(CNN) — The Nobel Peace Prize Committee confounded expectations Friday — bypassing figures such as Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — and handed the award to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for its “decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in the country in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.”
The group is dedicated to creating dialogue between disparate elements of Tunisian society.
“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,” the Nobel Committee said in a statement. “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 group includes a labor union, a trade confederation, a human rights organization and a lawyers group.
A prize to encourage the faltering Arab Spring
In a broader sense, the prize appeared to be an effort by the Nobel Committee to bolster the Arab Spring — which, indeed, began in Tunisia in December 2010.
The Arab Spring dawned with hope and idealism, and spread across parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
But it has seen those ideals mired in bitter reality in many countries — most notably in Syria, where an uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad has morphed into a devastating civil war that has pushed waves of desperate people to attempt to migrate to Europe.
No one does secrecy like the Nobel Committee, and the Tunisian group did not figure in the popular speculation or in the favorites named by betting organizations.
Instead, the betting had centered on Francis, for his calls for economic fairness in the world, and Merkel, for her courage in welcoming many among the tide of people fleeing to Europe — in large part because of chaos in the Middle East, the scene of such hope during the Arab Spring.
As the Nobel Committee noted Friday in its statement, “The Arab Spring originated in Tunisia in 2010-2011, but quickly spread to a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East. In many of these countries, the struggle for democracy and fundamental rights has come to a standstill or suffered setbacks.”
Prominent people, including Snowden, passed over
The Arab Spring began when a Tunisian street vendor named Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouaziz fatally set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, to protest harassment by authorities. In the anger that followed, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years, stepped down the following January.
Within a couple of years, leaders had been forced from power in Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Popular protests broke out in numerous other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria.
But tearing down the old order is always easier than building the new. By 2013, as the Nobel Committee noted in its announcement, “the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest.”
The Quartet, the Nobel Committee said, “established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
Besides Francis and Merkel, other betting favorites had included:
• American Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about secret U.S. surveillance programs
• Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Timoleon Jimenez, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who agreed to a path for peace this year, setting the groundwork for a final accord
• Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief and one of the founders of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper
• The Article 9 Association, a pacifist group fighting to preserve a Japanese constitutional clause that prohibits war as a means of settling international disputes
• Jeanne Nacatche Banyere, Jeannette Kahindo Bindu and Dr. Denis Mukwege, who help rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
• Mussie Zerai, a Catholic priest who is a phone contact for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea for Europe, passing on the coordinates of their boats to rescuers and coast guards
• Raif Badawi, who in 2008 launched the Free Saudi Liberals website.