Last Friday's announcement of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winners caught the world by complete but decidedly pleasant surprise. Once people had worked out the puzzle of who (and what) the winners were - a four-group civil society band of workers, bosses, lawyers and human rights activists called the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet - they congratulated the Oslo-based Nobel panel for an inspired decision.
Unknown mostly to all but Tunisians, the group had brokered a peaceful path to democracy at a crucial time when a testy military and an Islamist government were about to collide and cause Tunisia certain ruin via rule by guns or religious extremism. The quartet's achievement is all the more poetic since the thrust for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa - the Arab Spring - began in Tunisia. It swept the region like a swirl of hope but swiftly collapsed into a maelstrom of failed states, civil war or deja vu military-backed rule. Tunisia seems to be the sole, wobbly, success story of the Arab Spring.
Yet some feel that the preference for an unknown coalition over renowned front runners such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Pope Francis reflected a periodic wilfulness in deviating from Swedish benefactor Alfred Nobel's criteria. He had willed almost his entire fortune 120 years ago to finance annual prizes for achievements that advanced the greatest benefit to mankind. Peace is by far the award most anticipated, and prized. Conservatives think that Nobel, who made his money from destructive inventions like dynamite, meant winners to be individuals who brokered peace internationally, that is, on a larger scale.
By this yardstick, one would question the choice of Mr Barack Obama, whose only achievement then was that he was America's first black president; or hardly known Chinese dissident Liu Xiabo. Is the Nobel panel playing catch-up with globalisation by picking novel nominees, given the disproportionate number of past Western laureates? After all, Mahatma Gandhi, the enduring icon of non-violence, wasn't picked despite five nominations. Still, Oslo got it right many times, from Martin Luther King to Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. Equally vital is the fact that the Nobel panel has a knack for timeliness. It has given a leg-up when the means to peace, like a pluralistic democracy and basic rights, needed urgent bolstering against the crushing grip of authoritarianism and sheer terror. Cases in point: awards to Myanmar's Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 and Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai last year.
By recognising Tunisia's current Fab Four, the Nobel committee has done the same. It has sparked a brighter, stronger sheen on a glimmer of hope for workable peace in a region perennially riven by terror-stricken strife and political stasis.