Watch videos from the event:
Addressing a packed room of more than 500 policymakers, diplomats, and friends, on November 10th, the National Democratic Institute and NDI Chairman Madeleine Albright honored four Tunisian leaders dedicated to building democracy in their country.
“The yearning to express one’s views without fear comes as naturally to people who dwell near the Mediterranean or Red Seas as it does to those living along the Potomac,” said Secretary Albright in her remarks. “For all who take issue with that statement I have a simple response: go and visit Tunisia. Because what is happening there, in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, disproves the conventional wisdom that democracy is unattainable in that region.”
The four Tunisians received the Institute’s 2015 Democracy Award for working to realize the promise of the revolution through civil society, political parties, and government. Yassine Brahim, an engineer who forged his career in the banking industry, is the Tunisian Minister for Development, Investment and International Cooperation and President of the Afek Tounes Party in Tunisia. Rafik Halouani, a well-known civil society activist, is the President of Mourakiboun Network, a leading election observation network in Tunisia. Wafa Makhlouf, a business woman and social entrepreneur, is a Member of the Tunisian Assembly of Representatives of the People, as is Sayida Ounissi, who, as a member of parliament, represents the Tunisian diaspora in France. You can hear the story of these brave Tunisians in their own voices in the video below. Through their efforts, they are making democracy work for Tunisia.
The theme of this year’s dinner, “The Promise of Democracy,” was evident both in celebrating the accomplishments of Tunisia, as well as in the somber reminder of what can occur where democracy faces considerable obstacles, often at the hands of long-standing dictators.
High Commissioner António Guterres of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees delivered the keynote speech. NDI honored the High Commissioner, a leading political figure in the democratic transition of his own country of Portugal, for his tireless efforts to resettle Syrian refugees who are fleeing violence and persecution.
In his remarks, High Commissioner Guterres discussed the interconnectivity between the refugee crisis and the lack of democracy in Syria and called for the international community to show leadership. “In Syria, no one is winning; everyone is losing. We need new leadership for peace, leadership for democracy, and leadership in refugee protection.”
Amer Doko, Senior Program Officer with NDI, is a living example of the trials Syria faces and the promise of democracy that still resides there. Born and raised in the suburbs of Damascus, Amer grew up hearing the Assad regime proclaim: “Assad or we burn the country.” During the 2011 Arab Spring, when the Syrian people rebelled and Assad kept his promise, Amer was jailed along with other activists fighting for democracy. Upon release and fearing for his life, Amer fled.
The Syrian story does not end in hopelessness with the refugee crisis. Amer spoke about the “resilience of thousands of Syrians who remain deeply committed to building a democratic future for their country. Against all odds, they are unwavering in their commitment to nonviolent political change, peaceful participation, and rebuilding Syria one day.” And, as Amer concluded, “If Syrians can do this much under barrel bombs, just imagine what they can do when the bombs stop falling on them.”
The 2015 Democracy Dinner proved that the promise of democracy is alive and well in many difficult places. In that spirit, High Commissioner Guterres charged participants to remain steadfast: “If we stick to our values ...peace and democracy will prevail; there will be fewer refugees, and those refugees that do exist will find a solution to their plight."
Even in places as difficult as Syria, NDI works with opposition leaders, civil society organizations, local councils, and individual activists to build their understanding of the fundamentals of democracy, strengthen local governance structures and processes, and develop their ability to organize and advocate for reform.
NDI has supported Tunisians’ aspirations for a more inclusive and participatory political system for 15 years. NDI programs have helped Tunisian partners develop more responsive political parties, promote the effectiveness and transparency of the new parliament, strengthen the political engagement of civil society, and bring women and youth into political leadership.
Published November 13, 2015