The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was hailed for pulling the country that sparked the Arab Spring back on to a path towards democracy and preventing it from descending into civil war.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised the quartet’s “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy” in the North African country following its 2011 revolution.
“It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war,” the committee said in its citation.
The prize is a huge victory for Tunisia, whose young and still shaky democracy suffered two extremist attacks this year that killed 60 people and devastated the tourism industry.
Tunisian protesters sparked uprisings across the Arab world in 2011 that overthrew dictators and upset the status quo. However, it is the only country in the region to painstakingly build a democracy, involving a range of political and social forces in dialogue to create a constitution, legislature, and democratic institutions.
“More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries,” said Nobel Peace Prize committee chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five.
The National Dialogue Quartet is made up of four key groups: The Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.
Kullmann Five said the prize was for the quartet as a whole, not the four individual organisations.
The committee said the group played a key role as a mediator and force for democracy, paving the way for a peaceful dialogue among citizens, political parties and authorities across political and religious divides, countering the spread of violence.
Houcine Abassi, leader of the Tunisian General Labour Union, said he was “overwhelmed” as he found out about the award.
“It’s a prize that crowns more than two years of efforts deployed by the quartet when the country was in danger on all fronts,” he said.
Abassi said he hopes the award will help “unite Tunisians to face the challenges presenting themselves now — first and foremost, the danger of terrorism”.
Wided Bouchamaoui, head of the trade group in the quartet, said Tunisia’s experience could be “exportable” to other countries.
She said told France’s i-Tele television the prize “is for all the Tunisian people”.
Tunisian broadcast media interrupted coverage to announce the prize, and social media exploded with celebratory commentary.
The decision came as a surprise to many, with speculation having focused on Europe’s migrant crisis or the Iran-US nuclear deal in July.
“It is a very good prize that tries to get into the heart of the conflict in the Muslim world,” said Oeyvind Stenersen, a Nobel historian. “But it was a bit bewildering. It was very unexpected.”
The prize comes the day after unidentified assailants shot repeatedly at a policymaker and prominent sports magnate in Sousse, underscoring a sense of uncertainty in the Tunisian city, which depends heavily on tourism.
While Tunisia has been much less violent than neighbouring Libya or Syria, its transition to democracy has been marred by occasional violence, notably from Islamic extremists.
An attack in June on a beach resort in Sousse left 38 dead, mostly British tourists. Another in March killed 22 people, again mostly tourists, at the country’s leading museum, the Bardo in Tunis.