Tunisia sees new crowning of democracy, while human rights deteriorate

Four organizations that helped pave the way for Tunisia's democratic transition scooped up the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway on Thursday. The National Dialogue Quartet is credited with steering the country out of social unrest during the 2013 Arab Spring. Their model of dialogue has been championed the world over, but less well known is the deteriorating situation for homosexuals. Tunisia's model of democracy disguises a bleak portrait of human rights.

Nobel Peace Prize laureates of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet salute participants in a torch parade from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, December 10, 2015
Nobel Peace Prize laureates of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet salute participants in a torch parade from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, December 10, 2015 EUTERS/Audun Braastad/NTB

The contrast is stark between the jubilating faces of the Nobel Peace Prize's latest laureates, and the grim expression of members from Tunisia's first and only lesbian, gay and bisexual community.

Hours before the National Dialogue Quartet were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to democracy in Tunisia, the Vice President of the LGBT association Shams fled to Switzerland after receiving death threats.

"The situation of homosexuals in Tunisia is very dangerous," Tounsy Bayram told RFI. "There is a lot of opposition from the government to us, and the Ennahda islamic party has forbidden the association Shams," he said.

Bayram points out the paradox between the country's recognition for democratic progress on the international stage and the deteriorating situation for homosexuals at home.

"We consider that a contradiction because in Tunisia, the LGBT community is not considered like human, we don't have the right to exist, democracy must be for all," he added.

Democracy in Tunisia was fought for with blood, after a long and bitter struggle.

"This prize [Nobel Peace] is for all Tunisians, especially democrats who fought against the dictatorship, who fought for democracy," Nizar Anami, a Leftist Deputy from the Front Populaire party told RFI, highlighting the long road Tunis has had to travel.

It was the National Dialogue Quartet that steered the country from conflict to dialogue. Formed in 2013, the group began a lengthy and difficult "national dialogue" between the Islamists of the Ennahda party and their opponents, persuading them to compromise.

It's this spirit of negotiation that the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose to award on Thursday.

Back from the brink

A prize, that Souhayr Belhassen, Honorary President at the Internantional Federation of Human Rights, says is befitting: "The fact that the quartet was chosen is not a paradox, because they brought Tunisia back from the brink of civil war."

The quartet drew up a road map to ensure that the Arab world's first democracy succeeded its transition. Nearly five years on, with a new constitution, free elections and a compromise between Islamist and secular leaders, Tunisia is now a model of what dialogue can achieve.

But around the edges, this model is coming apart at the seams. Even within the National Dialogue Quartet itself, there are internal squabbles over the issue of minimum wage.

Two of its members : the Tunisian General Labour Union and the Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts can't agree on whether workers' salaries should be raised. The former and more powerful of the two argues they should, whilst the latter says the country's fragile economic situation won't cope with a salary hike.

"Hopefully this Nobel Peace prize will help revive the tourism industry, because Tunisia is facing a serious economic and social crisis," explains Leftist MP Anami.

The country has been rocked by major attacks this year: a bombing of a presidential bus only last month, a beach resort massacre in June, without forgetting an attack on the national Bardo museum in March.

The terror threat has crippled the tourism industry, and led to a security crackdown.

Belhassen from the federation of international human rights fears that security concerns will undermine democratic gains: "Tunisia is in a spiral of violence which could unfortunately give authorities an excuse to roll back civil liberties," she said.

"Homosexuals are not the only ones being persecuted; it’s also human rights groups who are constantly being criticized in the press – which is supposed to be free!
Thousands of people are arrested every day and go missing, and despite our best efforts to find them, they are never found; and this is extremely worrying."

Part of the problem comes from the alliance between Nida Tounes-the ruling party from the centre left and the Ennahda islamist party.

"There is no room for human rights in this configuration," Belhassen regrets, pointing out that the Justice minister was sacked six weeks ago after calling for a law criminalizing the gay community to be scrapped.

"The Justice minister has gone, but the law remains," she said wryly. Her hopes for the Nobel Peace Prize? That it will serve as a reminder of the country's commitment not just to democracy, but to human rights.

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