A Tale of Two Countries
As Egypt and Tunisia mark the third anniversary of their inspirational revolutions, the two countries find themselves on starkly different paths.
Three years ago, with popular demonstrations suddenly appearing on the streets across the region, it seemed that democracy was at last breaking out in the Middle East. Sadly, protest movements in a number of countries were quickly squelched or placated without major reforms, while those in Libya and Syria grew into armed rebellion. Only in Egypt and Tunisia were citizens able to oust their authoritarian rulers without armed conflict, increasing the chances of a successful transition to democracy.
However, the trajectories of these two countries have diverged considerably in the last year. Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report, released last week, showed a dramatic decline in the civil and political freedoms of Egyptians, coupled with an increase in the civil liberties enjoyed by Tunisians. In both settings, Islamist parties were swept to victory in competitive elections shortly after their revolutions, and both faced deep polarization and debate over the role of religion in law and government. Yet today, one country maintains an inclusive, democratic transition process, while the other is under military rule and shows all the hallmarks of a return to authoritarianism. How did they get to this point?
Within a year of his June 2012 election, hopes that new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi would consolidate democracy were thoroughly dashed. In November 2012, he declared the presidency above judicial review, setting off large street demonstrations. Public frustrations grew stronger the next month, as a new constitution, drafted by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood with little input from other groups, was pushed through a public referendum that was boycotted by the opposition.
A grassroots campaign against President Morsi gained strength during the spring of 2013, erupting in massive demonstrations across Egypt as the anniversary of his inauguration approached. With millions in the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation, the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, overthrew the civilian government. The coup was greeted with elation by many Egyptians, but the military soon began a bloody campaign to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. The officially nonviolent, decades-old Brotherhood was branded as a terrorist organization, and police assaults on pro-Morsi demonstrations killed over 1,000 people. In recent months, the military regime has expanded its efforts to silence dissent beyond the Brotherhood, arresting a growing number of liberal and secular activists.
A thousand miles to the west, Tunisia’s coalition government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, faced its own share of suspicion and criticism. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda made no obvious attempt to monopolize power. However, it did propose controversial changes to the draft constitution, and the brazen assassinations of two secularist leaders by radical Islamists in the first half of 2013 threatened to open up an irreconcilable gulf between Ennahda and the opposition. Thousands gathered in front of the parliament building to demand the resignation of the government, and opposition lawmakers announced that they would not be returning to work.
But with the specter of Egypt’s coup and deadly repression fresh in their minds, few Tunisians wanted to proceed down a path that could lead to greater instability or violence. After months of political uncertainty, Ennahda agreed to compromise. Once the draft constitution was completed, it would resign to make way for a caretaker administration that would govern until elections could be held under the new charter. Opposition delegates rejoined the National Constituent Assembly, and a final article-by-article vote on the constitution began.
Ennahda’s concession marked the first time that an Islamist government in the region agreed to voluntarily step down from power, something many critics of political Islam claimed would never happen. This past weekend, over 90 percent of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, comprising lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum, approved the new constitution—a stunning comeback for a country that seemed to be on the brink of tragedy just six months earlier.
While Tunisians may not consider their still-unfinished transition to be the “best of times,” Egypt may indeed be headed for the worst. The Egyptian military’s constitutional project was far less inclusive than Tunisia’s, and consequently far less successful in healing national wounds. The charter was drafted by a politically lopsided 50-person committee appointed by the regime, and international observers denounced the highly repressive environment surrounding the referendum on the document two weeks ago. Criticism of the draft constitution and the coup was essentially banned, and their leading opponents faced criminal prosecution on various charges. Al-Sisi, presenting himself as a national savior, is now expected to compete in, and handily win, the upcoming presidential election.
It was ultimately Morsi’s refusal to compromise that led to his downfall, and the new military regime is busily making the same mistake on a grander scale. With roughly 35 percent of the Egyptian population supporting the Muslim Brotherhood before the coup, the military’s brutal crackdown on and criminalization of the group creates a dangerous situation in which a significant segment of society is excluded from politics, and calls for violent rebellion may grow in appeal.
Egypt can still return to a democratic path, just as Tunisia can still falter. The key issues that inspired the 2011 uprisings—economic disenfranchisement and impunity for police abuses—have yet to be addressed in either country. But Tunisia’s system, characterized by pluralism and negotiation, is far better positioned to respond to the needs of its citizens than a new Egyptian regime built on exclusion and violent repression. Tunisia should serve as a positive and reassuring example to Egyptians, and others in the region, of what is possible when democratic principles prevail.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.