Tunisian Nobel meets muted home response

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Thursday 17 Dec 2015

Few Tunisians seemed to care as the country's National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo

The UGTT headquarters in Tunisia (Photo: Karem Yehia)

Even though a picture of the Nobel Prize gold medal hangs on the building of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) reading "Congratulations Tunisia," elsewhere in Tunisia there are no manifestations of popular celebration.

Last week, the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize medal was awarded in Oslo, Norway, to the National Dialogue Quartet made up of four Tunisian civil society groups.

The four groups are the UGTT, the Tunisian Employer's Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

But anyone visiting Tunisia that day would observe the coldness with which Tunisians received the news.

It is true that state-owned TV channels and a number of private channels aired the ceremony and broadcast re-runs late Thursday.

However, the front pages of Tunisian newspapers were devoid of any reports in reference to the event.

From these newspapers we have to exclude Al-Shaab newspaper, which is the mouthpiece of the UGTT, that had the news as a headline of the front page that read: "Global coronation, the union in the heart of humanity."

Some telecommunications companies also put ads in the inner pages of newspapers in order to congratulate the Tunisian people.

A number of Tunisian news outlets that previously did not mention the news, reported and hailed it the next day in their headlines.

Chrouk newspaper, for example, wrote a headline that translates to "The world crowns the Tunisian exception," while Al-Maghrib newspaper wrote, "A gold medal to each party and a fifth to the country" and Al-Sabah newspaper chose the headline, "An appreciation to the people who have hope."

Perhaps Al-Maghreb, the discreet gazette that is usually read by the elite, particularly well-covered the event, and even published the text of the Quartet's joint speech.

The lengthy joint speech was delivered alternatively between the leaders of the Tunisian Quartet.

Ziad Kreshan, editor-in-chief of Al-Maghreb, nonetheless criticised the contradiction in how opposition members of parliament boycotted the budget approval session in an article under the title, "About the irony in Tunisia."

Kreshan used this as a sign of internal failure in managing the political and social landscape.

The office of the UGTT secretary general provided Ahram Online with a statement on the number of delegations that flew to Oslo to attend the award ceremony.

The numbers according to the statement were as follows: 109 attendees from the delegation of the UGTT Union, 37 from the Lawyers Syndicate and 19 representatives of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

The plane carrying the delegation had the name of the founder of the UGTT, martyr Farahat Hashad.

The Employer's Union, which is the fourth party in the quartet, flew to Oslo separately.

According to sources, this could be due to a break off in negotiations with the UGTT regarding an increase in wages of private sector employees.

Even the edition of the UGTT newspaper that celebrated the news of the Nobel Prize was not free of criticism of the Employer's Union.

Ironically, those who were expected to give a joint speech on the National Dialogue traveled to Oslo amid differences and ruptures, which prompted criticism on Tunisian streets.

In addition that the size of the delegations exceeded the number the awarding body had set, which was 20 from each organisation, going in such a manner did not appeal to an important sector of the elite covering the event.

In streets and cafes, the Tunisian people didn't seem to care much about the issue, reflected in not organising an expected celebration either after the announcement of the UGTT as the winner of Nobel Peace Prize in October or now.

Such public sentiments of indifference appear related to the fact that the country's economic and living conditions did not improve.

The UGTT-sponsored political talks among Tunisian political forces led to the finalisation of the new constitution, and holding parliamentary and presidential elections.

From the process emerged a coalition government led by Nidaa Tounes, with limited representation for its rival, the Islamist Ennahda Party. But such arrangements made no impact on the economy.

"It is true that the agreement has prevented bloodshed, but our conditions are the same. They (the UGTT) are happy with the prize, but the people are angry, especially with terrorism and the curfew in place afterwards," 55-year-old worker in a food shop Ali Hamadi said.

Moreover, some Tunisians are sceptical about European interest in Tunisian politics, suspecting such an interest is affected by a colonial legacy.

Ramzy Al-Agnaf, 35, who works in a clothes shop, said: "This prize is usually given in return for serving the West, especially France. Look how French President Francois Hollande honoured the Quartet before Tunisian President Beji Ceid Essebsi did the same thing."

"The coalition between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda is originally made by the Europeans and the Americans to maintain interests that the Tunisian people don't care about," Ramzy added.

In contrast, Nagat Al-Yacoubi — secretary general for the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) — said she "feels proud" about the Nobel Prize as a Tunisian citizen.

But Al-Yacoubi acknowledged that many among the Tunisian people had no interest in the matter.

"A lot of Tunisians are not satisfied with the agreement between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, believing that — with the exception of freedoms of expression — their living conditions have gotten worse, not better than before. Now their rights are also threatened under government claims of combating terrorism," she said.

She added that the emergence of political figures who worked for the regime of Ben Ali, along with Ennahda Islamists and the growing threat of terrorism, "do not encourage the Tunisians to celebrate the Nobel Prize despite it being a source of pride."

News of the injury of four soldiers following confrontations between the Tunisian army and militants took the headlines of all newspapers the day the Quartet was receiving the prize.  

Shaker Besbas — the host of a programme on Shams radio channe — said his channel covered the Nobel event for three hours, receiving calls from several audiences who expressed their happiness on air. Yet, the correspondent of the programme in Tunis reported that the people were not highly interested in following the event on Oslo.

"I believe the state authorities failed to convey the importance of the event to the people, and some media outlets did not perform their tasks efficiently in that manner. The security and economic conditions will continue to be prioritised for the Tunisians," Besbas stated.

Meanwhile, in a related context, Tunisian youth are among the most involved in social networks in the Arab world. Adel Al-Hag Salem, chief editor of Al-Awan website, said that the sarcasm expressed on social media "towards everything" included the Nobel Prize.

"In fact, many Tunisians cannot realise the symbolic significance of the prize, and there are normal citizens who are not satisfied with the performance of the government in terms of economy and security," he said.

"On the level of the elites, some of them oppose civil society and its organisations, directing accusations against them that are based on ideological viewpoints. Also some of the elites do not accept giving the prize for figures that had hostile positions against human rights in the Arab world in the past," added Salem.

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