Nearly five years on, the once high hopes for the Arab Spring -- popular revolts that swept a Middle East long dominated by authoritarian rule -- have withered to a husk. But the small North African nation of Tunisia is seen as the region’s principal democratic success, if an imperiled one.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday to a coalition of Tunisian civil society groups was seen as a powerful affirmation for efforts to build an inclusive government in a country where an unemployed vegetable vendor’s self-immolation in late 2010 lit the spark of regional rebellion.
Since then, Tunisia’s path has often been difficult, with a pair of high-profile terror attacks this year and continued economic struggles. But the Norwegian Nobel Committee hailed the National Dialogue Quartet, as the coalition is known, for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.”
Figures such as Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been considered far more likely contenders for this year’s Peace Prize honor, and the selection of a relatively obscure group surprised many Nobel-watchers.
But recent months have brought a graphic reminder of how strongly the repercussions of Middle Eastern upheavals radiate outward, with an enormous wave of migrants and refugees washing up on Europe’s shores and Syria threatening to become the venue for a Cold War-style confrontation between the West and Russia.
The Quartet’s formation in 2013 came at a perilous moment for Tunisia.
“The democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest,” the Nobel committee said in its citation. The coalition, it said, “established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
For some of Tunisia’s neighbors -- especially Syria and Libya -- the Arab Spring presaged a full-on plunge into the abyss of long-running violence. In Egypt, the most populous Arab country, prolonged turmoil eventually led to the installation of a repressive new regime. Impoverished Yemen has been battered by a seven-month multi-sided struggle, with Shiite Muslim rebels and a military coalition led by Sunni Muslim-dominated Saudi Arabia as the main antagonists.
The ongoing regional chaos has also provided a key opportunity to the militants of Islamic State, who have overrun large swaths of Iraq and Syria and sought footholds elsewhere, even while lighting a long-running fuse on the migrant and refugee crisis.
The Tunisian consortium, made up of union activists, a trade confederation, a lawyers association and a human rights organization, was credited by the Nobel committee as having been “instrumental” in helping Tunisia achieve a regional rarity: a peaceful handover of power by an Islamist movement. By steadily advocating dialogue and calling in contacts from across the political spectrum, they helped draw the opposing parties together.
After the fall of longtime dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali, the Islamist Ennahda party won the largest share of votes in a parliamentary election, but its method of governance led to widespread discontent. Before escalating political violence could fully take hold, the parties negotiated a transfer of power and voters approved one of the region’s most progressive constitutions.
“This is not just an honor for the Quartet; it is an affirmation of the principle that we follow, which is the principle of consensual solutions,” President Beiji Caid Essebsi said in an online video. “Our congratulations to [both the] Quartet and to the Tunisian people as a whole.”
Tunisia was last in the international headlines under the worst possible circumstances: a shooting assault on a peaceful beach resort in June that left dozens of European tourists dead and dealt a damaging blow to the country’s tourism sector. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that massacre in the Mediterranean city of Sousse.
The attack came only three months after another deadly strike on a landmark museum in the Tunisian capital that left 21 people dead, most of them foreigners.
Tunisia has also seen a marked spillover of violence from next-door Libya, plagued by chaos and competing militias since the Arab Spring overthrown of Moammar Kadafi, and has struggled to prevent young men from going to fight for jihadist groups there or in Syria.
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