Looking to Tunisia’s Civil Society Organisations

Posted on October 24, 2015


One of the most inspiring story to come last week was the announcement that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet has won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015. Unknown and unheard of outside of Tunisia, it was a surprise choice but a most worthy winner.

Tunisia was the country that sparked the Arab Spring in 2011 after decades of authoritarianism rule under the kleptocratic government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  It made the fragile transition to a functioning democracy while other countries in the region that revolted against their dictators, are still struggling for peace and stability.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said, “The Quartet was formed in the summer of 2013 when the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest. It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war, it was thus instrumental in enabling Tunisia, in the space of a few years, to establish a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief.”  The committee further added that it hopes the recognition of the Quartet will serve as an example that will be followed by other countries.

The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet composed of four organizations: the Tunisian General Labour Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.

Nobel Peace Prizes were usually given to individuals or single organisations, never before to a group of organisations that represented thousands of members. It should be noted that they were awarded as one entity, not four separate organisations. It is an unprecedented recognition of the role of civil society and the role of ordinary citizens in nation-building.

What can we learn from Tunisia’s experience for our own country that is going through our own political, economic and social upheavals?

Malaysia has had a virtual one-party or coalition rule since 1969 and it was not until 2008, after the 12th General Election that a substantive opposition emerged. Even though the two main coalitions have and are going through internal stresses and for the opposition, a breakup and a realignment, the days of one-party hegemonic rule is effectively over and Malaysia is now on the road to a two-coalition or even multi-party system.

While civil society organisations (CSOs) or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not a new phenomenon in Malaysia, they have played a relatively minor role in the political landscaping of this country, that is, until now. It would be reasonable to say that from the advent of the first Bersih and Hindraf rallies in 2007 till today, CSOs have emerged as an alternative voice in the political discourse, often offering dissenting views to the Government and occasionally to the Opposition as well.

CSOs that enter into the political arena are often labeled as either pro-Government or pro-Opposition by the positions they take on issues. But truly non-partisan CSOs always focuses on the issues they are championing be it free and fair elections, anti-corruption, human rights, minority rights, media freedom, protection of environment, etc.

The difference between a political party and a CSO is that one has or has the potential of power to directly make changes while the other can only advocate for changes. While real power lies with politicians, it is probably easier for activists to win the trust of the public as they have no personal vested interest in the outcome. The power and importance of a credible CSO lies in the influence it has over the public, especially the middle ground that are not card-carrying members of any political party.

While conditions in Malaysia may not be the same as Tunisia in that we have not gone through a revolution or at the verge of civil war to warrant the intervention of a neutral third force to broker peace, we do need to recognize the role and importance of civil society organisations in nation-building, where people can speak up simply because they care an issue and not because they are running for political office.

As Malaysia navigates the rough waters of the new landscape after the political tsunami of 2008 where an awakened, a more informed and educated electorate are expecting higher standards of governance and accountability, the voices of CSOs can only grow louder.

But for CSOs to be influential, they must not only be independent of political parties but be seen as such, even if they share the same positions or demands. Needless to say, if they don’t agree, they must freely do so openly. Only then can CSOs be seen as impartial, winning not just the trust of the public but also politicians from all political divide.

Looking at the Tunisian Quartet, it should be noted that they are not a natural grouping of allies, especially between the Tunisian General Labour Union and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts. One is a left-leaning workers’ union and the other a chamber of commerce type. They have to sort out their differences before they could sort out the country.

It would be true of the CSOs in Malaysia. Until and unless they come together to collaborate and have a cohesive position on matters of national importance, they would remain a cacophony of noises and not a symphony whose tune the politicians can dance to.

Meanwhile, let us all toast the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. May the citizens of the world arise!