The promises of the “Arab Spring” wilted in many Arab countries during the long, hot summer, and now these nations face uncertain prospects in the autumn. As Tunisia and Egypt take the initial steps toward democratic transition, they face significant challenges, including the need to revive slumping economies, address sectarian tensions, and build transparent and accountable democratic governments.
This three-part series provides analysis on six countries affected by the Arab Spring and their prospects for a democratic future.
Next Sunday, Tunisia, the country that started the Arab Spring, will hold its first post–Ben Ali elections. While other Arab Spring countries are experiencing unpredictable political environments, Tunisia’s well-educated, predominantly secular society and relatively developed economy lend optimism to an otherwise volatile process.
The 218 elected members of the National Constituent Assembly will be responsible for writing a new constitution and preparing for presidential and/or parliamentary elections. Priority issues for the assembly will include the implementation of a parliamentary or presidential system of governance, the decentralization of power, the reenergizing of the economy, and the role of religion in governance. According to a non-binding agreement by the Ben Achour Commission, which includes Tunisia’s major political parties, the assembly will be limited to a one-year term.
Like Egypt, many voters are taking part in the political process for the first time. As a result, the political activity in Tunisia has skyrocketed. Under the Ben Ali regime, there were only eight parties. Now, there are over 100. Among them is the Islamist Hizb Al-Nahda (translation: Renaissance Party) movement, which was denied party status in 1985 owing to its religious agenda.
Last March, Al-Nahda was granted legal status by the interim government to allow greater diversity in political representation. Al-Nahda is currently the frontrunner in the elections and is expected to receive up to 22 percent of the vote. While Al-Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has assured voters that his party will not advance a radical Islamist agenda, many are concerned that Tunisia’s liberal way of life will be compromised.
Egypt’s interim government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has taken a ham-handed and erratic approach in transitioning the country towards democracy. The promise of six-month military rule has been extended, and Egyptians are losing patience with the slowness of the transition. While the parliamentary elections begin next month, voting will not end until March. If everything goes according to schedule, the earliest the Shura Council and the People’s Assembly will be able to meet will be later that month.
The SCAF has also taken liberties in governing by extending the much-resented emergency rule law, threatening to postpone presidential elections until late 2012 and refusing parliamentary budget oversight over the military. Furthermore, the SCAF’s brutal response to protests by Coptic Christians earlier this month provoked sectarian tensions and widespread concern that the interim leaders will use the insecurity as an excuse to postpone the November elections.
Adding to Egypt’s volatile political climate, Egyptians accuse the SCAF of pandering to former president Hosni Mubarak’s loyalists by ensuring that former members of the National Democratic Party retain a significant presence in the new parliament. Under Egypt’s election laws, political parties are not allowed to contest a third of the seats in parliament, reserved for independent candidates. Concerned that Mubarak loyalists will attempt to regain their influence, political parties formed coalitions to weaken their potential influence. The fractured National Democratic Alliance, a coalition of parties dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has threatened to boycott the election unless the law is changed.
The elections provide Egyptians with an opportunity to choose their own government. Under the Mubarak regime, Egyptians had a very limited role in politics. They lacked a voice and were largely excluded from the political process. With approximately 50 parties registered, voters have a wide spectrum of candidates to choose from. The elections will provide significant insight into the political makeup of the Egyptian people. While the Freedom and Justice Party is expected to make substantial gains, polling figures have been scattered, with predicted outcomes anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the vote.
Egypt’s complex political environment is fraught with potential complications. The first step to democratic transition is next month’s elections. The SCAF should make every effort to make sure these are conducted in a timely, fair, and peaceful manner. Furthermore, Egyptian security forces must refrain from destabilizing the volatile political environment by using a disproportionate use of force against protesters.