Reassessing the Arab Awakening: Prospects for Deepening and Institutionalizing Democracy in North Africa in 2013


Two years ago today, Egyptians erupted in joy and jubilation after Omar Suleiman, then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s vice president and intelligence chief, announced that Mubarak had resigned as president and handed all authority to a council consisting of high-ranking military officers. Mubarak was ousted by an 18-day revolt led by young Egyptians and which had begun less than a month after a similar dictatorship in neighboring Tunisia had been toppled. The young Egyptians, spearheading the revolution, were proud to announce to the world that: “This is a revolution for all Egyptians; there is no room for a single group’s slogans, not the Brotherhood’s or anybody else,” (The New York Times, February 11, 2011). Even U.S. President Barack Obama chimed in and declared that “Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day” (Ibid). Yet two years after Mubarak was ousted, the “people’s revolution” has degenerated into a struggle by President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party to create a new autocracy in Egypt. The country is currently being torn apart by violent confrontations between restless, unemployed (and to a certain extent), hopeless, urban youth, and an Islamist government that is perceived as increasingly authoritarian and unwilling to establish institutional arrangements capable of encouraging positive economic transformation and fostering peaceful coexistence, especially in terms of protecting the rights of minorities.

Where it all began

The revolutionary fervor that swept this part of the world began on December 17, 2010 with the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, who was protesting his humiliation at the hands of local government regulators. The tragic death of Bouazizi created a new economic, social and political awakening among Tunisians who subsequently took to the streets to demand the ouster of their authoritarian ruler, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The latter was eventually forced out of office on January 14, 2011. Tunisia is scheduled to have presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2013. The hope is that the new government will bring together all of the country’s relevant stakeholders and undertake the type of institutional reforms that could finally provide the country with effective permanent governance structures—that is, those that guarantee the just rule of law.

Many groups within these countries, especially women and ethnic and religious minorities, fear that even though the new regimes came into being through democratic means, they are likely to reject democracy as soon as they have consolidated their political positions.

Tunisia’s new revolutionary awakening eventually spread to other countries in North Africa, as citizens took to the streets to demand that their governments restore and respect their fundamental rights. This movement, commonly referred to as the “Arab Spring,” resulted in the demise of brutal authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Elections that have been considered fair and free by both local and international observers have been carried out in all three countries and each now has a democratically elected government. However, many groups within these countries, especially women and ethnic and religious minorities, fear that even though the new regimes came into being through democratic means, they are likely to reject democracy as soon as they have consolidated their political positions. Marc Fisher of the Washington Post reports, for example, that in Tunisia, many so-called YouTube preachers are preaching sermons that reject the new democracy and its various institutions, such as elections. These preachers argue that “[d]emocracy’s freedom is absolute,” and that “We don’t accept that. In our religion, freedom is limited to the freedom God gives you.” (The Washington Post, April 28, 2012). There is fear that governments in these countries are likely to yield to radical Islamist groups and favor the adoption or retention of non-democratic institutions.

On February 6, 2013, Chokri Belaid, a secularist and staunch critic of the ruling Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, was assassinated. This cowardly act, perpetuated on a man who had persistently criticized the increasing Islamization of the country’s revolution and had favored the retention of a secular state, only reinforced the beliefs of many Tunisians that Islamists have effectively hijacked their revolution and are endangering their fundamental freedoms. Tunisians have already protested in the wake of Belaid’s funeral prompting the Prime Minister to state that he would dissolve the current government and hold elections.

The priority

For 2013 and beyond, citizens of these countries must ask themselves whether the events of the Arab Spring sufficiently transformed the critical domains—the political, administrative and judicial foundations of the state—enough to provide institutional arrangements that are capable of (1) adequately constraining the state so that civil servants and political elites would not continue to behave with impunity; (2) enhancing peaceful coexistence of each country’s diverse population groups and minimizing the infringement of group rights by either state- or non-state actors; and (3) promoting the type of entrepreneurial activities that can create the wealth that each country needs to fight poverty and improve living conditions, especially for historically marginalized and deprived groups and individuals (e.g., women, rural inhabitants, and ethnic and religious minorities). As the evidence has since shown, the events that took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were simple regime changes and not the type of institutional transformations that would have produced truly new political and economic systems. Take Egypt, for example: The Mubarak-era governance architecture—characterized by its failure to guarantee and uphold the rule of law, and which was used effectively by the ancien régime to oppress, exploit and infantilize the Egyptian people—is still firmly in place.

On November 22, 2012, Morsi, who had been elected to guard, as well as help, deepen and institutionalize the country’s democracy, placed himself above the law—he issued a decree that effectively granted him immunity from judicial review or oversight, (The New York Times, November 22, 2012). Criticism and condemnation of Morsi’s extra-constitutional act was swift and almost universal. Some members of the opposition argued that Morsi had established an “absolute presidential tyranny” and that “Egypt [was] facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition,” (Ibid). It appeared that Morsi, who, together with his Freedom and Justice Party, had come into power with a reformist mission, which was expected to successfully guide the country’s transition to democratic governance, was now reverting to some of the extra-constitutional practices that had characterized the Mubarak regime. Although Morsi later agreed to limit the scope of his November 22, 2012 decree, his actions do not bode well for the institutionalization of democracy in Egypt.

It is difficult not to see that the once dynamic and progressive Egyptian revolution has now degenerated into a struggle by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party to entrench a post-Mubarak dictatorship in the country.

In January 2013, violent demonstrations broke out in the cities of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailiya after a court sentenced 21 football fans to death for the February 2012 riot that resulted in the death of over 70 people. Many of the people engaging in the violent demonstrations following the court decision argued that they had been “scapegoated” for the events of February 2012. Ironically, Morsi, who earlier had ignored the country’s legal and judicial system and proceeded to grab power for himself, was telling the rioting Egyptians to respect the court ruling. In response, the Egyptian president declared a state of emergency in the three cities and imposed a 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew for 30 days. The president subsequently invited the opposition to a national dialogue but opposition leaders soundly rejected the offer as essentially “cosmetic” and threatened to continue supporting further protests unless the government meets certain demands, including the formation of a more inclusive government and constitutional reforms. Many in the opposition want the recently ratified constitution discarded and another one developed through a more participatory process. It is difficult not to see that the once dynamic and progressive Egyptian revolution has now degenerated into a struggle by Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party to entrench a post-Mubarak dictatorship in the country. On January 30, 2013, amid warnings from the Egyptian military, a unified opposition invited the president to form a government of national unity as a way to put a halt to the violence. However, even if such a government is formed (as of this writing, Morsi has rejected the idea), and the violence is temporarily halted, the larger problem of institutional dysfunction will remain.

With respect to Libya, the brutal attack of U.S. diplomatic staff and property in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi was a manifestation, among other things, of a revolution that had failed to adequately transform the critical domains and provide the country with institutional arrangements capable of guaranteeing the rule of law. Benghazi was the cradle of the Libyan “revolution” and yet, since the ouster of the ancien régime, the government in Tripoli has been unable to maintain full control of the country. Perhaps more important is the fact that the aspirations of many of those Libyans who participated in the grassroots revolution for freedom and increased participation in the economy, remain unfulfilled—in fact, many of them remain homeless, jobless and without any opportunities for self-actualization. Additionally, relations between Tripoli and Washington, D.C., one of the Libyan revolution’s strongest supporters, have deteriorated since the Benghazi incident.

The importance of reassessing the awakening

Today, many citizens of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are not satisfied with the outcomes of their “revolutions.” It is obvious that a significant amount of this frustration is related to the failure of the revolutions to secure certain critical goals—to reconstruct and reconstitute anachronistic and dysfunctional state systems and provide legal and judicial systems capable of guaranteeing and protecting citizens’ fundamental rights, including protecting citizens from violent attacks by state- and non-state actors, as well as enhancing their ability to engage in the creation of the wealth that they need to meet their obligations and improve their living standards.

Whereas the Arab Spring re-awakened the yearnings of citizens of several North African and Middle Eastern countries for democratic institutions that guarantee the just rule of law, they nevertheless failed to provide such political dispensations. Part of the problem lies in the fact that what started out as people-centered revolutionary uprisings designed to reconstruct and reconstitute dysfunctional state structures remain a work in progress. Tunisia has scheduled elections for 2013 and the hope is that those elections will produce a government that will lead the reconstruction project. Both Egypt and Libya have new governments but leadership in both countries is yet to put before the people any credible programs for reconstructing and reconstituting the anachronistic and dysfunctional state structures.

The policy imperative for 2013

Egyptians, Libyans and Tunisians must demand that their newly elected governments allow the people’s revolutions to continue and achieve their ultimate goal—effective reconstitution of anachronistic and dysfunctional state structures that have been used by previous governments to oppress, exploit and infantilize the people. State reconstruction, through democratic (i.e., bottom-up, participatory, inclusive and people-driven) constitution-making should be the top priority for 2013. It is only through such a process-driven approach to constitution-making that the peoples of these countries can provide themselves with institutional arrangements that adequately constrain civil servants and political elites, provide an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and the creation of wealth, and significantly enhance the ability of the various groups that live in each country to coexist peacefully. While some of the new governments appear to favor some form of “controlled democracy” or “theocracy,” it is important for citizens to recognize that without institutional arrangements that guarantee the just rule of law (i.e., one that is consistent with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments), they will continue to suffer from the same types of ills that provided the impetus for the revolutions that began in 2010—impunity and venality in the public sector, extremely high levels of poverty and material deprivation, violence—perpetuated by either state- or non-state actors—against vulnerable groups, and a general failure by the government to respect the people’s fundamental rights. Thus, instead of seeking for themselves positions in the government, opposition elites should push for full and inclusive nationwide dialogue on constitution making so that the country can avail itself of a constitution that reflects the values of all relevant stakeholder groups.