Tunisia’s successes and Egypt’s regressions
ON January 26, 2014, the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia voted overwhelmingly [200 out of 217] to approve the most liberal democratic constitution in the Middle East. The constitution protects civil liberties, establishes separation of powers and proper checks and balances, and guarantees gender equality in socio-political processes. Paradoxically enough, the dominant group in the Assembly consists of Islamists.
The charter is an outcome of a long-protracted process of negotiation, consensus and trust-building between Islamists and secularists. A Turkish New York Times columnist, Mustafa Akyol, recently stated that Tunisia can be a role model for Turkey — even though Turkey is a sixty-year-old democracy.
Egypt, a regional leader and a pivotal country in the Muslim world, has a different story to tell. Only two-and-a-half years after the revolution and one year after Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president, a military coup removed Morsi from power on July 3, 2013. Now again a military man, the former defense minister, al-Sisi, who led the last coup is on the throne claiming to have received over 90% vote in the recent election. Egypt is back full circle.
Tunisia and Egypt had ousted their long autocratic rulers through creative civic resistance movements, and started their journey towards self-rule around the same time in 2011. Tunisia appears to be moving ahead towards achieving its goals, while Egypt is regressing.
Tunisia succeeded in building consensus among the political rivals to establish a functioning democratic system while Egypt failed to do so.
History is a testament to this fact that whenever adversaries create a consensus — often through long difficult negotiations entailing compromises — and they remain committed to the ideas and principles of inclusive politics and sharing powers it leads to a long term win-win state of affairs.
Like Egypt and many other Muslim majority countries Tunisia had its share of unfortunate past lives — including long-standing colonial rule as well as post-independence authoritarian rulers for approximately 55 years. Corruption, favouritism, misuse and abuse of power, decaying institutions, politicised bureaucrats, and failing economies are all too common in undemocratic systems that dysfunctionally manage countries.
Under western influence, the autocratic regimes that ruled both Tunisia and Egypt imposed liberal and secular policies on peoples without building a national consensus in favuor of these policies. Thus, these nations became deeply divided along secular and religious lines for a long time.
One reason that Tunisia appears to be creating a paradigm shift for the Middle East and North Africa is that both the Islamists and the secularists are committed to create a fair environment in which both sides feel secure and confident to work together to establish self-rule. The leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi in the Islamist party ‘Ennahda’ (Renaissance) plays a critical role in avoiding political gridlock for Tunisia.
Tunisia emphasised ‘process first’ transition that framed the constitution first by the Constituent Assembly, whose members would be elected by the first election. After that, the second election would elect the president for the country. This way, the binding rules of governance laid down in the constitution would impose constraints and allow for limited power at the disposal of the president, as desired in a democratic system.
Egypt’s process, however, was just the opposite — electing the president first and then allowing the Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution. That gave the elected president, in the absence of a set constitution, a huge capacity to mold primordial political ground to his party’s advantage. This made liberals nervous and restless after Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party — the offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — became elected through a narrow 51% margin. And this situation of uncertainty and lack of trust between the Islamists and the secularists lead to widespread conflicts and protests.
In stark contrast, the major political parties and civil society members of Tunisia came together soon after the dictator, Ben Ali, was ousted in January, 2011, to form the Ben Achour Commission, an inclusive decision making body that turned out to be, according to Alfred Stepan from Columbia University, “one of the most effective consensus-building bodies in the history of ‘crafted’ democratic transitions.”
This is precisely what Tunisia needed to break away from the past — to build a future based on legitimacy and solidarity. Tunisia succeeded because the arch rivals were willing to share power, establish consensus and take part in an inclusive political agenda. After the first election, even the parties that did not do well acknowledged the fairness and credibility of the election. The Commission in Tunisia invited and encouraged foreign observers while Egypt severely restricted them.
It is long overdue that liberals and Islamists find ways to reach out to each other. In a Muslim-majority society where religion matters a great deal yet ignorance and false indoctrinations prevail and where a huge young generation remains frustrated about the way their society is managed, an enormous collective responsibility exists.
After Morsi took office on June 30, 2012, he spared no time in consolidating power unilaterally, and generally ignored the voices of the 49% who did not vote for him in the 2012 election. When Morsi faced serous turmoil and opposition to his presidency, he decided to hang on to power and became increasingly rigid and defiant. Morsi’s actions sent an unmistakable signal to the opposition about his intent to monopolise rule like his predecessors. Morsi turned a blind eye to the agitation on the street until the army stepped in and removed him. This could have been avoided had consensus building between the Islamists and the secularists be given priority in a country like Egypt, with 80 million people belonging to different camps coupled with a long history of polarisation and confrontation.
Wisdom prevailed on Ghannouchi, and he saw the writing on the wall. He witnessed what happened in Egypt, and he did not want that scenario to happen to his own people. When his party faced a similar situation in October 2013 after the death of two leaders of liberal groups as well as increasing dissension, Ghannouchi stepped down willingly to hand over power to a neutral caretaker-government. Ghannouchi thus avoided turmoil and sought consensus in building a critical period of his country’s history. He and his party compromised on some of the thorniest issues facing Islamists, through deals with liberals that aimed to achieve viable self-rule. This was not a sign of weakness or defeat by any means. To the contrary this move was a sign of strength, vision, and true statesmanship by willingly giving up power for the greater interests of the nation.
If history is any reference, it is not only Tunisians who won. The whole world won as well. This courageous move is likely to give birth to a functioning democracy, and Ennahda has earned the goodwill and trust of the people and ensured itself a solid place in the nation’s politics and history. Islamists anywhere in the world should take a hard look at this trailblazer of our time.
The writer is Executive Director, US-based Muslims for Peace, Justice and Progress.
Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, June 11, 2014