Outlook for democracy in post-uprising North Africa

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On November 4, to mark the release of this year’s edition of Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House and the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion on the prospects for successful democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which were among six MENA countries examined in the new Crossroads report.

The study, which assesses democratic governance in 35 countries around the world, found that despite promising post-uprising openings in areas including freedom of expression and freedom of association in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the task of “rebuilding basic institutions like the justice system, law enforcement agencies, and regulatory frameworks for the media and civil society, all of which have been warped and corrupted by decades of authoritarian rule, will require many years of effort.”
 

The November 4 discussion panel featured Ambassador William Taylor, who was recently appointed to the new Office of Middle East Transitions at the U.S. Department of State; David Yang, director of USAID’s Office of Democracy and Governance; Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; and Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya Television.

As Dunne noted in her opening remarks, each of the countries in question faces unique challenges. In Egypt, there is deepening concern that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is more intent on protecting its own interests than on facilitating successful democratic reform. In Tunisia, the existing status of women’s rights may be threatened in the new political landscape. And Libya will be forced to build its political institutions, independent media, and civil society essentially from scratch after more than 40 years of misrule and many months of internal conflict.

Although the panelists had differing views on the prospects for democratic advances, all agreed that Tunisia is undoubtedly the best positioned for a successful transition. Melhem attributed some of Tunisia’s recent progress to its small size and ethnically homogeneous population. Moreover, as one of the most economically and socially advanced countries in the southern Mediterranean, Tunisia boasts a large middle class and a record of steady economic growth since the 1980s. Since the fall of authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, the country’s transitional government has taken many positive steps, including the appointment of independent commissions to facilitate liberalization of the media, draft a new constitution, and investigate corruption and crimes committed by the former regime. The victory of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in the October 23 constituent assembly elections has not sparked serious concern in U.S. policy circles to date, given the party’s pledges to preserve women’s rights as well as the separation of religion and state, and its stated interest in building governing coalitions with secularist parties.


Egypt did not fare as well in the group’s assessment, particularly given recent actions by the SCAF. In addition to the thousands of citizens who have been subjected to military trials since the fall of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in February, and the SCAF’s blatant smear campaign against civil society groups and their funders, last week’s announcement of “supraconstitutional” principles—which would prevent civilian oversight of the military budget and give the SCAF virtual veto power over constitutional proposals—calls into question the council’s intention to genuinely relinquish power to an elected civilian government. Given the relationship between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, and especially the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Egypt, many Egyptians wonder whether the United States is tacitly supporting continued authoritarian rule.

Taylor said he believed that the SCAF does not intend to continue governing, and that it is all but certain to yield legislative powers to the forthcoming parliament in the spring. However, he used the metaphor of an airplane journey, as opposed to the crossing of a bridge, to describe the ongoing transitions in Egypt and the other post-uprising countries, noting that the United States did not know where the plane would land and was not in the pilot’s seat. When pressed on whether U.S. military funding to Egypt would be used to influence the SCAF, Taylor cited a list of U.S. interests in the region—including Israeli security, military overflight permission, and access to the Suez Canal—that could make using this sort of leverage problematic. But he said the U.S. government would continue to engage with the SCAF to move it in the right direction.

When asked how the United States would handle a strong electoral showing by Egyptian Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Taylor stated that while Washington “will have more interaction with parties who recognize the value of tolerance,” Islamist parties would be judged on how they perform democratically rather than on the basis of their stated religious affiliation. He emphasized that the U.S. government would not be more amenable to continued military or authoritarian rule simply because an Islamist party succeeded at the polls.

Libya elicited less discussion than Tunisia and Egypt, but Yang pointed out that in addition to establishing new political, civic, and governance institutions, the country would have to carry out crucial postconflict activities such as reconstruction, disarmament, and demobilization of militias. Melhem said Libya had been “pulverized” by the rule of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi, and would require much more outside support than Egypt or Tunisia. He also argued that the international community had an important role to play in countries where peaceful protest movements have been stymied by state violence, as in Syria.


All of the panelists agreed that there will be many pitfalls ahead for the region, and that democracy is by no means the guaranteed outcome at this point. At the same time, Freedom House president David J. Kramer dismissed the idea that “removing dictators is the easy part and building a postrevolutionary system of government is the hard part.” He observed, “If it was so easy to remove these leaders, they wouldn’t have been in place for decades.” And unlike during their rule, the current uncertainty at least offers “the possibility and hope that these countries can move in a more democratic direction.”

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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