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Politics & Government

Tunisia's National Dialogue Quartet Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A Tunisian pro-democracy group, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee recognized the quartet for rescuing Tunisia from the kind of descent into violence that took place in other Arab countries casting off dictatorships. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who covered the Tunisian revolution since it began in 2011, reports of the quartet's impact.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In awarding the peace prize, the Nobel Committee noted that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet went into action in 2013, when the country was on the brink of collapse. A popular uprising had ousted a dictator a couple years earlier. An interim government led by Islamists was in charge. But violence was on the rise, and people, again, were taking to the streets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: Tens of thousands of angry demonstrators protested the February 2013 assassination of a popular secular politician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: The crowds placed blame on the interim Islamist government. Tunisia's religious and secular factions were struggling over the future of the nation. Angry mourners, including these two school teachers, called for the ouster of the interim prime minister, Rached Ghannouchi.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We are, today, with a catastrophe. We don't want this government.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And we say out to Ghannouchi. Out, Ghannouchi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Out, Ghannouchi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Go out.

BEARDSLEY: Another prominent secular politician was soon killed. The country was divided and engulfed in fear. That was when the group that won today's Nobel prize went into action. The National Dialogue Quartet is composed of labor unions, entrepreneurs, lawyers and human rights activists. In today's announcement, the Nobel Committee said the quartet became the driving force for democracy, leading by its moral authority. Belgacem Ayari is deputy head of the country's main trade union that was part of the coalition.

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BELGACEM AYARI: (Through interpreter) We felt, during this crisis time after these political assassinations, that Tunisia would go backwards.

BEARDSLEY: Ayari says the group used its influence and historical weight to force a national dialogue.

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AYARI: (Through interpreter) We joined with the other groups and pushed for democratic principles such as human rights and freedom of expression, and we convinced everyone, even the Islamists, to come to the table. They refused at first to dialogue, but we put pressure by organizing protests across the country. And they saw that civil society was behind us.

BEARDSLEY: Over the next year, Tunisia's sometimes starkly opposing sides worked together to write the country's first democratic constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: That was the sound in January 2014 when members of Tunisia's constituent assembly sang the national anthem after approving the document. The Tunisian constitution even has an article guaranteeing equality for women, a rarity in the Arab world. While other Arab Spring nations, such as Libya, Egypt or Syria, have reverted to authoritarian rule or descended into violence and chaos, in Tunisia, democracy has bloomed. So what makes Tunisia different? Mounir Khelifa is a professor at the University of Tunis. He believes the country had all the right ingredients.

MOUNIR KHELIFA: There's a tradition of a fairly large and urban and educated professional middle class. The differences in wealth are not so huge as to make conversation between different social categories impossible.

BEARDSLEY: Khelifa says there's also a well-established historical sense of being Tunisian that trumps racial, ethnic or regional differences. The country's trials are not over. Its economy is stagnant, and terrorist attacks on a museum and a beach resort have snuffed out the important tourist industry. But trade union head now-Nobel winner Ayari says the prize gives Tunisians the moral courage to continue their struggle. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.