Generalising about the Arab Spring is playing with fire

John L Esposito with Faisal Kattan's picture
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Friday 13 February 2015 10:00 UTC
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Ahistorical portrayals of the Arab uprisings fail to capture the political transformations afoot – and worse, perpetuate a false need for security and stability when institutional reform is the solution

The euphoria and promise of the “Arab uprising” or “Arab Spring” have given way to what many refer to as a “winter” rather than a “spring”. Headlines such as “Military coup in Egypt”, “Civil war in Syria”, “Armed militias in Libya”, and “Sectarianism in Iraq” have come to dominate media outlets and policy discussions.  

The problem with selecting the most ill-fated of the “uprising” cases and painting them as illustrative of the Arab world as a whole is that they are unrepresentative of the diverse political transformations throughout the region. Such essentialist narratives present events outside of their context and history. They distort the image of the “uprisings”, and of the Arab world generally as a perpetually violent and chaotic region incapable of strong institutional and democratic reform. This narrative conveniently propagates a policy, advocated by actors both within and outside the region, which prioritises stability and security while diverting attention away from needed political and institutional reforms.

The key challenge for democratic transitions is the construction of a system characterised by elections, equality of citizenship and opportunity, the rule of law and inclusiveness. The "success" of transitions should be measured against these criteria. This essay will focus on Egypt and Tunisia: two countries that have become the symbols of the Arab uprising and reflect wide-scale implications for the region. The comparison of these two countries – particularly the creation of their constitutions and their electoral laws - reveals differences in their transitional political paths and highlights the power and importance of the agency of political elites. The variation between the two cases serves as a useful indicator of the extent of success or failure in the political struggles towards democratic transition.

Democratic transitions

Since the ousting of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has, on the whole, made significant strides towards democratisation. Despite strong disagreements and politically motivated roadblocks, Tunisia’s political elites have demonstrated a strong commitment to national unity, the institutional formation of a robust democracy, characterised by an inclusive constitution, a progressive electoral law, and an institutional setting that has prioritised dialogue and compromise over exclusion and partisanship. This process was aided by a favourable context.

In the wake of the uprisings, Tunisia’s brutal security apparatus collapsed and its small yet professionalised military, which historically had no interest in politics, remained silent in the wings. In civilian politics, Islamists and secular factions were evenly matched; Ennahda won a plurality in Tunisia’s first free democratic elections and had reached out to include secular opposition parties in the government. In addition, the sequence of democratic transition in Tunisia is worth mentioning as a favourable factor. Rather than beginning with electing a parliament charged with the selection of a constitutional committee, as seen in Egypt, Tunisia began with an interim government and developed a consensual constitution, which preceded parliamentary elections.

In contrast, since the 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has undergone a more turbulent political transition process. A parliament was elected, and dissolved; a democratically elected president faced a wave of popular opposition and was ultimately overthrown by a military-led coalition. July 3, 2013 marked a new phase in Egypt’s political trajectory. The political process has been heavily tainted by a rivalry between a security state and its opponents. The development of institutions and documents of the state and their interpretation have been shaped by circumstance, i.e. by the military-Muslim Brotherhood rivalry. Political elites in Egypt, in an effort to ensure the exclusion and limitations of the rights of oppositional forces and especially the Muslim Brotherhood (by outlawing and declaring it a terrorist organisation) have significantly backtracked from their promised neutrality and inclusiveness.

New constitutions, different means

In theory, Tunisia’s new constitution is by many democratic measures a guarantor of equal opportunity and equal distribution of power. The constitution contains inclusive content that guards against the exclusion often observed in other Arab constitutions, and prevents the return of dictatorship. In a speech to the National Constituent Assembly last January, President Marzouki said: “With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship.”

The document’s careful wording has secured agreement from both sides of the political spectrum by presenting a model of reconciliation, while simultaneously addressing the perplexing question of Islam’s role in public life. The Constitution declares: “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, Islam is her religion, Arabic her language and republic her regime” and “Tunisia is a state of civil character, based on citizenship, the will of the people and the primacy of law." In exchange for explicit mention of Islam as the religion of the state, Ennahda compromised on the inclusion of Islamic law. Secular parties, aided by a strong civil society, secured guarantees that Tunisia would remain a civil state with separation of state and religion (something that Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, had also advocated) and placed preeminence on the freedoms of its people. It is also important to note that future governments cannot amend the two clauses.

Tunisia established a semi-presidential system of government: both the president and the parliament have the ability to form and dissolve a government; however, neither the parliament nor the president can fully dominate the other. Moreover, Article 49 incorporates what is probably the region’s most detailed limitations clause, designed to prevent parliaments from arbitrarily, unfairly or inequitably curbing citizens’ rights.

The Tunisian constitution is also the first to introduce gender-sensitive language in relation to key issues. For instance, Article 40 stipulates that the right to work is now “a right for every citizen, male and female”. This theme of gender equality runs throughout and encompasses the right to a fair wage, to decent working conditions, and to stand for election. Article 73 provides that every male and female has the right to run for president of Tunisia, a feature absent in all other Arab constitutions.

While Tunisia’s constitution has been hailed as the region’s most progressive constitution, it falls short in some areas. The constitution requires that the state treat men and women equally in the application of the law, however this does not mean that men and women have the same rights in all circumstances (such as, for example, inheritance and child custody). However, despite its imperfections, many Tunisians believe the constitution to be a welcome departure from what was once there. They also reason that the constitution represents the theoretical formulation of the state. What really matters is how it is practiced and implemented. Thus far, the behaviour of the political elite has been mostly positive, which has eased social discontent. Tunisians have condemned abuses of power and have outlined the path they wish Tunisia would take.

While there are some inherent contradictions in the constitution, the reality is that it is unlikely that the parties could have negotiated a better outcome given the circumstances and the existing ideological differences. Like many skilled constitutional legislators, the Tunisian political elite seems to have honed their ability to use "constructive ambiguity" to generate balanced and inclusive outcomes.

Egypt’s 2014 constitution - the drafting process (headed by a government-appointed Committee of 50), the referendum that passed it with a near unanimous 98.1 percent (with a relatively substantial 38.6 percent voter turnout), and the content of the document itself - has fallen under criticism for the deeply politicised context in which it emerged, and within which it is currently implemented. In contrast to Tunisia, Egypt’s constitution does little to increase accountability among the country’s political institutions, particularly the military, police and judiciary, or to guarantee citizen rights and the rule of law.

Despite the representation of a vast cross-section of society in the Committee of 50, with the conspicuous absence of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, and public debates during the drafting period, the rushed, two-month process took place amidst heavy restrictions on the media and in the aftermath of the closure of many Islamist-affiliated organisations, and a security crackdown that involved the arrests of several activists who had publicly opposed the charter. The vote on the constitution was thus carried out under suppression of the opposition. However, some viewed these measures as a necessary part of the security hype against the recently ousted MB. Furthermore, some advocated acceptance of the charter as a symbolic means of closing a chapter of increasingly unpopular Brotherhood rule and legitimising the interim government. Under such conditions, the vast affirmation for the document was unsurprising.

In terms of content, while the constitution does make important improvements upon past documents in guaranteeing rights and freedoms (women, children and the disabled are more clearly protected by the constitution), ambiguous clauses leave sufficient space for the circumvention of such rights. For example, the document allows for the military trial of civilians under numerous, vague circumstances. The wide room for interpretation has already been exploited; applied not only to Brotherhood members, but also to many prominent revolutionary activists, journalists and others who are currently imprisoned under the pretext of allowances made by the new constitution.

The document further augments the power of the president, military, police and judiciary—institutions that would be difficult for opponents, particularly Brotherhood members, to infiltrate. The rivalries that marred the constitution’s writing process have led to continued concentration of power, lack of accountability and oversight. Egypt’s military had been involved in the transition process since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak; its second round of intervention, in the name of establishing security and placing Egypt on a proper path to democratic transition, has continued to make it a key player in the political process. Beyond the accusations that the interim government was a façade for military rule, and that former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency bolsters that rule despite his resignation from the military upon his candidacy, the constitution and laws that have since been enacted work to effectively protect the military from civilian oversight or accountability.

Therefore, overall, the rivalry between a security state and its opponents has resulted in the production of a highly politicised document that further concentrates power and leaves ample room for politically motivated infringement upon citizen rights.

Political elites and their electoral laws

Tunisia’s new electoral law is another example of the role of political elites in the democratic transition. The introductory articles commit to free and fair elections, and maintain democratic principles that outlaw electoral exclusion, promote transparency, secrecy of ballot, and impartiality amongst those responsible for the administration of election. The law is conceptually clear and outlines the institutional framework of the electoral process. Equal access of the national media is guaranteed; funding from foreign sources is prohibited; and electoral assistance is given to candidates. Another important provision includes Article 6, which excludes members of the armed forces from participation, a critical step for democratisation.

The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has significantly aided the democratisation process in Tunisia. By voting via secret ballot and by a two-thirds majority to appoint the Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections (ISIE) (election commission), the NCA has lent credibility and legitimacy to the democratisation process and the election body. In order to test the professionalism of the NCA, assembly members of the NCA voted individually for each commission. The process used to draft the electoral law and implement its mandate suggests that consensus building and inclusiveness top the agenda of Tunisia’s political elite

As in the Tunisian case, the role of the political elite is salient in the formation of Egypt’s elections law, albeit with different results. Egypt’s parliamentary elections law, issued by interim president Adly Mansour days before the end of his term in June 2014, was drafted in a politically fraught context aimed at preventing any potential rise of opposition, particularly MB affiliates, from gaining legislative authority. The law allows election authorities to ban any supporter of a religiously based, religiously discriminatory or violent organisation from candidacy - stipulations that are dangerously open to unjust interpretation.

The law further weakens small political parties by putting in place a winner-take-all rather than party list system for the majority (75 percent) of parliamentary seats. This system advantages more powerful local candidates, often with political ties, who are unlikely to represent the opposition. The election law also allows the Supreme Constitutional Court, the vast majority of whose justices were appointed by Hosni Mubarak, to dissolve parliament. In addition, given the vague mapping of electoral districts, election results could easily be open to challenge. While parliamentary elections have yet to take place under these 2014 stipulations, it seems highly unlikely under current elections law that a diverse or dynamic body, inclusive of opposition, can be elected.

Contextual analysis key

The cases of political transition in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate the need for more complex and nuanced analysis of political transformation in the Arab world. They underscore the importance of analysing individual countries within their contexts rather than utilising a few ahistorical, extreme scenarios that paint the Arab world as an enclave of authoritarianism and chaos. In Egypt, a lack of compromise among the political elite has led to an exclusive system in which the winners are exercising unchecked authority over the very foundations of their country’s political and economic institutions. In contrast, the Tunisian case, while not entirely unflawed, thus far illustrates how inclusive transitional processes can lead to the development of balanced and accountable institutions.

Key features account for difference between the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, both tied to the will of political elite.

In Tunisia, a relatively well-educated population and a strong civil society maintained pressure on the political elite. Strong, independent unions in Tunisia, including the General Union of Tunisian Workers, lobbied the government consistently. Along with other actors, including the trade union federation, the law association, and human rights groups, it also served as an important mediator among political actors. In Egypt, unions are neither as powerful nor as independent.

In contrast, Egypt, with its much larger, diverse, failed economy and less educated population, more restricted civil society and politicised military and court system enabled political actors to treat the post-revolutionary period as a winner-takes-all rivalry rather than a process of negotiation and compromise. Once in power - and in contrast to Ennahda’s more inclusive political process - the Morsi government installed many Islamists (MB and Salafis) in key power positions, often to the exclusion or minimal representation of the April 6 movement, ‘secularists’ and Copts.

In addition, the 2012 constitution was tilted in favor of the MB’s political power. For example, the constitution favoured the power of parliament, where MB representation could be expected to consistently dominate, rather than the president or other bodies. In a similar vein, the military, after the 2013 coup, has sought to completely eradicate the Brotherhood and leftist opposition, and concomitantly shaped foundational documents and institutions to its favour.

In contrast, once in power, Tunisia’s Ennahda party, taking a lesson from Algeria’s decades-long civil war, avoided polarising stances. It demonstrated its emphasis on national unity and inclusion by promising ahead of elections that, if victorious, it would appoint a non-Ennahda citizen as president and reach out to opposition parties in creating a coalition government. It backed away from pushing for the integration of Islamic law in the constitution, and, after two years in power and engaging with opposition in dialogue, opted to step down in favour of technocratic leadership to preserve national unity. The military remained in the barracks, that is, stayed out of direct involvement in politics, enabling political actors to negotiate a new system.

Last year proved a turning point for Ennahda’s political fortunes. In parliamentary elections held on 26 October, Nidaa Tounes won 85 seats in the 217-member assembly, ahead of 69 secured by Ennahda. Nidaa Tounes, a self-styled liberal secular democratic coalition party, like its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, was composed in large part by Tunisia’s traditional, political elite who portrayed themselves as a liberal democratic alternative to Ennahda. Ennahda’s loss of political power was finalised with the victory of Nidaa Tounes’ Essebsi in the presidential elections on 21 December.

Ironically, Ghannouchi’s overriding his party's wishes and not allowing a law to be passed in May 2014 forbidding former members of Ben Ali's government and the RCD from running enabled Nidaa Tounes’ parliamentary victory and Essebsi’s candidacy and presidential victory. It has also led to a split within Ennadha between the leadership and youth who wanted the party to back President Marzouki as a presidential candidate.

Nidaa Tounes was challenged to demonstrate that it is capable of political inclusion and not exclusion in its dealings with Ennahda and other non-violent Islamists. Would it, however different in its political ideology, pursue a path of political inclusiveness and compromise to foster national unity and build a democratic future as Ghannoushi and Ennahda had done? That was not to be. Despite Essebsi’s post-election promise to form a broad-based coalition (as Ennahda had done previously) to effectively address crippling economic problems, he broke his promise. In late January 2015, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a new minority government with 24 ministers that excluded Ennahda and other Islamists and leftist parties, despite the fact that it was a minority government with less than half the votes necessary to survive a no-confidence vote. 

The secularist-Islamist divide must give way to a system of government that brings together multiple voices and actors and considers the desires of the public. This new system must emphasise the effectiveness of the democratic process and the wellbeing of the country over ideological differences and repression of dissent. Rather than recognition of the legitimacy of political opposition only so long as it is a loyal opposition, it must support an opposition whose ultimate loyalty is to national unity and the equality and prosperity of all.

Beware political exclusion

While relative stability has allowed Tunisia and Egypt the opportunity of transition, the failure of the political process in Syria and Iraq has left these countries in turmoil and deeply divided. This power vacuum has enabled separatist movements, particularly the self-named Islamic State or IS, to garner supporters, take advantage of the increased accessibility to large-scale weaponry, and seize, hold and govern large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. Processes within the region cannot be considered in isolation; the lack of political inclusiveness in some Arab countries, like Egypt, leave the potential for disaffected and alienated opponents, Islamist or others, seeking alternative means to express their political interests. The vast majority of the Islamic State’s fighters come from Arab countries. One case in point is the significant number of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, dismissed blindly during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, who are reported to have joined the Islamic State.

For groups like the Islamic State, religion has become an attractive tool to legitimate narratives of marginalisation, anguish and discontent, and to recruit and mobilise followers on a global scale in the name of Islam. The continued lack of change, limited possibility for significant political representation and reform, and government repression of mainstream Islamists will only perpetuate the search for alternative means of expression and power-sharing, moderate and extremist. Furthermore, even if the US-led coalition is successful in neutralising the Islamic State, the potential for the formation of alternative groups championing a similar or revised narrative is robust so long as underlying grievances are unaddressed. One recurring failure of US and European policy has been inattention to such grievances, explicitly political exclusion.

The US role and its implications

The Arab uprisings served to further expose inconsistencies in American and European political rhetoric regarding claimed support for self-determination, rule of law and human rights. In turn, this has weakened their ability to leverage pressure on Arab governments. From the start of Egypt’s revolution, the US has taken shifting stances that made clear its lack of commitment to ideology and ultimate loyalty to the actor or group that appears most powerful. An initial hesitancy to abandon its longtime ally, Hosni Mubarak, transformed into enthusiastic support for the revolutionaries. Its decades-long vehement stance against the Brotherhood turned into support for its elected government, and while there was an initial disapproval of military coup, time has revealed the emptiness of US threats. 

US and European failure to criticise the role of Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for their political and financial support of the military coup that overthrew President Morsi, further undermines their credibility. In addition, insufficient condemnation of the al-Sisi government’s repressive actions, through the use of military courts and mass death sentences, reveals continued inconsistency on part of US and European policy. Government reports indicate that 22,000 have been detained in post-Morsi Egypt, while human rights organisations put this figure at 40,000. Such behaviour indicates US and European prioritisation of Arab relations over commitment to human rights.

Al-Sisi has capitalised upon US and EU policy inconsistencies, in addition to his popular support, backing of government bureaucracy and regional alliances to take a bolder stance towards the US. In recent months, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has even mocked US statements on Egypt by mimicking almost word-for-word an American reaction to Egyptian protests. Recently, the ministry produced its own assertions on the Ferguson protests (a series of Missouri protests that emerged in response to a racially-charged police shooting of a young black man), suggesting that Egypt was “closely following” developments in Ferguson, and urging “restraint and respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion”. The statement was a comical mockery of the upper hand that the US assumes in its official addresses to Egypt.

Moving forward, the US faces an overarching challenge. Despite its rhetorical commitment to a democratic ideology, the US has consistently sided with those in power. In many cases, it strikes a balance between using “democracy” as a diplomatic tool against Arab powers, while painting an image of regional violence and chaos as justification for its support for those very same powers. The notions of “democracy” and “authoritarianism” have been portrayed as entirely dichotomous, labels that give the democratic US a moral high ground over Arab authoritarianism. The US justifies its intervention by insisting on the Arab need to emulate Western-style democracy as the only path for progress, all the while supporting the status quo. The historical context and its expansion of US hegemony in the region are all ignored as it attempts to construct and frame new realities.

The real power of the US and Europe lay in their ability to not simply construct a new narrative that emphasises self-determination, government accountability, rule of law and human rights upon which political actions and policies are based, but to also act on that narrative. Failure to do so and, instead, accept the restoration of authoritarianism in Egypt, approve aid packages and even describe Egypt as on the path to democracy legitimates the widespread belief in the Arab world that the US and EU have a double standard when it comes to the promotion and support for democratisation.

Equally important, it retreats to the old narrative and conventional wisdom that the Arab world and broader Middle East is a perpetually violent and chaotic region incapable of strong institutional and democratic reformation, and thus regional stability and Western national interest is dependent on security rather than democratic states. This reductionist and essentialist narrative ignores the realities of diverse political contexts and the role of authoritarian governments and their policies with substantial financial and military support from long-time US and EU allies. Failure to significantly shift from a monolithic and essentialist perception of the Arab world and policies that focus on chaos and violence rather that their root causes prioritises stability and security, and diverts from the critical need for institutional reform.

And what of Islamic movements? The retreat to the conventional wisdom of equating stability and national interest with securitisation has also included a retreat to the anti-Muslim Brotherhood and longtime anti-Islamist mantra of Arab autocrats. Al-Sisi’s condemnation of Egypt’s MB as a terrorist organisation with international linkages, and Saudi Arabia's (and the United Arab Emirates's) attempt to rally not only Arab nations but also to preach and pressure the US and EU to follow suit has both domestic and international implications. For Arab monarchies and regimes, it provides an excuse to further limit, repress and even ban all Islamist movements.

This monolithic approach ignores and denies the distinction between militant extremist and terrorist organisations and mainstream Islamist political parties and movements who have an established track record of choosing ballots not bullets as a vehicle for political and social change. Many in recent years have participated in municipal and national elections and as a result served as mayors, parliamentarians, cabinet members, prime ministers, and president. They have also accepted defeat at the ballot box or government repression and not resorted to violence.

Transparent, self-serving anti-MB and anti-Islamist policies not only endanger the lives of mainstream Islamists but also discredit the claims of Western democracies and their belief in and support for the right of self-determination, good governance, rule of law and human rights. Equally important, they affirm and reinforce the rhetoric and ranting of terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and IS that both condemn democracy as anti-Islamic and charge that the US and Europe are hypocrites who have practiced a double standard when it comes to democracy promotion in the Middle East, a belief that Gallup poll reports and those of other organisations have shown is widespread.

Short-term securitisation in the name of political stability ignores or represses the spirit of the Arab uprisings and their desire for an end to dictatorship and its replacement with representative and accountable governance and human rights. It reinforces anti-Westernism as well as the mantra of militant extremists that neither Arab regimes nor their Western allies will “allow” democratisation and can fuel greater radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations. However, long term, the genie has been let out of the bottle. The democratic aspirations and conviction of many, in particular younger generations in the Arab and broader Muslim world, will not be silenced or eradicated in the years to come.

John L Esposito is a Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Esposito has served as consultant to the US Department of State and other agencies, European and Asian governments and corporations, universities, and the media worldwide. Faisal Kattan has worked for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Sawari Ventures and is currently a research analyst at the Brookings Institution. He is pursuing an MA in Arab Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

Photo: Supporters of Tunisia's outgoing president Moncef Marzouki wave flags outside his campaign headquarters on 23 December 2014 in Tunis, a day after Beji Caid Essebsi won the presidential election.