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The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner, explained

This year's prize, for the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, is meant as a lesson to the world on how to resolve conflict and preserve democracy.

Wided Bouchamaoui, president of one of the Tunisian labor unions in the National Dialogue Quartet, talks to reporters on learning the group had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wided Bouchamaoui, president of one of the Tunisian labor unions in the National Dialogue Quartet, talks to reporters on learning the group had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

This year's Nobel Prize for peace has been awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, an alliance of civil society groups that has helped steer Tunisia from its 2011 Arab Spring revolution toward pluralistic democracy.

The group is not particularly famous, but the Nobel Peace Prize does often go to lesser-known groups, an effort by the Nobel Committee to promote and draw attention to their work and to whatever larger forces they represent.

This prize, then, is both in recognition of Tunisia's successful transition to democracy — think of it as a prize for all Tunisians who helped in that — and also an aspirational prize meant to encourage more such work, especially in the Middle East.

Who is the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet?

The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is an alliance of four Tunisian civil society groups: the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

For much of Tunisia's postcolonial history, it was a police state ruled by the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. As in other Mideast dictatorships, labor unions in Tunisia had some grassroots organizing power but were still tolerated by the regime. So when the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings (which began in Tunisia) toppled Ben Ali that year, labor unions were one of the few organizing institutions left standing.

Tunisia's transition to democracy did not, at first, go very well. Islamists dominated the first elections and appeared ready to roll back some of the country's newly won freedoms. There were clashes and some extremist violence. Many feared Tunisia would follow Egypt's path to chaos.

In the summer of 2013, when things looked dire for Tunisia, the country's largest labor union and its largest business-owners association, who'd long been at odds, joined together with a human rights group and a lawyers' group to form the National Dialogue Quartet. The group, largely on its own, designed and negotiated a "road map" for the country to full democracy — one that would require most of the sitting government to resign.

Through tremendous work and lobbying, the quartet got everyone to agree to the road map, including the ruling government at the time. The country had been on the verge of catastrophe, and the quartet played a crucial role in saving it.

Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Partly because the group's accomplishments, on their own merits, deserve this for their 2013 road map. The moment was little noticed outside of the Middle East, but it was critical in saving Tunisia's political process and perhaps the country's nascent democracy.

The quartet's 2013 roadmap was not as exciting or headline-grabbing as the 2011 popular uprising, but this sort of civil society engagement and consensus building is just as important when it comes to a new democracy establishing itself. This, too, was a historic and critical moment in Tunisia's revolution.

But this is also about the Nobel Committee trying to draw the world's attention to what the quartet represents, to hold it up as a model for the rest of the globe to follow. It's meant as a counterpoint to the standard modes of political conflict resolution in the world: aggression, brinksmanship, intolerance, and a deepening of divisions rather than a bridging of them.

The International Crisis Group put this well, calling the award "an apt recognition of [the quartet's] achievement in allowing the spirit of inclusion and compromise to triumph over the polarisation and violence that has been all too prevalent in the region, and of the central role civil society can play at moments of crisis."