OSLO - tunisian civil society groups won the nobel peace prize on Friday for helping to save the only democracy that emerged from the Arab Spring, offering the country symbolic support after it was shaken by a wave of jihadist attacks.
The Nobel panel said the award to the National Dialogue Quartet was intended as an "encouragement to the tunisian people" and as an inspiration for others, particularly in the turbulent Middle East.
The award drew praise from around the world as a "beacon of hope" for the region, while one winner said it was a tribute to the "martyrs" who died in the struggle to move the north African country from dictatorship to democracy.
The committee hailed the quartet's "decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011," chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five said.
"The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes that this year's prize will contribute towards safeguarding democracy in Tunisia and be an inspiration to all those who seek to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East, North Africa and the rest of the world," the panel said.
The prize was awarded nearly five years after a desperate tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, touching off a wave of unrest which left more than 300 people dead and eventually toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, inspiring uprisings across the region.
Formed in 2013 when the process of democratisation was in danger of collapsing because of widespread social unrest, the quartet established an alternative, peaceful political process as Tunisia was on the brink of civil war, the committee said.
It is made up of the tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the tunisian Human Rights League and the tunisian Order of Lawyers.
The honour took observers by surprise as the Tunisians had not been mentioned in the weeks of frenzied speculation in the run-up to the announcement. The powerful labour union described it as a "tribute to martyrs of a democratic Tunisia."
"This effort by our youth has allowed the country to turn the page on dictatorship," said UGTT chief Houcine Abassi.
Trade confederation UTICA said they had succeeded where others had failed.
"We are here to give hope to young people in Tunisia that if we believe in our country, we can succeed," its head Ouided Bouchamaoui said. On the streets of Tunis, people welcomed the Nobel as a boost for democracy.
"It's an encouragement for the parties in opposition and those in power so they can believe in democracy and not just grab power," Tunis resident Shukri ben Nasif told AFP.
President Beji Caid Essebsi said the award recognises Tunisia's "path of consensus", adding: "Tunisia has no other solution than dialogue despite ideological disagreements."
However, democracy remains fragile in Tunisia, which has been rocked by bloody attacks by Islamic State jihadists this year and some high-profile political killings and is still grappling with corruption.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the award showed the Middle East and North Africa "the way out of the crises in the region: national unity and democracy".
France's President Francois Hollande said it "rewards the success of the democratic transition in Tunisia, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said it made Tunisia a "beacon of hope" for the region.
"The prize is a tribute and a call to support all civil society forces engaged in the fight for democracy, pluralism and rule of law," added UNESCO chief Irina Bokova.
"The Quartet exercised its role as a mediator and driving force to advance peaceful democratic development in Tunisia with great moral authority," the Nobel panel said.
"More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the tunisian people," it said, expressing hope it would set an example for other countries in the region.
Since the Tunisia uprising, the Arab world has been rocked by massive upheaval that has toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and plunged Syria into a brutal civil war.
Tunisia was able to adopt a constitution in January 2014 and held its first democratic elections at the end of last year.
But attacks claimed by Islamic State militants killed 22 people, mostly tourists, at a Tunis museum in March, and another 38 foreigners in a beach resort in June.
It is the second time a Nobel peace honour has been bestowed in connection with the Arab Spring after Tawakkol Karman, an activist fighting Yemen's regime, shared the 2011 prize with two Liberians, one of them the president, over their struggle for women's rights.
The prize is a gold medal, a diploma and a cheque for eight million Swedish kronor (around 860,000 euros/$950,000) that will handed out at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of prize creator Alfred Nobel, a Swedish philanthropist and scientist.
Last year, Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 at the time, became the youngest-ever winner of the nobel peace prize in an award shared with India's Kailash Satyarthi for their struggle against the suppression of children and their right to education.