Tunisia was where the Arab Spring was launched, and it has been the one place where the dreams of that uprising have been most stablized and lasting. A big part of such a positive outcome has been the leadership of the civil society in Tunisia, including that of Ouided Bouchamaoui (sometimes her first name is transliterated as Wided).
Bouchamaoui was from a wealthy family who then launched out on her own as a business woman, building up her own cotton business. Following the 2011 Arab Spring, she became the head of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), an employers’ union. It was rather ground-breaking to see UTICA which had been an organization mostly under the control of the previous government become a force in shaping the revolution. As Bouchamaoui puts it, “The slogan created by the youth movement during the revolution was ‘Dignity and Work.’ It’s true, there is no dignity without work. So our role is to invest in order to create jobs. And if we can achieve this objective, we will have resolved the country’s economic and social problems.”
In 2013 the politically-motivated assassination of leading opposition figures sparked a crisis in the fragile democracy coming out of the Arab Spring revolution. Four civil society organizations, including UTICA, came together to form the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The other organizations were a labor union, a human rights organization, and a lawyers organization. Bringing together the employers and workers in the same civil society network was itself a dramatic step in unity. The Quartet issued a joint statement calling for calm and then went further by setting forth a roadmap for the aspirations of the majority of the Tunisian people. They got all the political parties in the coalition government and outside to sign onto the statement, showing that the driving force for shaping post-revolutionary Tunisia was going to come up from the public sector rather than from political conflict.
The Quartet then facilitated talks between the coalition government and the various political parties. A new constitution was agreed to out of the talks, providing a nonviolent way out of a potentially destabilizing and dangerous crisis.
In 2015 the Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As the Nobel Committee reported that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was given the prize “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” The Nobel Committee said they “were rewarding hope rather than a finished product.” Bourchamaoui in her remarks said, “We are here to give hope to young people in Tunisia, that if we believe in our country, we can succeed.”
Bourchamaoui said, “Our decision to start the Quartet was taken without thinking about the risks. For us, it was the only way to avoid civil war, and society rallied behind us.” The role of civil society leaders was critical. Tunisians had become distrustful of politicians, so it was these organizations that came out of the society without political portfolios that could be trusted and supported as the facilitators of this peace-building process.