This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a coalition of civil society organizations known as the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The move comes nearly five years after a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, sparking the Arab Spring that included the ouster of Tunisia’s longtime, U.S.-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “The quartet was formed in the summer of 2013 when the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest. It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war,” said Kaci Kullmann Five, Norwegian Nobel Committee chair. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is composed of four 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 committee said it hopes its recognition of the quartet’s achievements will “serve as an example that will be followed by other countries.” We speak with Sarah Chayes, senior associate of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She writes about Tunisia in her recent book, “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.”
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with the announcement that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize goes to a coalition of civil society organizations known as the Tunisia National Dialogue Quartet. The move comes nearly five years after a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, sparking the Arab Spring that included the ouster of Tunisia’s longtime U.S.-backed dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Last January, Tunisia ratified a constitution that included provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality and protection of Tunisia’s natural resources. The prize was announced by the committee at 5:00 a.m. Eastern time this morning in Oslo.
KACI KULLMANN FIVE: The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 is to be awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011. The quartet was formed in summer of 2013 when the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest. It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war. It was thus instrumental in enabling Tunisia, in the space of a few years, to establish a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief.
AMY GOODMAN: The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is composed of four 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 Nobel Peace Prize committee said it hopes its recognition of the quartet’s achievements will, quote, “serve as an example that will be followed by other countries.”
For more, we go to Paris to speak with Sarah Chayes, senior associate of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.
Sarah, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance? And who is the Tunisian coalition who have just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
SARAH CHAYES: Yeah, I’d love to. I’m really delighted to hear of this award. Just one rectification, if I may: For once, the United States was not a primary backer of Ben Ali, of the Ben Ali regime. This is one dictatorship that actually we’re not guilty of. In particular, it was actually France, was the principal international backer of that regime.
But the quartet is really remarkable, first of all, in that—you named the four organizations. These are four organizations with a long history in Tunisia. They are well-established civil society organizations, but not the type that we usually think of when we use the word “civil society.” It’s the bar association, in a sense, the lawyers; the employers’ union—I don’t think—it’s sort of like a chamber of commerce; and then a left-leaning labor union and the Human Rights League. And I think the first really interesting element of this is it’s the first time that I can think of that the Nobel Prize has been awarded to a set of organizations or a set of parties that had to make peace internally first before it could then go out and make peace externally. And that’s, in particular, the employers’ union and the labor union. They were in conflict continuously, essentially from Tunisia’s independence until 2013. So I think they led by example in a really important way. So that’s, I think, the significance of who these recipients are.
AMY GOODMAN: Compare what has happened in Tunisia, because Tunisia sparked the—what happened in Egypt, with the Arab Spring across the Middle East.
SARAH CHAYES: I think that’s precisely the second really important element of this award, is the impact on peace is demonstrable, right? You’ve got two countries, Tunisia and Egypt, that were suffering the same ill, which is to say a kleptocratic and autocratic government. Both went through a revolution. In both cases, an Islamist party eventually emerged the victor from a first set of elections. In the case of Egypt, which is practically a neighbor, the very same summer, you had a coup against the Islamist party that was in power, and then you had a massacre. Basically, the army gunned down—or the police, it was—gunned down hundreds of supporters of that Islamist party in the streets of Cairo. And since then, what you’ve had is a restoration of an authoritarian military government, together with a really hot insurgency, that is comparable to the 1990s in Egypt, whereas in Tunisia, largely because of the incredibly—the just significant efforts—I think that’s another really interesting point that I’ll come to maybe next, is how hard the members or the leadership of these four organizations worked together with Tunisian politicians to achieve a different outcome.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to 2011, when I spoke about the Arab Spring with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, about the role the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks released played in the Tunisian uprising.
JULIAN ASSANGE: The cables about Tunisia were then spread around online, in other forms, translated by a little Internet group called Tunileaks, and so presented a number of different facets that sort of—that everyone could see, and no one could deny, that the Ben Ali regime was fundamentally corrupt. It’s not that the people there didn’t know it before, but it became undeniable to everyone, including the United States, and that the United States, or at least the State Department, could be read, that if it came down to supporting the army or Ben Ali, they would probably support the army, the military class, rather than the political class. So that gave activists and the army a belief that they could possibly pull it off.
But this wasn’t enough. So, all that was intellectual and was making a difference and was stirring things up in Tunisia. And then you had this action by a 26-year-old computer technician, who set—who self-immolated on December 16 last year.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Bouazizi.
JULIAN ASSANGE: Yeah. And was hospitalized and died on January 4th. And that taking a sort of intellectual frustration and irritation and hunger for change and undeniability to an emotional, physical act on the street is then what changed the equation.
AMY GOODMAN: That was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an event we did in London when he was under house arrest, though not yet having gone into the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he has asylum. If, Sarah Chayes, you could respond to the significance of those documents that were released?
SARAH CHAYES: Yeah, what I heard from Tunisians at the time was precisely the way that they pointed to the lack of U.S. support for the dictatorship of Ben Ali was what they found to be particularly striking. So, there were very detailed passages within those documents that showed exactly both what the U.S. knew about how that government was functioning and its distaste for that functioning. And that actually, according to Tunisians I spoke to at the time, really encouraged them to kind of make a move. And I found that really interesting, because at the time, or in previous years, I had been living in Afghanistan, and there was a similar situation, where you had a kleptocratic government, basically, but that really was supported by the U.S. government. And so, I found it quite interesting to hear the hesitation that Tunisians had prior to reading or seeing the WikiLeaks information as to whether the U.S. would come in and back Ben Ali or not. And so, it just goes to show that in a lot of places in the world, people assume that the U.S. is much more actively engaged or involved in what’s going on than the U.S. often actually is.
AMY GOODMAN: Just reading from The Huffington Post, it says, “[A]s the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month”—this was, you know, a few years ago—”Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid.” This was to keep it in power as the uprising commenced, to keep Ben Ali in power.
SARAH CHAYES: Yeah, I’m not sure I buy that. I was checking into that stuff at the time, and what I found was that most of the assistance—I found two things. Number one, most of the assistance—that kind of assistance is programmed years in advance. And when I was actually urging, after the revolution had taken place—at the time, I was working in the U.S. government—for there to be a significant support for post-Ben Ali Tunisia, it turns out to be very difficult to move things quickly. So I frankly doubt that that particular program was voted as a result of, you know, in a sort of one-to-two-day, you know, or couple-of-day period, the difficulties Ben Ali was encountering.
And secondly, as Assange suggests in his interview with you, there was a distinction between the military and the Ben Ali regime. In fact, Ben Ali had been starving the military, because he himself came out of the military and had won power in a coup, and so his own base of support was not the military. It was the police and other special services. And so, if anything, the military was against Ben Ali, not in favor of Ben Ali.
AMY GOODMAN: And what will be Nobel Peace Prize mean for Tunisia, Sarah?
SARAH CHAYES: I just think it’s a really important sort of mark of moral authority, you know? I mean, incentive structures in this world are created by reinforcing and rewarding positive actions and by ideally sanctioning negative actions. And so often we’ve seen in the last number of years negative actions receiving positive reward, be it monetary or otherwise. And in this case, I think, you know, really pointing to little Tunisia and the remarkable path that it’s followed—it’s an imperfect path. It has not successfully, I think, addressed some of the political economy problems that led to the revolution in the first place, which is to say massive crony capitalism and corruption. That hasn’t been significantly addressed in the political process that has taken place, but at least you don’t see the kind of limiting of civil liberties and civil rights that you’ve seen in a lot of other places. And so, I think this is meaningful to Tunisia, and I would just say that some of the more material forms of reward would also be helpful, like private sector investment and things like that.
AMY GOODMAN: Although in July Tunisia’s Parliament overwhelmingly passed new terror legislation that allows police to detain suspects without charge for up to 15 days, or without access to a lawyer, also allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty in terror cases. Last 15 seconds, Sarah.
SARAH CHAYES: Yeah, I do think that’s very problematic, and I think it’s part of a sort of elevating of terrorism as the only threat worth addressing, and in addressing it, a lot of damage can be done if it’s addressed wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Chayes, thanks so much for being with us, senior associate of the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.
When we come back, we’ll be joined by investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein about his book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe. Stay with us.