A win for democracy.

Photographer: Salah Habibi/AFP/Getty Images

A Peace Prize for Tunisia's Exceptionalism

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
Read More.
( Updated
)
a | A

The quartet of Tunisian civil society leaders who won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday played an important part in the country’s thus-far successful democratic, constitutional revolution. But their role was no more decisive than that of the leaders who shepherded the country from the Arab Spring protests to the election of the constituent assembly, or of the elected assembly members who produced, negotiated and ratified a liberal democratic constitution.

The best way to think about it is that the Nobel committee wanted to reward the Tunisian people for being the only Arab state to have achieved democracy since the regional upheaval in 2011, and they picked the civil society leaders as the stand-in. The Peace Prize is being given to the Tunisian exception.

Seen as a victory for Tunisia as a whole, the prize is extremely well deserved. Nothing produces peace better than a domestic constitutional process in which elected representatives of stakeholders negotiate patiently to reach consensus. A quick look at Egypt, where elections failed to produce durable democracy, and the constitutional process was hijacked by all sides in turn, should show how remarkable Tunisia is. In Syria, things are much worse, and the Arab Spring produced nothing but vicious civil war.

What went right in Tunisia? The Nobel committee isn’t wrong to think that a robust civil society contributed significantly to the conditions that allowed negotiation to succeed.

It’s worth noting that all four organizations -- the general labor union, which includes many teachers; the trade union; the human rights league; and the lawyers’ association -- grew into prominence under the authoritarian presidencies of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

All dictatorships aren’t created equal. The Tunisian regimes from 1957 to 2011 drastically limited basic rights, and jailed and tortured opponents. High-level corruption was endemic. Yet unlike the dictators in Egypt or Syria or Iraq, these regimes worked out a complex relationship with civil society institutions, allowing them to organize in exchange for their willingness to live with the regime. Protests by the labor union took place under Ben Ali, and supporters of the union will sometimes say they laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring protests.

At the same time, civil society alone can’t account for the Tunisian exception. Some credit also goes to a culture of political consensus. During my multiple visits Tunisia to observe the constitutional process, I was constantly told by the delegates that they felt a powerful impulse from the expectations of their constituents that they reach a result the overwhelming majority of Tunisians could live with.

The origins of political culture are always hard to pin down, and Tunisia’s need for consensus is no exception. But it’s probably fair to say that the revolutionary period against France helped create a sense of national unity. Tunisia is very small, which can contribute to a sense of collective identity. (But doesn’t always: see Lebanon.)

Tunisia also has the legacy of the first constitution in any Arabic speaking country, dating back to 1861. Although I was frequently struck by how little the delegates referred to that history, nonetheless it shows that at least the idea of elite cohesion in a fundamental agreement has deep roots.

But the most decisive feature of the Tunisian exception, arguably slighted by the Nobel committee, is that the potential for conflict between secularists and Islamists was reined in repeatedly by acts of compromise and realistic negotiation on both sides. Key to this process was Rashid Ghannouchi, an Islamic democrat who went from being an important theorist of how Islam can be compatible with democracy to the leader of the movement and party known as Ennahda, the Renaissance.

At several crucial moments, Ennahda under Ghannouchi chose to pursue concession rather than going for a maximal role for Islam in the constitution. After protests in 2012, Ennahda decided to remove Shariah from its constitutional draft or ideology. And after the killing of prominent leftists led to further protests and crisis, Ennahda, which had been democratically elected as the plurality party in the assembly, agreed to resign from the government.

As for the secularists, they deserve credit for treating Ennahda as a genuine, legitimate, democratically elected political force.

Comparing Tunisia to Egypt emphasizes how enormously important these decisions were. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood tried to govern without much compromise. Faced with protests against it, it rammed through a constitution by a bare majority that had no chance of achieving consensus. The Egyptian army ultimately decided not to compromise with the Brotherhood and to remove it from power in a coup.

Ghannouchi has been criticized by hard-line Salafists, who think he sold out Islam, and many secularists continue to think he’s secretly a hard-liner himself. The truth is that Ghannouchi, whose party voluntarily resigned and was perfectly happy to run in and lose a national election, is the architect of a liberal democratic Islamic model that offers just the alternative to radicalism that Westerners and secularists alike claim to be looking for. He may never win the Nobel himself. But without him, Tunisia couldn’t have won it either.

(Corrects first name of former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba in fifth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net