Nobel Peace Prize spotlights National Dialogue Quartet

Bloody civil wars, the rise of the so-called “Islamic State,” the continued rule by absolute monarchs and other despots, and the ongoing Israeli and Moroccan occupations have left many skeptical of the prospects of peace, democracy and stability in the Arab world.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10 to a group of four Tunisian civil society groups that played a key role in their country’s transition to democracy is a reminder of how, if given the opportunity, Arab peoples are quite capable of the difficult work of navigating their nation from dictatorship to democracy.

The Nobel Committee recognized the role of the National Dialogue Quartet — composed of the Tunisian General Labor Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) — for “its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralist democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”

Tunisia is still beset by serious political and economic problems, as well as the threat of Islamist terrorists and the risk that the government could suppress civil liberties. Still, the country remains the one real success story of the so-called “Arab Spring.”

Recent years have demonstrated the power of strategic nonviolent action in bringing down authoritarian regimes. Unlike countries where autocratic governments have been overthrown by armed struggle or foreign military intervention, which usually results in civil war and/or a new dictatorship, countries where democratic civil society organizations mobilize nonviolently are more likely to evolve into stable democracies within a few years.

There is no guarantee, however. Egypt’s nonviolent revolutionaries who brought down the Mubarak regime in 2011 have watched their country slide back into authoritarianism. The Yemenis ousted authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh the following year, but the regime largely remained intact, resulting in civil war.

Some have argued that the Nobel Prize should have gone to those on the front lines of the struggle that originally brought down the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Indeed, the story of the four-week unarmed insurrection in the face of brutal government repression during 2010-2011 is truly inspiring.

However, what transpired afterward was also impressive.

Immediately following Ben Ali’s flight into exile, his prime minister assumed power as interim president, replaced the following day by the former speaker of the lower house of parliament. Since both were leading members of Ben Ali’s ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally party, however, protests continued, forcing the inclusion of leading opposition figures in the cabinet.

Demonstrators persisted until top government posts were purged of any remaining members of Ben Ali’s party and were purged of other close associates of the former regime by the end of January. An interim government organized free competitive elections to be held that October.

As in Egypt, conservative Islamists had an organization advantage, with their Ennahda party winning a plurality. But they were willing to share power in a coalition government.

Ten months later, though, many thousands of Tunisians were on the streets protesting the government’s efforts to restrict women’s rights and curb civil liberties in the draft constitution and its failure to stop violence by Islamist extremists.

Protests escalated the following year, particularly in reaction to the assassinations of two popular left-wing secular leaders, leading to a general strike in July 2013 amid calls for the Islamists to step down. Fears increased of a bloody crackdown, a military coup, or even civil war.

However, the Quartet then came to the fore to negotiate the transition to a provisional technocratic government and the drafting of a democratic constitution.

The constitution ratified in January 2014, one of the most progressive in the world, includes provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, and protection of the country’s natural resources. In October, Nidaa Tounes, a center-left coalition uniting secularists, trade unionists, and liberals, won the largest bloc of seats in parliamentary election. The coalition’s presidential candidate, Beji Caid Essebsi, was elected in December.

One remarkable aspect of the process was not just that secularists and Islamists were able to negotiate an agreement in the country’s best interests, but that sharp divisions within the Quartet had to be resolved before the negotiations even began. The ideological range of the Quartet included the decidedly leftist Tunisia General Labor Union and the pro-business UTICA (which effectively served as Tunisia’s Chamber of Commerce).

The union’s general secretary, Houcine Abassi, noted how the political parties were “sticking to radical intransigent positions and they were not looking out for the general interest.” As a result, “we decided, as a union movement, to shoulder our responsibilities. We considered there had to be one independent neutral party and that party should be worthy of everyone’s trust.”

It is perhaps not coincidental that the one major success story of the Arab Spring comes from the country where the United States was least involved. Unlike in Egypt, the United States did not help arm, train and finance a massive military apparatus. Unlike in Bahrain, the U.S. did not back the government in its suppression of pro-democracy forces. Unlike in Libya, the U.S. did not intervene militarily. Unlike in Yemen, the U.S. did not support blocking the establishment of a democratic representative government.

In Tunisia, however, representatives of the nation’s people were able to take the lead. And they chose democracy.

Obama’s Escalation in Syria

President Obama’s announcement that he would send up to 50 U.S. Special Forces to “train, advise and assist” armed militia fighting forces of the so-called “Islamic State” in Syria marks an escalation in U.S. military involvement in that country.

It also raises some serious legal, political, strategic, ethical, and constitutional questions and may open the way to a far larger and dangerous military entanglements in the future. Despite the absence of the requisite approval of Congress, the United States has been engaged in regular airstrikes in that country for more than a year as well as arming, training, and funding “moderate” rebel groups with little strategic gain to show for it.

On at least sixteen occasions, President Obama assured the American people that, despite increased U.S. military involvement in Syria, there would be “no boots on the ground.” It was assumed there would be exceptions for situations such as rescuing a downed pilot, or a short-term special commando operation such as destroying critical targets or rescuing hostages.

Obama’s announcement, however, means that for the first time there will be U.S. troops on the ground on an ongoing basis. The hope is that the elite forces will act as “force multipliers” by being embedded in what they hope to be a pro-democratic, multi-ethnic unit and by coordinating their operations with well-established Kurdish militia.

Given the limited nature of the intervention, the small number of troops involved, and the perfidious nature of the ISIS enemy, many traditional critics of U.S. military involvement overseas are not raising objections. These U.S. advisors might even make a positive difference: Unlike the Syrian regime and the U.S.-backed forces of the Iraqi regime—which have engaged in major human rights abuses, have little support in ISIS-controlled areas, and have often proved to be an ineffective fighting force—these American soldiers will be working with popular Kurdish militia which have repeatedly proven themselves in battles against ISIS.

However, from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan, Americans have seen what were supposed to have been limited engagements escalate into long, bloody, and costly wars. The Pentagon has made clear that this is an open-ended mission, and the administration has not ruled out sending in additional forces at a later date.

Recent decades have shown that the more the United States has become involved militarily in the Middle East, the more violent and destabilized the region has become and the less secure the United States and its interests have become.

During the past fifteen months, the U.S. has deployed 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and has engaged in more than 6,000 air strikes in the fight against ISIS, but Congress has still not voted on whether to authorize this latest U.S. military intervention. Even with last week’s announced escalation, Congress has failed to live up to its constitutional responsibilities.

Obama did submit a proposed authorization for the use of military force earlier this year. Since many Democrats thought it was not restrictive enough, and Republicans thought it was too restrictive, it never passed. Despite this, U.S. involvement has not only continued, but increased.

President Obama claims that due to previous Congressional resolutions following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the October 2002 resolution approving the invasion of Iraq, he does not actually need such authorization. However, the former resolution was only in regard to Al Qaida (which actually opposes ISIS) and the latter was in regard to the long-deposed Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution, which bars a president from engaging U.S. forces in a hostile situation for more than 90 days unless Congress approves the deployment, should have prevented Obama’s escalation. However, it appears that a bipartisan effort has effectively shredded this landmark piece of legislation which grew out of popular opposition to the Vietnam War.

So, whether or not one thinks this might be a case where US military intervention might be justified, the bottom line is that it is illegal, a threat to the Constitution, and a very dangerous precedent.