Is an Arab Spring activist set to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

With the committee expected use the Nobel Peace Prize to promote human rights and social media, experts predict an Arab Spring activist will win.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
Egyptians celebrate in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 11 following the announcement that Hosni Mubarak would step down as president.

Experts predict the Nobel Peace Prize will be given tomorrow to an Arab Spring activist – though which one is under debate – as part of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s expected focus on human rights and the role of the social media this year.

Kristian Berg Harpviken, director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, believes the award will go to Esraa Abdel Fattah, co-founder of Egypt's April 6 movement, which was established first as a Facebook group in the spring of 2008. The movement is credited with playing arole in the 2011 uprisings that led to regime change in Egypt.

Asle Sveen, a Norwegian historian, predicts the award may go to Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger and university lecturer, who was critical of the Tunisian regime prior to the uprising of December 2010.

The Nobel committee appears eager to contribute to current political processes with the award. The Arab Spring began in December 2010 with protests in Tunisia and has spread across the Middle East and North Africa. The revolutionary wave has led to the overthrow of three heads of state, most recently Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

“The current (Nobel) committee under [Thorbjørn] Jagland as chair has been very clear that it wants to be in tune with the times and even more than that, wants the prize to have an impact on political developments,” says Mr. Harpviken.

A third possible Arab Spring candidate is Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian marketing executive for Google, whose online activism over the brutal police murder of Khalid Said helped set the state for the Egyptian uprising, adds Harpviken.

A woman's year?

However, there are sentiments leaning in favor of a female Arab Spring winner this year, particularly in the wake of the recent death of Wangari Maathai, the last woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and the high concentration of women on the Nobel Committee, according to Mr. Sveen.

Ms. Maathai, the Kenyan social activist behind the Green Belt Movement, received the prize in 2004. The year earlier, the award went to Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who founded the Defender of Human Rights Center in Iran. Out of the 97 individuals who have received the prize, 12 have been women. The first was Austrian novelist and pacifist Baroness Bertha von Suttner in 1905.

“I think it is slightly embarrassing that as few as ten (women) over the past 100 years have gotten the prize and as few as two in the past decade,” said Harpviken.

Another female choice this year could be Svetlana Gannushkina, founding member of the Russian organization Memorial, which focuses on reconciliation through historical documentation. She is currently a member of Russian’s Presidential Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights.

There are no confirmations that any of these potential candidates have been officially nominated. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it received 241 nominations for this year’s prize, 53 of which are organizations, by the deadline date of February 1. The committee also has the opportunity to nominate its own candidates before its first meeting after the deadline, which this year was February 28, just months into the Arab Spring.

“Of course some people would say that awarding a prize to the Arab Spring is a little bit premature and too risky, but I think the current committee would argue the opposite,” said Harpviken. “That is exactly the risk it wants to take. If there is any commonality across in the two prizes that this committee has awarded, namely the ones to Obama and Liu Xiaobo, it is exactly that.”

The Peace Prize, and China-Norway relations

The award to Mr. Liu last year sparked a diplomatic row with China, which felt the prize showed no respect for the country’s judicial system. Liu was sentenced to prison in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power” after having authored Charter 08, a political manifesto calling for increased rule of law, human rights and an end to one-party rule in China.

Since then, diplomatic ties between China and Norway have been chilly. China boycotted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo and prevented Liu, his family, and invited Chinese guests from attending. Shortly thereafter, China canceled high-level meetings with Norwegian politicians and there are fears that the tension has affected sales of Norwegian salmon to China.

The question now is how long the tension will last and when will free trade talks resume. The two countries were close to finishing negotiations last year just before the Peace Prize was awarded.

“Obviously this will not go on forever, but if it will take one year or three, or five years I have no idea,” said Sverre Lodgaard, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. “This is a pair of countries which can go on like this without any material strain because China is growing rapidly and Norway is well off and we are on different sides of the globe. The pain I think is at the political level.”

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