OSLO, Norway — The Arab Spring is the focus of speculation over this year's Nobel Peace Prize, with an Afghan human rights activist and the European Union as possible outsiders.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee gives no clues ahead of the Oct. 7 announcement, but judging by previous selections, the rebellion sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East would appear to tick all the right boxes.
"It would be consistent with their effort to give attention to high-profile and extremely important, potentially breakthrough developments by movements and by people," said Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The challenge would be to identify a person or group that embodies the non-violent spirit of the revolution, and doesn't turn out to be less deserving of the prestigious $1.5 million award once the final chapters of the still-unfolding Arab Spring have been written.
"It's particularly hard in the context of these protests where there hasn't always been an identifiable leadership," said Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, and a prominent voice in the Nobel guessing game.
His top picks are Egyptian activists Israa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher and the April 6 Youth Movement, a pro-democracy Facebook group they co-founded in 2008. They "played an instrumental role in the mobilization of protests on both the Internet and on the street," Harpviken said.
His second choice is Wael Ghonim, a marketing executive for Google, for re-energizing the protests on Cairo's Tahrir Square after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Harpviken's third pick is Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni who started criticizing the Tunisian regime before the uprising began in December. She made her name on Facebook as "Tunisian Girl" and, as the country's Arab spring rolled into a fullscale uprising, became a media darling.
The Tunisian man whose self-immolation set off the protests is not a contender because the Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.
One potential obstacle for an Arab Spring award is the Feb. 1 nomination deadline. Harpviken admitted that he wasn't sure whether any of his picks would have been nominated by then. Tunisia's revolt had peaked but the Egyptian protests were just gathering steam, and it was still not clear that the protests would escalate and spread across the region.
However, jurors could add their own suggestions until their first meeting Feb. 28 by which time the uprising had spread to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and other countries.
The committee can only choose from the valid nominations it had received by that meeting, but is free to consider subsequent events when making their decision.
Geir Lundestad, the non-voting secretary of the committee, noted that's what happened in 1978, when the prize went to Egyptian President Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. They had been nominated for other things, but won the prize for the Camp David peace agreement, which was concluded in September, long after the nomination deadline, with the help of U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
"But Jimmy Carter had not been nominated. So although the committed wanted to include him in the prize, he could not be included because he had not been nominated," Lundestad said.
Carter won the 2002 prize on his own.
The independent, five-member award committee appointed by Norway's Parliament has not shied away from controversy since former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland became chairman two years ago.
The 2009 award to President Barack Obama, in the first year of his presidency, met fierce criticism, especially from Obama's political opponents, that the prize was premature. Last year the Nobel committee awarded imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, despite strong warnings from China.
The award citations show the current jury strives to link the prize to current events. It sees the Nobel Peace Prize as a catalyst for change, encouraging efforts to make the world more peaceful, democratic and respectful of human rights.
In that context, the committee might be looking at Afghanistan. The day of the Nobel announcement will also mark 10 years since the Afghan war started on Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States.
A top candidate could be Sima Samar, who chairs the Afghan Human Rights Commission and serves as the U.N.'s special envoy on human rights in Afghanistan. Samar gave the lowest odds in Nobel betting on paddypower.com.
Honoring the EU — which typically is nominated every year — would have a special resonance given the current debt crisis that is undermining the euro currency and stoking a rise in nationalist sentiment.
Though Norway is not an EU member, Jagland is a strong supporter of the European bloc, which many consider a peace-building institution as much as an economic union. Intertwining their economies has helped member nations stay at peace with each other for six decades — no small feat in Europe's war-scarred history.
Julian Assange and his secret-spilling website, WikiLeaks, are also known to have been nominated, but their chances should be slim, considering the still ongoing sex crimes investigation against him in Sweden, and the release this year of unredacted U.S. diplomatic cables, which critics say may put sources at risk.
Ritter reported from Stockholm.
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