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Quartets, Symphonies and the Nobel Peace Prize

On October 9th the Nobel Prize Committee made a remarkable decision. By choosing a quartet of civil society organizations instrumental to Tunisia’s democratic transition, they validated the connections between democratization and peace. While the Arab Spring led to violence, chaos, terrorism, and repression in much of the Middle East, the head of the Nobel Committee described the role of the Dialogue Quartet as leading “an alternative peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”

Shortly after the Nobel announcement, a friend asked me why I hadn’t blogged about the prize. “Its what your book is all about– civil society promoting democracy.” In this case, my procrastination turned out to be a good thing.

Last night  my husband and I attended a concert by the magnificent Da Ponte String Quartet. As the musicians were warming up, I read the astounding title and notes to “Enemies of the State.” The concert included an ominous piece by Erwin Schulhoff, a brillant, German Jewish composer, whose dark quartet  foreshadowed his death in a concentration camp. The next quartet, by Dimitri Shostakovich, provides a devastating musical portrait of life under Stalinist terror. Finally, came Mozart’s Quartet in A Major, written shortly before his death, when he already feared he had been poisoned, possibly at the behest of Emperor Leopold II. According to the program notes, Mozart was “a feminist— extremely rare for that time— a revolutionary sympathizer- and, as an itinerant musician, permitted to travel much more freely in Europe than most people of his class.”

This morning, I read a New Yorker article called “Handel in Kinshasa.” Alex Okeowo describes how a large group of church-based “amateur” musicians in the Congo have created a first rate classical orchestra, which has toured Europe and received international accolades, despite having to survive most of the time in the failed state that replaced the Mobutu dictatorship. Perhaps music can play at least a slow catalytic role in changing political as well as general culture. As with all forms of positive human endeavor, music changes our relationships with each other. It may be that  music can contribute to democratization, as do democratization NGOs. Robert Putnam, in his comparison of Northern and Southern Italy, gave the choral societies of the North considerable credit for the that region’s civic capacities. Indeed, civil society organizations focused on the arts may be particularly powerful because music and art can open minds and expand tolerance.  Among jazz musicians, improvisation is a kind of deliberative  conversation among equals, rather than a polarized shouting match.

So back to Tunisia, via our musical detour. Its easy to see why orchestras have an impact greater than the sum of their parts. I had the same impression of the Da Ponte Quartet last night, even though I am a non-musician (except for a 2 year stint in a community chorus). Similarly, the four organizations that comprise the democratization quartet in Tunisia — two democratization NGOs, a national labor federation and a kind of chamber of commerce that includes many small businesses, have  an  impact on their country far greater than anyone could have predicted.

Of course Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, has some advantages. Its educational level is relatively high, and its long-term ( 1957-1987 ) strong man and nationalist leader, Habib Bourguiba, was sensitive to public opinion, and encouraged job creating industries and tourism. As a secular Muslim he gave women the vote and did away with polygamy and the veil.

Although 50 people were killed in 1977 during pro-democracy riots, Bourguiba’s rule was generally peaceful. However,  his long-standing cult of personality and continuing economic difficulties in the 1980s paved the way for Prime Minister Zine el Abdine Ben Ali to remove him from office after a team of doctors pronounced him unfit to rule.

Ben Ali became increasingly dictatorial over 24 years in power. But in 2011, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia overthrew him, in the first act of the Arab Spring. Tunisia struggled with a difficult transition to democracy, including deep divisions over the drafting of a new constitution and tensions between the new government’s Islamist majority and the secular opposition. Protests and assassinations in 2013 led members of the opposition to resign from the Assembly, making it unable to function.

By July the Tunisian General Labour Union (TGLU) was calling for negotiation, and when the political parties accepted, the process was placed under the aegis of the TGLU and three other organizations, the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Order of Lawyers and the Tunisian Human Rights League. The lawyers and human rights activists can be considered democratization NGOs, but all four organizations are members of the broader civil society in Tunisia.

This newly- organized Quartet first developed a road map for negotiations, including resignation of the government, its replacement by an interim regime, fixed dates for elections, and an agreement to preserve national identity in the new constitution. It also set up the steps and deadlines needed for transition to a democratic government. Each political party had to agree to this roadmap in order to participate in the negotiations, and 21 parties signed up. The dialogue continued, under the aegis of the Quartet, and their active role led to the selection of a prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, the ratification of the Constitution in January 2014, and presidential elections in December.

The Nobel Committee went out of its way to announce that the prize was for the Quartet, not for the four organizations that comprised it. When a journalist asked the Quartet about “their leader” he was pointedly told that the there was none. Thus, this political quartet resembles its musical cousin, not only because it is greater than the sum of its parts, but also because it lacks a conductor.

The Da Ponte String Quartet is named after Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose name is derived from the Italian word for bridge. In his day, Mozart’s was an exquisite, if rare, voice for equality,  a bridge to the future. Today, perhaps, at least in some places, civil society, including all of its cultural riches, can help build a democratization bridge, which gives people hope, even in the absence of full-fledged democracy. Mozart, although ahead of his time politically, was a child of the European Enlightenment. Democracy activists today are its heirs and they are everywhere.

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