Nobel Highlights a Rare Ray of Democracy

Abdessettar Ben Moussa, quartet for peace.

Photographer: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

This year's Nobel Peace Prize was a surprise even to the recipients, a little-known group of activists who brokered a political transition in Tunisia. It was also an inspired choice.

The Arab Spring has been so disappointing -- in Egypt, in Libya, in Yemen -- that Tunisia has been largely forgotten, making headlines only when terrorists kill European vacationers. Yet the Arab Spring's hope for a more tolerant and democratic Middle East is most alive in Tunisia, where the movement began more than four years ago.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the strongest political force to emerge after the revolution was an Islamist group, called Ennahda. Ennahda won elections, formed a government and sought to Islamize the nation. By 2013, the country seemed poised to slide in chaos. After two opposition leaders were killed, tens of thousands took to the streets, clashing with police.

This is when the unlikely alliance known as the National Dialogue Quartet formed. The quartet -- Tunisia's main labor union, its main employers group, its lawyers' association and the Tunisian Human Rights League -- mediated between the main political blocs, headed by Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, a party formed by stalwarts from the era of dictatorship. They agreed on a plan for a transitional government and elections, which Nidaa Tounes won last year. In the new unity government, Ennahda has a cabinet minister.

It is pointless to speculate why something similar didn’t happen in Libya or Egypt; Tunisia has always been different. Even under the former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country had stronger labor unions and other secular civic organizations. It's also pointless to observe that Tunisia's government, with its elements of both the old regime and the Islamist one, is not the kind of reformist democracy Westerners might prefer.

Neither Tunisia's job nor the quartet's is finished. Tunisia remains a leading exporter of recruits for Islamic State in Syria, and the country's role as a potential model gives extremists the incentive to destabilize it. That said, it's hard to exaggerate the symbolic importance that a stable, prosperous democracy in Tunisia could have for people in places with a fragile monarchy (say, Morocco) or repressive dictatorship (Egypt, for one). So Friday's prize should serve as a reminder to boost international support for Tunisia's battered economy.

Tunisia's success will rise or fall above all on the ability of its main political factions to share power and compromise. For making that possible, Tunisia's quartet richly deserve their recognition.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.