From Little League banquets to honorary doctorates, it may well be in the nature of award committees to tilt toward hyperbole. Elevating the legacy of the recipient is, among other things, an affirmation of the importance of those who can recognize importance when they see it. The committee that selects the recipient of each year’s Nobel Peace Prize unquestionably evaluates a slate of tremendously significant nominees, but even this august body fits the exaggerating profile in the language of its encomia. And with stakes higher than many, the Nobel’s fulsome praise can be faulted in recent years not simply for its overstatement, but also for its timing.
In 2011, I wrote about the Nobel award to Tawakkul Karman, Yemeni activist and (then) the youngest woman to have received the prize. While recognizing the genuinely novel and powerful role that Karman played both within her party—the broad Sunni Islamist grouping, Islah—and as a bridge between a partisan opposition and a post-partisan popular movement, I was critical of the committee’s downplaying of her Islamist commitments, as well as the way in which the award language presupposed that her activism represented a straightforward advance for Yemeni women.
What I should have been more concerned about is whether Karman would live up to her award. As with President Barack Obama in 2009, the award to Karman was a forward-looking intervention, an attempt to create what it purported to describe in the midst of an unfolding political struggle. Or, as Benoit Challand has argued in an excellent piece at Public Seminar about this year’s honors to the Tunisian Quartet, the Nobel Peace Prize risks being seen as “more attuned to wishful thinking that its award will have a positive future effect, rather than giving due recognition for a really significant past achievement.”
Now, as in 2011, Karman is both a cause and an effect. Four years after receiving the Nobel, she signifies a deteriorating Yemen in crisis. Targeted personally by Houthi militias as a symbolic early step in their unfolding coup in 2014, she has been a polarizing figure, her earlier pluralistic commitments giving way to the kind of unrepentant sectarian rhetoric that has underwritten the ongoing war. Some of this retrenchment is an understandable reaction to a climate of fear. Other centrist Islahis, like Muhammed Qahtan, have been “disappeared,” and still others murdered. And yet Karman’s own incendiary speech in the months before the Houthi coup cannot be discounted, contributing as it did to substantial hostility between two groups—Islah and the Houthis’ Ansar Allah—that disagree on many things but for many years have espoused some overlapping views. Today, such convergence is unrecognizable, buried beneath the drawn-out destruction of war and blockade that Karman herself has endorsed and in which the Muslim Brother-affiliated faction of her party has been a principal actor.
Tunisia, of course, is in no such dire straits, and the achievements of the Quartet are rightly lauded. But as Challand warns, there are ongoing forms of contestation—particularly around economic issues—to which the labor federation UGTT, a Quartet member, is a direct party, and to which other Quartet members, like the business grouping UTICA, will doubtless be called to respond. Ian Hartshorn has a new piece for Jadaliyya mapping Quartet members UGTT’s and UTICA’s place at the intersection of partisan and organized labor politics that offers a sobering portrait. In particular, Hartshorn argues, “The UGTT’s internal revisions since 2012 have brought more militant and rank-and-file members to positions of leadership, but they have been forged in the fires of political intrigue, not by the prosaic concerns of contract and labor negotiations.” Awarding the Nobel to the Quartet—in language that may elevate its institutional coherence—will not stop the clock.
Given that this award was given to the Quartet as an institution, however, and not to its individual members, perhaps such uncertainties are irrelevant. The Quartet deserves to be celebrated for its accomplishments. But to the extent that this year’s choice is (also) an effort to affirm a particular politics for the future, an analogous consideration of the career of Tawakkul Karman might give us reason to pause.