Tunisia and Egypt: A Tale of Two Transitions to Democracy

June 22, 2012

Democracy, one of the world’s greatest ongoing social experiments, is not created from a specific formula. Indeed its ingredients are the fruition of persistence, hard work and above all, the insistence that freedom for all is a must. There are several actors that play different roles when a nation goes through the transition to reach democracy. The usual suspects generally play out as the moderates, supporters of the old order, and the extreme outliers.

Throughout democratic transitions, it is always interesting to predict who the rogue players will be. What is fascinating to explore is how actors are labeled by political commentators and preemptively deemed useful to the transition or not. Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “I have always thought that in revolutions, especially democratic revolutions, madmen …genuine madmen, have played a very considerable political part. One thing is certain, and that is that a condition of semi-madness is not unbecoming at such times, and often even leads to success.” In other words, moving over to a democracy is more of an art than it is a science.

What we are witnessing are two countries, same process, same region and same democratic revolutionary time frame—but two very different results. The Arab Spring has produced several prominent political actors, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, the post-revolution democratically elected government is run by an-Nahda, a moderate Muslim party led by Rachid Ghannouchi. The post-revolution Egyptian parliament (before it was dissolved) was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and this week, the projected winner for president is Mohamed Morsi, also from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whereas an-Nahda in Tunisia had a relatively smoother democratic transition to power, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has had a much more difficult time. Both groups were deemed as “madmen” by their fellow citizens, including supporters of the old order, with internal and external fears of a faith-based political group running a country in such an unstable environment. Thus far, leaders from an-Nahda party have promised to maintain and uphold pluralism, equality for all and oversight. They have played a considerable political role in the post-revolutionary phase of Tunisia; indeed, their part in the transition has been successful in stabilizing Tunisia after decades of authoritarian rule.

The Brotherhood of Egypt, meanwhile, has also won a plurality of parliamentary seats, the presidency and the votes of most of the Egyptian people. Interestingly enough, the Brotherhood kept quiet during most of the Egyptian revolution, but sprung into the limelight in the post-revolution debates on where Egypt should be taken as a country.

After Mubarak stepped down as president, power was then transferred to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), unlike Tunisia where power was transferred to a civilian government before elections. SCAF has proven to be quite influential and quite toxic to the democratic transition in Egypt. To date, they have dissolved parliament, amended the constitution to usurp presidential powers, sent tanks to quell peaceful civilian protests and instituted de facto martial law. In fact, the State Department and Pentagon have warned the SCAF that if they do not abide by the rules of democracy and restore a swift transition to civilian power, they will withhold economic and military aid from the country.

Nothing is more precious than freedom, and ironically freedom is one of the hardest principles to uphold without condition. While there are glaring differences between the two nations, what Tunisians have been able to do with their freedom is transition into democracy smoothly. Sadly, Egyptians have yet to figure out how to use their new-found freedom. Transitioning into democracy is not an easy feat, and the international community should continue to support any and all efforts for democracy in Egypt.

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