A coalition of Tunisian workers, business owners, rights activists and lawyers won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for intervening at a crucial time to push the North African country that sparked the Arab Spring revolutions toward democracy and away from civil war.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet ”for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy” following Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that overthrew its long-time dictator.
”It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war,” the committee said in its citation.
The prize is a huge victory for small Tunisia, whose young and still shaky democracy suffered two extremist attacks this year that killed 60 people and devastated its vital tourism industry. Most of the dead were tourists enjoying either a top museum or one of Tunisia’s famed Mediterranean beaches.
Mohammed Fadhel Mafoudh, head of the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, called the Nobel Peace Prize a message to all parties embroiled in political conflicts.
”(It’s) to tell them that everything can be settled with dialogue and all can be settled in a climate of peace. And that the language of weapons leads us nowhere,” he said.
Tunisian broadcast media interrupted coverage to excitedly announce the news, and social media exploded with celebratory commentary. Small but jubilant crowds gathered in front of buildings in Tunis, the capital, local radio reported. The parliament president announced plans for a big national rally in the coming days.
Tunisian protesters sparked uprisings across the Arab world in 2011 that overthrew dictators and upset the status quo. But it is the only country in the region to painstakingly build a democracy, involving a range of political and social forces to create a constitution, a legislature and democratic institutions.
Committee chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five said the prize was meant to encourage the Tunisian people and to show an example for other countries in the region, where the pro-democracy struggle has come to a standstill.
”We hope we will contribute to safeguarding democracy in Tunisia and those who seek to promote peace in the Middle East and North Africa,” she told The Associated Press.
The National Dialogue Quartet is made up of four key organizations: the Tunisian General Labour Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, the country’s bar association.
Kullmann Five said the 8 million Swedish kronor ($960,000) prize was for the quartet as a whole, not for the four individual organizations. It wasn’t immediately clear who would accept the award at the Dec. 10 award ceremony.
The Nobel committee said the quartet played a key role as a mediator and a force for democracy, paving the way for a peaceful dialogue among citizens, political parties and authorities across political and religious divides, countering the spread of violence.
It was formed after the July 2013 assassination of left-wing politician Mohammed Brahmi plunged Tunisia into crisis, with opposition parties boycotting the parliament. A national dialogue led by the quartet helped negotiate a transition from the elected Islamist-led government to an interim government of technocrats tasked with organizing new elections for a permanent government.
The dialogue nearly broke down several times but ultimately succeeded and has been held up as a stark contrast to the coup in Egypt that removed the elected Islamist government in 2013.
Nobel officials said they didn’t manage to speak to any representatives of the quartet before the announcement.
Houcine Abassi, the leader of the Tunisian General Labour Union, said he was ”overwhelmed” as he found out about the award from an Associated Press reporter.
”It’s a prize that crowns more than two years of efforts deployed by the quartet when the country was in danger on all fronts,” he said.
Abassi said he hopes the award will help ”unite Tunisians to face the challenges presenting themselves now – first and foremost, the danger of terrorism.”
The Peace Prize decision Friday came as a surprise to many, with speculation having focused on Europe’s migrant crisis or the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal in July.
”It is a very good prize that tries to get into the heart of the conflict in the Muslim world,” said Oeyvind Stenersen, a Nobel historian. ”But it was a bit bewildering. It was very unexpected.”
French President Francois Hollande said he was ”happy for all the Tunisians” and added the prize marks the success of the former French colony’s transition to democracy.
”That is an encouragement to support Tunisia even more through all the hard times it faces, as we’ve seen with terrorist acts in the last weeks and months,” Hollande said in Paris.
The prize comes the day after unidentified assailants shot repeatedly at a lawmaker and a prominent sports magnate in the Tunisian city of Sousse, which depends heavily on tourism.
While Tunisia has been much less violent than neighboring Libya or Syria, its transition to democracy has been marred by attacks, notably from Islamic extremists.
An attack in June on a beach resort in Sousse left 38 dead, mostly British tourists. Another in March killed 22 people, again mostly tourists, at the country’s leading museum, the Bardo in Tunis.
The uprising in Tunisia, provoked by high unemployment, corruption, dashed expectations and decades of repression by brutal security services, was set off on Dec. 17, 2010, when an itinerant fruit vendor set himself on fire in a remote southern city after being manhandled by police.
The revolution electrified the Arab world, and in rapid succession pro-democracy demonstrations broke out across the region, ultimately bringing down the rulers of Egypt and Libya and plunging Syria into civil war.
Kullmann Five, the committee chairwoman, noted there was also good news Friday from Libya, where a U.N. envoy proposed a national unity government worked out with rival factions after months of difficult talks.
”I hope they can take some encouragement from this prize, seeing what is possible,” she told AP. ”These are different countries but some of the main root causes of social upheaval often resemble each other.”
The award capped a week of Nobel Prize announcements, with the winners of the medicine, physics, chemistry and literature awards presented earlier in Stockholm.
The economics award – not an original Nobel Prize but created in 1968 – will be announced on Monday.