The “Quartet” of four organizations that led Tunisia’s National Dialogue surely merit the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed last week. The recognition could help Tunisia attract more of the international support it desperately needs to shore up its still-fragile transition. By avoiding the temptations of autocracy or the disaster of civil war, Tunisia’s leaders have hewed a path that has no equal in the Maghreb. What is at stake is not merely the future of one democratic experiment. If Tunisia’s transition collapses, governments from Rabat to Cairo will feel the earthquake.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tara Todras-Whitehill

However distinctive, Tunisia is hardly immune to the problems and crises that have affected other North African states. Whatever its successes, the National Dialogue was not a one-time inoculation that will forever protect Tunisia’s new democracy. The country faces serious challenges, not least of which are enduring—if not intensifying—debates about a range of social, economic and religious issues.

“Looking beyond the headlines, we find an improvised political gambit that often came as close to failure as to success.”

One way to avoid the pitfalls of complacency is to closely examine the genesis of the National Dialogue itself.  Looking beyond the headlines, we find an improvised political gambit that often came as close to failure as to success. The fragility of the dialogue process is one key lesson suggested by a major study undertaken by Tunisian scholars and funded by USIP. Brazen acts of violence spawned bouts of last-minute brinkmanship that might have scuttled the National Dialogue if not for determined political leadership and intense if well timed arm-twisting by domestic, regional and international actors.

That arm-twisting began with the distinctive role played by the four organizations that led the dialogue. Of these, the most important was the General Conference of Tunisian Workers (CGTT). During the first months of the “Jasmine Revolution” in 2011, the half-million-strong workers’ conference mobilized massive street protests that prevented a return of the ancien regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The lawyers and other groups who joined these protests expected that secular forces would define the terms of a new, democratic Tunisia. Imagine their shock when elections produced a National Constituent Assembly in which the Islamist Ennahda Party not only won the largest share of seats but also proceeded to form and dominate a three-party coalition “Troika.”  

Determined to give religious groups new freedoms of expression and assembly, Ennahda opened the doors—by design or default—to radical Islamist groups whose public meetings, intimidation of secular intellectuals and artists, and increasing influence within Ennahda itself magnified secular fears. Indeed, the rise of the “Committee for the Protection of the Revolution” (CPOR)—a shadowy group that many secularists believe was linked to Ennahda—produced violent clashes between CGTT rank and file and Islamists linked to CPOR.

It was in this crucible of rising secular-Islamist confrontation that the CGTT took the first steps to organize a national dialogue. At this point, the union focused on rallying those secularly oriented groups that fretted they were underrepresented—if not excluded—in the new Constituent Assembly. Suspecting that the CGTT’s actual intent was to politically isolate Ennahda, the party’s leaders refused to join the talks. But Ennahda’s caution actually complicated CGTT’s efforts to both lead and shape the dialogue. After all, the union could not establish its leadership of a truly national dialogue if the leading political party cast aspersions on the union’s ultimate intentions. At the same time, its leadership would be threatened if secular groups perceived that CGTT was making concessions to Ennahda in a bid to coax it into joining the dialogue.

The opportunity to address these clashing concerns emerged following the February 6, 2013 assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent leftist lawyer. To demonstrate its continued credibility within the secular camp, CGTT led a national strike, thus signaling its commitment to its own social base. But it followed up this partisan maneuvering with a renewed effort to bring Ennahda into the National Dialogue. These efforts produced mixed results: in May 2013, dialogue participants began discussing a “road map” for sequencing elections and finishing a new constitution. But Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, remained skeptical; he joined, left and then returned to the talks, which eventually stalled.

But once again, the shock of violence broke the logjam. Following the July 23, 2013, killing of Constituent Assembly member Mohamed Brahmi, leftist and liberal members of the assembly not only demanded the government’s resignation, they now insisted on dissolving the assembly itself. Ghannouchi read this demand as a virtual coup d’etat and rejected it, even as the CGTT threatened a national strike. But a strike would have deprived the union of any chance to secure Ennahda’s return to the National Dialogue without concessions from secular groups. Thus the Quartet offered both sides a grand deal: the Nida Tunis Party, which consisted of largely secular, business-oriented groups, and its veteran president, Beji Caid Essebsi, would accept the authority of the Constituent Assembly and its decisions, the most important of which was finishing the new constitution. In return, Ennahda would resign and accept a non-partisan government of “experts.” These concessions allowed both sides to endorse a final road map, which provided for parliamentary and presidential elections. And so Tunisia skirted national disaster.

This deal would have been unimaginable without two conditions: first, the ability of the CGTT to act as both a partisan player and third-party mediator; second, the lobbying of Algeria, the United States and the European Union, combined with economic pressures brought by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In the wake of Egypt’s coup and the orgy of violence that ensued there, these regional and global actors signaled that the time had come for compromise.

It is unlikely Tunisia’s leaders will again be presented with the conditions, specific events and forces that helped steer that compromise. With an elected parliament and president, the locus of decision-making is now in institutions that function according to democratic, majority-rule principles rather than the logic of consensus. Contentious issues, such as the appointment of a new supreme court, or the content and timing of economic reforms, must now be addressed by elected leaders who will not have the same room for maneuver that was afforded to the National Dialogue.

Thus Tunisia’s leaders face the considerable challenge of finding ways to strengthen formal democratic mechanisms that will still sustain the spirit and art of dialogue and negotiation in a transforming political landscape. I believe they can succeed, given enough care and determination, and that Tunisia has an opportunity to continue distinguishing itself from the wider Maghreb by defying the temptations of either renewed autocracy or civil conflict.  This is the message and the hope of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dan Brumberg is a special advisor on Iran and North Africa at USIP.

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