Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.


Elections that follow dramatic downfalls of authoritarian regimes present policymakers with difficult choices. They are an opportunity to establish a sound basis for democratization, putting in place institutions and strengthening actors that help guarantee free and fair elections. Yet such elections are part of a high-stakes conflict over the future that takes place in a context of enormous uncertainty, as new actors emerge, old elites remake themselves, and the public engages in politics in new and unpredictable ways.

Assisting elections in the Arab world today is made more challenging by two factors that have thus far distinguished the region from others. First, transitions are made more difficult by extraordinarily strong demands to uproot the old regime. Fears that former regime elements will undermine ongoing revolutions along with demands for justice after decades of wrongdoing invariably create pressures to exclude former elites. In other regions, reformers within autocratic regimes, like Boris Yeltsin and South Africa’s F.W. DeKlerk, split from hardliners to spearhead reforms, muting demands for excluding old regime allies writ large. In the Middle East, however, old regime elites have been unable to credibly commit to reforms, partly given decades-long histories of empty promises and oppositions that remain largely determined to accept nothing less than Ben Ali-like departures. Room for compromise is difficult to find.

Second, for an international community hoping to support Arab transitions, widespread distrust of outside forces compounds these problems. Such distrust is inevitable in all post-colonial states; however, skepticism is particularly high in the Arab world, especially toward the United States. Cynicism about American intentions has been fed by U.S. support for Israel, its continued backing of Arab autocrats for nearly two decades after the Cold War, and, more recently, its unwillingness to take stronger stands against Mubarak, Asad, and others early on in the uprisings. Even if transitioning elites believe international expertise can help smooth the election process and enhance faith in the outcomes, they find it difficult to embrace in the context of heightened nationalism and a strong desire to assert sovereignty.

In light of these challenges, this paper explores how the international community can best engage in “founding” elections in the Arab world. Examining Egypt and Tunisia, the first two Arab states to hold elections, it focuses on challenges in leveling the playing field, managing electoral processes, and creating just and sustainable outcomes. These cases are undoubtedly unique in many ways and – as in any transition – remain in flux. Nevertheless, examining their early experience yields insights into how international actors can best approach those cases that may follow (e.g., Libya, Syria, and Yemen).

Most notably, these cases suggest that the democracy promotion community should approach first elections differently than it does subsequent ones. It should prioritize different goals and activities, in some cases even leaving off the agenda well-intentioned and generally constructive programs in order to focus on more urgent activities critical to strengthening electoral processes. Recognizing the enormous fear and uncertainty with which democrats approach first elections, international actors should resist the understandable urge to seek immediate, permanent democratic arrangements and “favorable” electoral outcomes. They should also encourage revolutionary forces to resist understandable, but counterproductive, urges to exclude allies of the former regime from new democratic processes. Rather, democracy promoters should suggest interim measures, encourage tolerance toward “unfavorable” results, and, in so doing, support democrats as they make their way through a long, imperfect process.