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Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Makes Tunisia Different?

Tunisia's new Prime minister Mehdi Jomaa (left) shakes hands with his predecessor Ali Laarayedh during a handover ceremony in Tunis on January 29, 2014. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia’s new Prime minister Mehdi Jomaa (left) shakes hands with his predecessor Ali Laarayedh during a handover ceremony in Tunis on January 29, 2014. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

In a rare and historic development in the Arab world this week, an Islamist party stepped down as part of an orderly democratic transfer of power. It happened in Tunisia, the country that sparked the pro-democracy uprising three years ago that became the Arab Spring.

Tunisia has seen plenty of strife in the interim, including the assassination of two liberal political leaders. But while Tunisia’s neighbors, including Egypt and Libya, have slipped on the path to democracy, Tunisia just passed the most liberal constitution in the Arab world.

George Washington University political science professor Nathan J. Brown joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss what makes Tunisia different.

Interview Highlights: Nathan J. Brown

What Tunisia did right

“Certainly, if you compare Tunisia to other countries in the region, what has happened in Tunisia is something, I think, Tunisians can rightly take pride in. I think the closer you get to the scene, sometimes what you find is perhaps more a sense of relief than jubilation; the sense that Tunisians skirted a disaster, that they were in a very, very confrontational situation, that they’ve been a very protracted transition, and managed to hammer out a deal at the end.”

What Tunisia did differently

“It is a fairly liberal constitution. There have been liberal elements in other Arab constitutions. This probably is more liberal than most of them. What’s been missing in other Arab societies is a good political framework, is a real pluralist political framework, underlying any liberal language. And that’s what Tunisians may have, is a real pluralism in the political life, which will allow some of these constitutional provisions to take on some real meaning.”

“Tunisians, from the beginning, designed a process that was based on ‘no victor, no vanquished.’ You look at a series of decisions that was made in Tunisia — decisions made by the Tunisian voters not to give any single party a majority; decisions made by the political leadership in Tunisia that they had to deal with each other — that is what gives them a much more successful outcome than Egypt.”

Differences between Egypt and Tunisia

“In Egypt, when Hosni Mubarak was forced to relinquish power back in February 2011, the military stepped in and took control. It did so to popular support, but all through the Egyptian transition process, the military has been running the show or lurking in the wings with every other political actor in the country trying to draw it in. In Tunisia, the military simply has been absent as a political force, and that’s meant that the various Tunisian political forces have to deal directly with each other, rather than waiting for the military to come in and save them when things go wrong.

“The recent steps in Egypt — the ouster of Morsi, the passing of the constitution — probably has the support from the majority of Egyptians, but it doesn’t have the support from all of them. Egyptians are badly divided, and the problem is in the last three years, they’ve played this winner-take-all game where whoever has the support of most people or the military gets to rule. In Tunisia, the people are also badly divided, but they’re more evenly divided, so the various political forces have to deal directly with each other.”

“Egypt and Tunisia have different trajectories. Egypt is obviously one of the first states in the world. The formation of the modern Egyptian state, in a kind of bureaucratic sense, goes back to the 19th century. Tunisia is a little bit more recent. It also had autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, was sort of self-governing in the 19th century. Both countries were under European control, but French control in Tunisia was much longer, more obtrusive, lasted really until the 1950s, whereas the British declared Egypt independent in the 1920s.”

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And something unusual happened in the Arab world this week: an orderly, democratic transfer of power. It happened in Tunisia. A new constitution was passed, and then the country's governing Islamist party Ennahda handed power over to a technocratic, caretaker government in preparation for elections later this year. Now, remember, Tunisia was ground zero for the Arab Spring that erupted three years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

HOBSON: Crowds took to the streets after 27-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest against how he was being treated by local authorities. Those demonstrations forced Tunisia's longtime ruler from office and sparked similar protests across the Arab world. Now, there has been violence in Tunisia since the uprising, including assassinations of politicians. But compared with what's happening in Egypt, Tunisia is looking pretty good. So what is different?

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. He's been following events in the Arab world, and he's with us now from Washington. Welcome.

NATHAN BROWN: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: Well, what do you make of what's happening in Tunisia, because it seems, from a distance, like it's having a much smoother path to the democracy than Egypt.

BROWN: It certainly does look that way from a distance. And certainly, if you compare Tunisia to other countries in the region, what is happening in Tunisia is something, I think, that Tunisians can rightly take pride in. I think the closer you get to the scene, sometimes, what you find is perhaps more a sense of relief than jubilation, the sense that Tunisians skirted a disaster, that they were in a very, very confrontational situation, that they've been in a very protracted transition and managed to hammer out a deal at the end. So it's a - as I say, it's a little bit probably more relief than jubilation in Tunis.

HOBSON: But this constitution that was just approved in Tunisia is being described as one of the most liberal in the Arab world. It guarantees freedom of worship. It recognizes equality between men and women for the first time.

BROWN: It is a fairly liberal constitution. There have been liberal elements in other Arab constitutions. This probably is more liberal than most of them. What's been missing in other Arab societies is a good political framework, is a real pluralist political framework underlying any liberal language. And that's what Tunisians may have, is a real pluralism in the political life, which will allow some of these constitutional provisions to take on some real meaning.

HOBSON: What is the difference, in your view, between Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamic Group, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

BROWN: Ennahda's top leadership probably went farther than the Muslim Brotherhood did in incorporating liberal and democratic ideas into their platform. It's not clear how much those ideas penetrated into the rank-and-file, but at least the leadership learned how to talk that language.

HOBSON: And what about the military in both countries and the role that they have played? Because as we've seen, obviously, in Egypt, the military ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership.

BROWN: I think that's one of the critical differences in the outcome between the two countries. In Egypt, when Hosni Mubarak was forced to relinquish power back in February 2011, the military stepped in and took control. It did so to popular support. But all through the Egyptian translation process, the military has either been running the show or lurking in the wings with every other political actor in the country, trying to draw it in. In Tunisia, the military simply has been absent as a political force. And that's meant that the various Tunisian political forces have to deal directly with each other, rather than waiting for the military to come in and save them if things go wrong.

HOBSON: Is that simply because Tunisia didn't have as big of a military to begin with?

BROWN: I think the smaller Tunisian military is a large part of it. It's also a military that has never played a political role. The Egyptian military decreased its political role, but it was always there, and there were always generals and very prominent positions in Egyptian political life.

HOBSON: You do wonder, when you look at what's going on in Egypt, whether the people of Egypt are going to be OK with going back to what looks like a return to Mubarak-style rule in Egypt, because they all rose up against that very thing. And I wonder what you think the difference will be between how the people are feeling about what's happening in Egypt and how the people in Tunisia are feeling about what's happening there.

BROWN: It's a great question, because underlying that is a question of: Who are the people? The recent steps in Egypt - the ouster of Morsi, the passing of a new constitution - probably has a support from the majority of Egyptians, but it doesn't have the support from all of them. Egyptians are very badly divided. And the problem is, in last three years, they played this winner-take-all game where whoever has the support of most people or the military gets to rule. In Tunisia, the people are also badly divided, but they're more evenly divided so that the various political forces have to deal directly with each other.

If you look, for instance, at the Tunisian elections for the assembly that just wrote the constitution, you saw that the Ennahda, the Islamist group, got a plurality. There were the largest group, but they were not a majority. Whereas in Egypt, every single time you've had an election, you've had one single winner. Islamist for the parliament, then Mohammed Morsi for the Muslim Brotherhood for the presidency, and so on.

HOBSON: Take us back to the history a little bit, and tell us about the differences between how these two countries developed into what they are and how that might play into what happens going forward.

BROWN: Egypt and Tunisia have different trajectories. Egypt is obviously one of the first states in the world. The formation of the modern Egyptian state, in a kind of bureaucratic sense, goes back to the 19th century. Tunisia is a little bit more recent. It also was - had a little - had autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, was sort of self-governing in the 19th century. Both countries were under European control. But French control in Tunisia was much longer, more intrusive, lasted until - really until the 1950s, whereas the British declared Egypt independent in the 1920s.

They have slightly different trajectories, one which leads both countries, I think, behind with a set of strong politically institutions. Neither country really had much of a democratic legacy on which to build, however.

HOBSON: But when history looks back at this period, it will be Tunisia, not Egypt, that started the Arab Spring.

BROWN: I think Tunisia not simply started the Arab Spring, but Tunisia has, at this point, drawn it to what looks like not necessarily a successful conclusion but at least a manageable conclusion far better than the Egyptians have.

HOBSON: But why do you think it was Tunisia, not Egypt, that did that?

BROWN: I'd go back, again, to the pluralism in outcome and the fact that Tunisians from the beginning designed a process that was based on no victor, no vanquished. You look at a series of decisions that was made in Tunisia - decisions made by the Tunisian voters not to give any single party a majority, decisions made by the political leadership in Tunisia that they had to deal with each other - that is what gives them a much more successful outcome than in Egypt.

HOBSON: Nathan Brown is professor of political science in international affairs at the George Washington University. Professor Brown, thanks for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you.

HOBSON: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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