A Tunisian coalition of workers, employers, human rights activists and lawyers won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for pulling the country that sparked the Arab Spring back onto a path toward democracy and preventing it from descending into civil war.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet "for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy" in the North African country following its 2011 revolution.
"It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war," the committee said in its citation.
The prize is a huge victory for small Tunisia, whose young and still shaky democracy suffered two extremist attacks this year that killed 60 people and devastated the tourism industry.
Tunisian protesters sparked uprisings across the Arab world in 2011 that overthrew dictators and upset the status quo. But it is the only country in the region to painstakingly build a democracy, involving a range of political and social forces in dialogue to create a constitution, legislature and democratic institutions.
"More than anything, the prize is intended as an encouragement to the Tunisian people, who despite major challenges have laid the groundwork for a national fraternity which the committee hopes will serve as an example to be followed by other countries," Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five said.
The National Dialogue Quartet is made up of four key organizations in Tunisian civil society: the Tunisian General Labour Union; the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers.
Kullmann Five said the prize was for the quartet as a whole, not the four individual organizations.
The committee said the quartet played a key role as a mediator and force for democracy, paving the way for a peaceful dialogue among citizens, political parties and authorities across political and religious divides, countering the spread of violence.
Nobel officials said they didn't reach any representatives of the quartet before the announcement.
Houcine Abassi, the leader of the Tunisian General Labour Union, said he was "overwhelmed" as he found out about the award from an Associated Press reporter.
"It's a prize that crowns more than two years of efforts deployed by the quartet when the country was in danger on all fronts," he said.
Abassi said he hopes the award will help "unite Tunisians to face the challenges presenting themselves now — first and foremost, the danger of terrorism."
Wided Bouchamaoui, head of the trade group in the quartet, said Tunisia's experience could be "exportable" to other countries.
She said told France's i-Tele television the prize "is for all the Tunisian people."
Tunisian broadcast media interrupted coverage to excitedly announce the prize, and social media exploded with celebratory commentary.
The decision came as a surprise to many, with speculation having focused on Europe's migrant crisis or the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal in July.
"It is a very good prize that tries to get into the heart of the conflict in the Muslim world," said Oeyvind Stenersen, a Nobel historian. "But it was a bit bewildering. It was very unexpected."
The prize comes the day after unidentified assailants shot repeatedly at a lawmaker and prominent sports magnate in Sousse, underscoring a sense of uncertainty in the Tunisian city, which depends heavily on tourism.
While Tunisia has been much less violent than neighboring Libya or Syria, its transition to democracy has been marred by occasional violence, notably from Islamic extremists.
An attack in June on a beach resort in Sousse left 38 dead, mostly British tourists. Another in March killed 22 people, again mostly tourists, at the country's leading museum, the Bardo in Tunis.
The uprising in Tunisia, provoked by high unemployment, corruption, dashed expectations and decades of repression by brutal security services, was set off on Dec. 17, 2010, when an itinerant fruit vendor set himself on fire in a remote southern city after he was manhandled by police.
The revolution electrified the Arab world, and in rapid succession pro-democracy demonstrations broke out across the region, ultimately bringing down the rulers of Egypt and Libya and plunging Syria into civil war.
The Nobel committee noted that in many of those countries the pro-democracy struggle has come to a standstill. It said it hopes the prize will help safeguard the progress made in Tunisia and inspire all "who seek to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East, North Africa and the rest of the world."
The award capped a week of Nobel Prize announcements, with the winners of the medicine, physics, chemistry and literature awards presented earlier in Stockholm.
The economics award — not an original Nobel Prize but created in 1968 — will be announced on Monday.