OSLO (Reuters) - The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize may recognise activists who helped unleash the revolutionary wave that swept through North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Internet activist and Google executive, Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement, one of its founders Israa Abdel Fattah, and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni could therefore be among those in line for the award when it is announced on October 7.
"My strong sense is that this (Nobel) committee and its leader want to reflect the biggest international issues as defined by a wide definition of peace," said Jan Egeland, a former Norwegian deputy foreign minister.
"Following that logic, it will be the Arab Spring this year. Nothing comes close to that one as a defining moment of our time," he told Reuters.
A record 241 candidates, of which 53 are organisations, have been nominated for this year's award, worth 10 million crowns ($1.5 million). The five-strong prize committee will meet for the last time on September 30.
Demonstrations and protests in 2011 involving hundreds of thousands of people have challenged the grip on power of autocratic rulers across the Arab world.
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya have been removed from power while opposition movements in Syria and Yemen, among several other countries, are attempting to bring about political change.
Egeland's view was shared by Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. "The Arab Spring will be very high on the agenda of the committee's internal deliberations," he told Reuters.
"What has been very clear from the current committee ... is that they really want to speak to current affairs. There is an eagerness to not only award a prize that has had an impact in the present but also to use the prize to impact the present."
The committee's secretary said there were "a few" candidates linked to the Arab Spring among this year's nominees, but he declined to name them.
Among the known nominees this year are WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange, Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, Afghan human rights advocate Sima Samar, the European Union and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Also among the nominees are Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, Russian rights group Memorial and its founder Svetlana Gannushkina, Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked secret U.S. cables to WikiLeaks, and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege.
In the two years under Thorbjoern Jagland, an ex-Norwegian prime minister, the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to U.S. President Barack Obama, then less than a year in office, and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a choice that infuriates Beijing to this day.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has yet to make its final decision about this year's award, its secretary said. "We have one more meeting ... We have a few candidates on the table," Geir Lundestad told Reuters.
The deadline for nomination was February 1 but members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee can add nominations until the date of their first meeting, which this year fell on February 28.
Egeland suggested the committee may decide to do as it did it in 1997 when the Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jody Williams.
"They picked Jody Williams because she was the most charismatic person for one period of that effort," he said.
"With the Arab Spring, by necessity they would have one or two people that represent ... a democratic peaceful movement. Perhaps one of the youths that created Facebook pages. That could be one way of recognising the importance of social media."
Were the committee to recognise an Arab Spring activist, it could choose to name Abdel Fattah and the April 6 Youth Movement for its key role in maintaining the direction and non-violent character of the Egyptian uprising, Harpviken said.
Alternatively, he said "Ghonim (was) a central inspiration to the protests on Tahrir Square (and is) a principled non-violence activist and an innovator in the use of social media."
Were the committee to go for Ben Mhenni, a blogger who was criticising the Tunisian government long before the start of the uprisings in December 2010, it would be a prize "to independent reporting, in the form of social media, (and) a recognition of the peaceful protests of the Tunisian people," said Harpviken.
Nominations are secret for at least 50 years unless the person who nominates chooses to reveal his or her choice. Those who can nominate include former Nobel Peace Prize laureates and members of parliaments and governments.
Editing by Robert Woodward