in a small hotel of the 9th arrondissement – thought of a special tribute only four days before it actually happened.

Why did Tunisia’s revolution succeed? Why were its results different –no massive killings as in Libya, Iraq and Syria, no intense repression like in Egypt – than other Arab (or non-Arab) countries?

Kamel Jendoubi – Minister to the Prime Minister in charge of Relations with Constitutional Bodies and Civil Society- shares his theory that it was dialogue, a tradition in Tunisian culture for several centuries, that allowed trade unionism imported by France during the colonial era to succeed. Serious dialogue was embraced. That is why the Tunisian political scene was rescued from an ugly dictatorship and possible civil war.

(Would you believe me if I told you that on the eve of the last Presidential and Parliamentary elections, in the fall of 2014, my friend Omeyya Seddik, working for a Swiss mediation NGO (Center for Humanitarian Dialogue) managed to convince all 23 political parties to jointly sign a Charter of Behaviour and Mutual Respect. And even more, their leaders were keen to appear on a videoclip saying they felt good about it.)

A Caveat

But Kamel Jendoubi and all the laureates admit there is a caveat to their work. Young Tunisians are confronted by high unemployment rates. There is even a union for Unemployed Graduate Youth. Social welfare does not exist. There is no space for the youth to enter into the dialogue Tunisia’s success stems from.

Yet there would have been no revolution in 2011 if it had not been for the youth. Everyone acknowledges this. The Quartet would not have been formed and Ben Ali might still be in power.

Their heroism must be honored in some organized forum so their voices can ensure Tunisia’s Spring continues to shine as a beacon of hope. Prosperity will not come without their voice actively engaged with those that find themselves seated in power positions. Either the government in place sees the Nobel Prize as an incentive to extend dialogue to the youth or the streets of Tunisia might soon see a new outburst of anger.

Patrice Barrat is founder and executive director of Bridge Initiative International.
English editing by Susan Angst.

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