On October 23rd Tunisians made history with the first free and fair election to take place in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Lessons can be learnt from the run-up to the election, the practices of contesting Islamist parties and the way the election was conducted on this historic day. These lessons indicate the beginnings of an optimistic future for Tunisia, but also point to the possible dangers facing a precarious democratic transition in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Back in December, the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi instigated a long awaited Arab awakening, not just in Tunisia but across the Arab world. Bouazizi’s grievances have been well documented. He represented the discontent of the ‘Arab street’. He was the everyday ordinary young Arabian. A university graduate yet incapable of finding sustainable work and trapped in a socially dysfunctional position where elite corruption ruled the day. His plight echoed a familiar grievance felt around the Arab world, high youth unemployment in a region where up to 70 percent of the populace are under 30.
As the revolution succeeded in ousting President Ben Ali, questions over the strength of the revolution in Tunis began to surface. Tunisians were concerned that amongst the opposition signs of political fracturing were increasing. The old cleavages of secularist and Islamist groupings became more entrenched and there were fears of a further instability leading to low level intensity violence. Since the Jasmine revolution, economic hardship for the ‘Bouazizi’ class has deepened. In a country where tourism is one of the key revenue earners, the chaos of the revolution has exacerbated the financial woes of the country. Added to this, the failure of the Interim government in addressing the country’s economic concerns with increasing graduate unemployment, now up to 30 percent; made the prospects for a peaceful and fair election questionable.
However, a week later we can reflect on the positive nature in which the election was conducted. A 90 percent turnout, a generally peaceful and internationally accepted free election in which UN monitors were allowed full access to all the electoral polling stations, points to an optimistic future for the Tunisian populace. We have undoubtedly witnessed one of the most momentous stages of the democratization process in the Arab world still in its embryonic stages. It must be noted that the reasons for Tunisian electoral success in circumnavigating the above listed problems can be chalked down to two main differences, which unfortunately Egyptians cannot rely on.
The first is the consolatory attempts by the Islamist mainstream party in Tunisia, Al Nadha to assuage secularist fears in the run-up to the election. These efforts were considerably noticeable and will play a key role in the future stability of the coalition government there, especially since Al Nadha won over 40 percent of the vote. Rachid Ghannouchi, Al Nadha’s leader made vital concessions months before the election. His party signed a shared statement of principles with opposition parties and notably endorsed the liberal Personal Status Code, which delivers some of the most advanced women’s rights in the Arab region. This helped to ease secularist fears that the rise of Al Nadha was going to threaten their values.
This first lesson is something the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could take note of. Why? The Brotherhood’s political party have stated that they support women’s rights, but how far they are willing to go is still a bone of contention for other opposition groups. Notably, they have yet to come out in support of anything as close to Al Nadha’s positioning on this issue. This is something that the Brotherhood needs to face up to. Addressing such a thorny issue would ease Islamist/secularist tensions, but most importantly, it might help to heal the growing rift between the Coptic communities and their fellow Islamic compatriots.
Secondly, and this is truly the most crucial distinction between the Tunisian experience and Egyptian potential for democratization. It is the place of the army in the latter’s society which impinges on the chances of a full free and fair election taking place in November. The army have deep roots in Egyptian society. Let’s not forget that the past five decades have been ruled by army generals posing as presidents. Furthermore, the army is financially backed by some strong external players with a vested interest in keeping the status quo and in halting any sort of Islamist shaded Egyptian government taking control in Cairo. Even during the height of the Tahrir Square protests, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured the military that the US annual largesse of USD 1.3 billion would continue. This suggests that the US would be content with seeing a military guided Egyptian government; who could be relied upon to continue the controversial peace with Israel, whilst strategically keeping US interests in mind.
The actions of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in recent months can be understood in relation to the deep rooted strength of the Egyptian army. SCAF have turned a deaf ear to ongoing protests, demonstrations and strikes by members of unions, professional syndicates, academics, government employees and the youth who generated the first Tahrir square protests. Another worrying precedent is that so far more than 12,000 civilians are believed to have been sent to military trials instead of civilian rulings. Nine months on after the glorious celebrations of Tahrir square, Egypt is not looking entirely different to the previous thirty years under Emergency Law.
It is under this atmosphere that divisions between secularists and Islamists are becoming increasingly strained, whilst feeding into Coptic Christian fears. The violence witnessed in early October demonstrated that the level of inter-communal strife between Muslims and Copts is growing, with at least 26 people killed in clashes in Cairo recently.
The greater the gaps between secularists and Islamists, Copts and Muslims, the army and civil society, the more difficult it will be to conduct a peaceful election devoid of fraud and suspect. As SCAF has pushed back the election date on several occasions, societal differences have become more entrenched. If there are lessons to be learnt from the Tunisian experience, it is that Egyptians need to push the military for greater transparency in both the judicial and political spheres. It is also time for Egypt’s moderate Islamists to take some brave steps to convincing other parties that it has matured politically and moved beyond its theo-centric past. These are tricky times for Egyptians. The future of their country lies in a precarious position. It would be wise to look to the Tunisian model as a guide for democratic transition, otherwise darks times may dampen revolutionary hopes.