Why Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy is Succeeding while Egypt Falters

(By Juan Cole)

On Sunday, Tunisia’s parliament will vote on the final text of the new constitution. If it passes by a two-thirds vote, the text will not have to go to a national referendum, but just would become the organic law of the country. The constitution guarantees equal rights for women and wants gender equity in elections, and does not explicitly mandate Islamic law or sharia.

Tunisia’ parliament is 42% religious Right and the rest secular and ideological. The religious right (al-Nahda or the Renaissance Party) had the prime ministership but the speaker of parliament is a leftist and the president is a secular liberal.

Tunisia’s transition to democracy often has been troubled. Two horrific assassinations marred the process in 2013, with prominent leftists shot down. But the Tunisian political class dealt with those crises about as well as one could hope. The youth reassembled and demanded that the ruling al-Nahda or Renaissance prime minister step down. Organized labor stepped in as well. A compromise was hammered out– once the constitution is approved, Renaissance PM Larayyedh would step down in favor of a technocrat. The interim government will guide the country to further elections and referendums.

In contrast, Egypt has been a roller coaster ride. It had 7 elections and referendums, but none of its high officials today has been elected to anything. The parliament elected in late fall of 2011, top-heavy with Muslim fundamentalists, was struck down for electoral fraud in June of 2012. The president elected in June 2012 was deposed by a military coup on July 3 of 2013. It has had two new constitutions, neither crafted democratically. In Egypt, the fundamentalists who were in power 2012-13 cracked down on the April 6 youth movement. In fall of 2013, the government appointed by Gen. al-Sisi, finished the new constitution, and it was put to a vote in this month’s referendum.

What explains the different outcomes?

1. The army stayed above the fray in Tunisia. In Egypt it repeatedly intervened, helping destabilize the country. The government Egypt has today, 3 years after the Tahrir revolution, was simply appointed by the officer corps, though further elections are promised.

2. The religious Right in Tunisia was cautious. Disciplined by neighboring Algeria’s decade-long civil war, al-Nahda avoided deeply polarizing moves. It gave up on putting sharia or Islamic law in the constitution. It allowed a middle class pushback against inroads against women’s rights. It agreed to step down in favor of a technocrat after last summer’s assassination.

3. The national labor union, the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) is relatively independent and powerful in Tunisia. It could thus lobby the government and step in as mediators in fall of 2013. Egypt’s labor unions are neither so independent nor so powerful.

4. The secularists in Tunisia did not demand a ban on the al-Nahda religious government. Those in Egypt did. Egypt’s attempt to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood altogether from social and political power has caused constant demonstrations.

5. Tunisia’s economy improved slightly. After a difficult 2011 and 2012, in 2013 Tunisia’s economy grew 2.3 percent. Egypt has continued to suffer economic contraction, with tourism 40% off in 2013 between the Brotherhood’s policies and those of the junta.

Muslim religious and political thinker Rashid al-Ghanoushi said in Tunis on Saturday that once the parliament approves the constitution on Sunday, Tunisia will be on its way to being the first Arab democracy. (He may be overly hasty in discounting Lebanon.) Egypt in contrast is on its way to being the 16th military dictatorship in the history of the Arab League.

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Related video:

BBC reports, “Egypt needs ‘national dialogue’”

22 Responses

  1. Juan is right on most counts; however, he made a slight hash of some figures. Egypt’s economic growth rate was 2.3% under Morsi (vs. 1.2% under SCAF) and tourist arrivals have risen 13% under him versus SCAF (and contrary to popular belief he never banned alcohol or bikinis).

  2. Thank you for these insights. A view of the cultural and historical causes perhaps cannot be summarized. The morale of the officer corps explains much, and no doubt arises from these practical considerations even beyond the spectre of a scolding by one’s third grade teacher. The origins of this Tunisian secular-religious detente and large general labor union must be illuminating. Perhaps US military aid has facilitated and legitimized military disdain for civilian rule in Egypt. But perhaps I do not give enough credit to Tunisian third grade teachers.

  3. Good luck to Tunisia. Let’s hope it succeeds better than what’s been a slow-motion coup in Turkey over the past few years.

    • I suspect many of us would be interested in understanding your perception of how a slow-motion coup is underway in Turkey. Looks to me like Recep Bey has managed to neuter the military and would like to cultivate a soft dictatorship (e.g., President for Life). Dense politics to be sure, but a coup???

      • the phrase isn’t original with me, but one used by several Turkish commentators to describe the accumulation of power to RTE. It would at present appear that his gambit for an all-powerful presidency has failed, unless he can get Apo and the BDP behind it, which I don’t at this point expect — not that my track record is anything to run on. But, yes, he’s appointed the generals and taken control over promotions. He’s pretty much entirely remade YOK (higher ed, including a couple of brutal persecutions, e.g., rector of Ataturk U in Van), his proposal for the justice academy will put it entirely under the command of the justice minister, and even without the now “frozen’ restructuring of HSYK has been having his way with the police (a national force) and prosecutors. The national school system has been used to take revenge on students and teachers who protested in June. The media is rather tightly controlled, journalists fired at his insistence (it can be economically costly not to obey; the tax and regulatory agencies have been used for payback in several recent cases including Koc, TUPRAS, and Bank Asya), the government has not been audited in the past few years (and the center of graft, TOKI is run out of the PM’s office anyway). New laws have been passed to allow more Internet blocking.

        Oh yeah, after Gezi it is now illegal for doctors to give aid without permission!

        I suppose the question is whether a coup is necessarily an act against a person or may be an act against a(n admittedly still fragile) system of governance. For those who use the term, it’s obviously the latter, though I suppose, too, that in a symbolic sense it’s a coup against Ataturk, and I’ve absolutely NO doubt that Erdogan sees himself in those terms (again, for what my insights are worth ;)).

        • It had struck me that coups are usually thought of as when the military takes things over. In the case of Turkey’s modern history, at least not following the Pinochet model.

          Adding to your remarks, a certain shakiness seems to have emerged and be spreading throughout an Ankara-centric bureaucracy. Perhaps aggravated by understandably skittish investors as we can see FX rates goosed dramatically since mid-Dec. Then there are govt projects being cancelled at municipal level for no apparent reason. THIS IS NOT any sort of observable trend, and the various incidents only anecdotal, but there is a natural temptation to connect dots and any number of people I met seem to be waiting for some…..other/next shoe to drop.

          What’s funny is that in these sort of situations people can usually spin sort of theory of what’s going on that makes sense, somewhat. Here the situation seems nothing if not byzantine.

        • Just had to add that Erdogan really does appear to be the quintessential example of the Rooster who thinks he’s responsible for the sun coming up. The question seems to be whether Turkish system/institutions are at this point strong enough to resist such a hubris-filled individual or whether the world of Turkey may be preparing to spin in reverse.

        • There’s a Turkish economic commentator, Emre Deliveli, who has a blog (Kapili Carsi) on the economicmonitor.com and writes for Hurriyet Daily News whom I’ve been following for a while, and who has been analyzing the weaknesses in the economy. Certainly the consensus since the summer is that Turkey has been overdue for an interest rate rise, which has been essentially deferred twice, but perhaps not tomorrow.

          Two things about the economy (leaving out corruption questions) is that a fair bit of the boom is construction that’s government driven, and that the plan that took Turkey back to solvency was drawn up by Kemal Dervis of the CHP. (It’s also not all that clear how much control Babacan has of economic policy anymore.) I suppose a third point is that a lot of funding has been coming from the sale of government assets to developers, whether it be green space or government industrial assets.

          I’m curious to see what comes out of tomorrow’s Central Bank meeting.

          As for Tayyip and roosters, just the wall-size posters of himself that he plasters all over the place, and not the 30-foot tall holographic Erdogan appearances, if today’s “appearance” in Izmir marks a trend (god forbid!)

        • It may be a little unfair to make Erdogan alone the “rooster.” Davutoglu’s the chief theorist of neo-Ottomanism and imagines the day not far off that not a leaf will quake in the region but Ankara will authorize it. EU Minister Bagis was an unintentional comedy show, including tossing an EU interim progress report in the trash (on TV) and promising to write one back to the EU [It's worth noting that Erdogan has scorn for the diplomatic corps and has been uprooting "the monsoors"] and the Communications Minister promised “Ottoman slaps” on any media that were critical during Gezi.

          I don’t claim to understand it as anything other than, oh, I dunno, GWB off the wagon and letting it all hang out, I guess.

  4. It’s premature to declare success in Tunisia. The revolution in Egypt followed a fairly standard course. After the overthrow of the old regime there was a nominally democratic government (you can’t say Tunisia will be “the first Arab democracy”), but some influential elements were dissatisfied – with some good reason as the Morsi government seemed to be moving towards consolidating power for the Islamist faction – and the military took over. This general progression happens time after time in countries without a democratic tradition and odds are it will happen in Tunisia also. If the military are not as strong as they are in Egypt or Latin American countries some fanatical civilian faction – most likely Islamists – can seize power.

  5. Can any popularly elected President serve in Egypt? Even if they could get along wouldn’t a popular Egyptian g’ment want to end the embargo of the Palestinians? Can the military be brought to heel?

  6. Way too early to consider Tunisa a democratic success. Democracy is more than elections. Let’s see if and when rule-of-law, a judicial system that honors contracts without bribery, and a pluralistic society are institutionalized. Then we might consider it a success.

  7. Subject to Bill’s caveats, the Tunisians seem to be sorting things out on their own with out any ostensible “help” from the U.S. A lesson for the NeoCons.

    • That presumes the NeoCons will take a lesson from anything, or have any interest in doing other than what they continue to do. One wonders what the geniuses who make up the NeoCon cognoscenti will be up to in coming months…

      link to crooksandliars.com

  8. Not-withstanding all the good points above – a case can be made for demography. Look at the predictions made in New Scientist in May 2012 in the article: “Egypt: Arab Spring could be wasted in youthful nations” at
    link to newscientist.com

    It references work by the demographer Richard Cincotta which notes in summary that “Autocracies with a median population age of over 30 years old are most likely to become liberal democracies – Egypt may need a few years to mature … If the pattern holds, Tunisia – with a median age of 30 – is the Arab Spring country most likely to hold a democracy permanently. “

  9. One aspect of Tunisia is its proximity to Europe and the cultural influences that emanate from both France and Italy.

    The French language is prevalent among the educated and business classes and there are strong commercial ties to Europe. Tunisia is only a few hundred miles from southern Italy. There is a substantial French and Italian population in Tunis.

    Tunisia has also been known for its liberality in its relations with its Jewry. Both the capital of Tunis and a small offshore island each have a cohesive Jewish community. Tunisia openly supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian question modeled after the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan when Egypt’s President Nasser opposed Israel’s existence. Anti-Semitic violence did rage, however, in Tunis in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967.

    The killing of leftist leader Chokri Belaid, a respected poet and lawyer, last year was certainly troubling but was denounced by almost all Tunisian factions as well as throughout the Arab world.

  10. Glad to hear more on Tunisia. We hear about Egypt, and now a lot about Syria, but not a lot about Tunisia and even less about Libya.

    The Arab uprising will take a variety of forms and will evolve over decades.

    I would like to know more about the influence of Western economic and political power. I am sure they are doing a lot more-or-less behind the scenes to maintain their neo-liberal control.

  11. I agree with all of these points except number 4. Repeated attempts were made to include the Muslim Brotherhood into the process, and they rebuffed every time. From asking Morsi to accept early elections, to forming a coalition, etc. The Muslim Brotherhood decided to stick with Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna’s mandate of “no compromises.”

  12. I am afraid to announce a sad reality that any Military regime(Egypt,Syria,Algeria… especially copies of Russia) never allow a Revolution succeed .It was unfortunate to see that Egyptian were close to do it,and did not reject from the first day the Military transition…
    Most of you do not know Tunisia … this a good opportunity to visit this amazing country and then you will understand why Tunisia is different from other arab countries (Yes Juan I am sorry to say even with Lebanon).

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