On May 23, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a plenary discussion on the challenge of institutional reform after the Arab Spring as part of the 13th Doha Forum. Speakers discussed how the countries of the Arab Spring could build new, representative governments, as well as how they could best balance demands for change with the requirements of an inclusive and successful transition. The discussion featured Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian Ambassador to the United States and founding Dean of the American University in Cairo’s School of Public Affairs; Dr. Rafiq Abdessalam, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tunisia; Dr. Bernardino Leon, European Union Special Representative for the Southern Mediterranean; Nikolay Mladenov, former Foreign Minister of Bulgaria; and Michael Posner, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The discussion was moderated by BDC Director Salman Shaikh.
The panel opened with speakers taking stock of the situation of the countries of the Arab Spring, and Egypt and Tunisia in particular, more than two years after 2011’s revolutionary wave. Both Fahmy and Abdessalam pointed to the challenges their countries faced. “It’s impossible to deny that almost everybody [in Egypt] is frustrated at this point,” Fahmy said. He told the audience that he remained optimistic over the long term but was, over the short term, “quite disturbed.” For his part, Abdessalam acknowledged that Tunisia’s transition had been difficult. At this point, he said, the goal of the Tunisian “Troika” was to steer the country through this period “at the least possible cost” with an approach based on partnership and consensus.
These challenges reflected the scope of the change underway in these countries. Fahmy asserted that what is happening in Egypt is a “societal” transition, not merely an institutional one – an argument that Abdessalam seconded. Egyptians, Fahmy said, are now defining an Egyptian political identity for the 21st century. Mladenov identified this as a key point of difference between earlier transitions in Central and Eastern Europe and those in the Arab world: whereas the end goal in European transitions may have been relatively clear, in the Arab world it is still in the making.
In order to best conduct this societal dialogue, Mladenov emphasized the “roundtable” approach Bulgaria had taken to arrive at a consensus vision for the future. This had parallels with the Tunisian approach, which Abdessalam said was based on a recognition that no single faction could bear these burdens alone. Fahmy, meanwhile, expressed unhappiness that Egypt had entered the political process before setting its constitutional ground rules, a decision he blamed for Egypt’s polarization. When politics are put first, he said, political forces “pull you apart rather than push you forward.” Posner was also critical of the Egyptian case, and in particular what he saw as a “very flawed” constitution – both the drafting process and the resulting document.
Participants worked to put forward an approach that was forward-looking but also workable. Leon laid out the key points on which he had counseled these transitioning countries. He advocated a transition that held accountable those responsible for excesses and dramatically reformed fiscal structures and the security services. At the same time, he argued for retaining the personnel and institutions of the state and broadly accommodating officials not implicated in crimes as part of the former regime. Fahmy warned that by too-aggressively dismantling everything that had come before the revolution, you risked “destroy[ing] the core of the country,” while Mladenov cautioned against not going far enough – he said that old regimes “have a tendency to come back from the ashes.” Leon read the successes of al-Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt as evidence of a desire for change – but said that support for Ahmed Shafiq in Egypt’s presidential election and Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunisia showed the need for a process that was respectful to and inclusive of all parties.
Any solution, of course, has to match up with the aspirations of the peoples who overthrew their dictators. As Posner put it, these are “young societies” whose people want economic opportunity and a political stake in the future of their countries. Fahmy argued that people need to see real progress on reform and improving their quality of life if they are to remain committed to the transition.
Participants touched on different ways that the West could support these transitions and reform processes. Mladenov raised as examples both European efforts to assist political party formation and the EU Endowment for Democracy. Still, Leon said that it is “very important to listen to what these societies want.” Posner and Mladenov agreed that any process had to be domestically driven, given the particularities of any given country case; looking at examples as diverse as Argentina, Serbia, and East Germany, they rejected a one-size-fits-all model.
In a discussion of the Gulf role in supporting these transitions, Abdessalam praised Qatar’s role but condemned some other Gulf states’ fear of change and “pessimistic depiction” of what is now going on in Egypt and Tunisia. Fahmy said that the Gulf should continue to provide support for these transitions, but not for one party over another. Posner, for his part, was sharply critical of the Gulf states’ position on the uprising in Bahrain. Bahrain should have been a model for a managed transition to a constitutional monarchy, he said, but instead the Gulf had been silent as the Bahraini government declined to implement key recommendations of the “Bassiouni Report.” Mladenov and Leon, on the other hand, were much more positive about the support of the Gulf for the Arab transitions and the Gulf countries’ role as a partner for the West. Mladenov did warn, however, that the Gulf faced possible blowback from its involvement in the Syrian conflict, saying, “You can’t poke your finger in boiling water and not get burned.” When pressed by a later questioner on how that might happen, Mladenov warned that the Gulf had become embroiled in a geopolitical conflict that could move beyond Syria’s borders – including to Iraq, and thus the Gulf itself.
During the question-and-answer session, Yemeni Minister of Information Ali bin Ahmed al-Omrani and Minister of Industry and Trade Saad al-Din bin Taleb were able to discuss the progress on and hopes for Yemen’s national dialogue; in the case of bin Taleb, he highlighted how previous regimes’ legacy of state capture and corruption had left their countries with a sometimes-unsustainable economic burden. Abdessalam agreed that the Yemeni experience – in which a largely armed society toppled President Ali Abdullah Saleh without resorting to violence – deserved special consideration. An Al Jazeera reporter in the audience asked why the election of Islamists had been unacceptable in the Algerian case, and whether it was, to the West, a matter of “revolutionary legitimacy.” Leon replied that it had been a “mistake” to allow the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front to run on an anti-democratic program, just as the subsequent coup had been a mistake. But Islamists, he said, had changed dramatically since then, an evolution typified by the writings of Rached al-Ghannouchi and the Turkish experience. A Bahraini member of the opposition coalition Wefaq praised Posner’s efforts to encourage reform in Bahrain, raising the need for reform within the Gulf. More than one questioner raised economic demands as a driving force behind the Arab revolutions, but Fahmy said that the “Arab Awakening” had mostly taken place for political reasons. Still, he said, it wouldn’t reach its conclusion without economic solutions.
To subscribe or manage your subscriptions to our top event topic lists, please visit our event topics page.