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Nobel Intentions: Tunisia and the Challenge of Extremism

October 10 was an historic date for Tunisia, with its national dialogue quartet awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to prevent the January 2011 revolution which ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from descending into chaos in the following years. The citation by the Nobel prize committee commended the quartet for their “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy.”

Where so many of the revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa have failed to live up to the aspirations that fuelled them, the award recognised that in Tunisia alone post-revolution governance has retained the democratic and pluralist character sought by those who overthrew the Ben Ali regime. In 2013, however, the country drew close to civil war and it seemed that the noble intentions of the revolution might collapse. It was the national dialogue quartet, comprised of disparate groups brought together by their commitment to a stable democracy, that was able to promote dialogue and strengthen democratisation in the country.

Compared to Bahrain’s failed revolution that was violently suppressed, or Egypt’s democratically elected government later overthrown, or even the Syrian Civil War emerging out of calls for reform, the example of Tunisia is heartening. At a time when much of the Middle East and North Africa is experiencing political turmoil, Tunisia is a country where revolutionary hopes have been matched with concerted civic commitment.

What is becoming more apparent, though, is the extremist fringe that continues to threaten stability and security in Tunisia. Less than two months after the Nobel Peace Prize, a suicide bomber targeting the Tunisian presidential guard killed thirteen people. International attention focused on Tunisia in June when thirty-eight people, mainly foreigners, were killed at the Mediterranean resort of Sousse, and also in March, when twenty were killed at a museum in the capital Tunis. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for all three attacks.

In the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack, authorities have declared a nationwide state of emergency as well as a nightly curfew in Tunis. These are not what one would expect of a country being feted on the world stage for its democratic stability. For more than they seek to attack foreigners in the country or undermine the security forces, the aim of these attacks is to destabilise the country and threaten its fledgling democratic institutions.

While it does have international support from governments across the world, the Tunisian government has due cause to worry: Tunisians represent the largest contingent of foreign fighters with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and many Tunisian nationals are also fighting with extremists in neighbouring Libya. Widespread discontent with the government, suspicion of security services and poor employment prospects have driven many young people to extremist causes, both at home and abroad.

The violence is at odds with the awarding of the Nobel to the Tunisian quartet, and yet it is a reminder of the actions that must be taken to avoid losing the hard-won stability and democracy sought by most Tunisians. Samir Taieb, leader of the opposition Al Massar political party, suggested “we should…pursue the path of dialogue and consensus that won us the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.”

While ramped-up security may help prevent future attacks that undermine Tunisia’s stability, it will be dialogue and consensus seeking to embrace those on the fringes of Tunisian society that stands the best chance of addressing the underlying problems that drive a country’s young into the clutches of the Islamic State. The Nobel Peace Prize is a reminder of what is at stake.

Alexandra Biggs recently completed a Bachelor of Arts at the Australian National University. She has previously undertaken cross-institutional study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

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Image credit: Magharebia (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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