For several weeks, between December 2010 and March 2011, the world was treated to a show of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike the common military coup de tars, citizens of Tunisia and Egypt successfully depose long-ruling dictators through civil demonstrations. It all started in Tunisia in December 2010 when citizens joined a nationwide mass action protesting against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s oppressive rule.
A few weeks later, Egyptians joined the dance protesting against President Hosni Mubarak oppressive rule. The results in both countries were the same; citizens through mass action managed to oust long ruling dictators. From an outward look, these countries seemed more developed compared to most African countries. Yet, their citizens became so frustrated and desperate, so much so that they decided to fight for their own course.
Therefore, the question is, why did these governments fall? The answer remains the same for both; lack of democracy characterized by dictatorship and oppression. We know of successful non-democratic countries like Iran and China, but the former, their rule was too much of authoritarian.
Fortunately, citizens managed to bring down governments they believed were the main obstacle to their democracy. Nevertheless, do these events mark the beginning of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt? This essay, therefore, seeks to answer these two important questions.
Both Egypt and Tunisia’s governments had several similarities. To begin with, they both had the longest serving presidents in their history. Whereas President Ben Ali had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, President Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt for 30 years until the time of the fall of their governments.
Their reign was characterized by dictatorship leaving very little space for democracy. However, their reign encouraged development of their nations, no wonder they enjoyed the support of the West. Nevertheless, why did these long-lived governments fall? The fall of Tunisia and Egypt’s governments was caused by both political and economic factors. Of great importance to this essay are the political reasons as discussed below.
As had been mentioned, the lack of democracy is to blame for the fall of both Egypt and Tunisia’s governments. Democracy in practice denotes a form of government in which all citizens play an active role in the decision making process (Held, p. 12).
Every democratic society must portray the following key elements: popular sovereignty, equality before the law, separation of powers, individual freedoms, political tolerance, transparency and accountability, and rule of law (Held, p. 20). Democracy is more than just holding elections (Pipes, par. 2). It demands protection of the minority rights, enhancement of individual and political freedoms, independence of judiciary, political party pluralism, and the development of civil society (Pipes, par. 2).
Did Tunisia and Egypt’s governments reflect these principles? Although Tunisia was a constitutional republic that encouraged representation of citizens through multi-party democracy, it had strong characteristic of dictatorship that had negative impact on human rights and freedoms. On the other hand, Egypt was a semi-presidential republic that maintained one-party rule. There were several concerns relating to democracy in both countries.
First, both Tunisians and Egyptians expressed their concerns about lack of free elections. In Egypt, there was a growing concern about power inheritance. Credible sources reported that Hosni Mubarak started grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, way back in 2000 to be his successor after his retirement in 2010 (Sobelman, p. 31). This arrangement was met with sharp criticism from political groups in the country, the majority of which were illegal given the lack of political party pluralism in the country.
The possibility of power inheritance triggered the demand for multi-party politics to ensure that elections were free and fair. To the contrary, President Hosni Mubarak amended the constitution to ensure that Gamal would be the only presidential candidate (Sobelman, p. 34). Tunisia, on the other hand, had political party pluralism, but its elections were never free and fair, a strategy that made President Ben Ali remain in office for as long as he wanted.
Democracy dictates fair and competitive elections that grant the people a chance to elect the leaders they consider best fit for the office. Power inheritance is an insult to democracy and with the elections first approaching and Hosni Mubarak’s health deteriorating; Egyptians would not want to have the same experience as Syria hence they decided to use the power of the majority to change the course of their politics just as Tunisians did.
Second, both governments curtailed political freedoms. In Egypt, this was archived through the extension of emergency law. Enacted in 1967 following the Six-Day War, the law suspended individual freedoms including freedom of assembly and freedom of expression (Shehata, par. 23).
Under the emergency law, police force was allowed to use excessive force, media houses could be censored, and the government could imprison individuals indefinitely without any proper reason (Shehata, par. 23). This resulted into increased police brutality, and long-term detention without trial. For instance, during a parliamentary election in December 2010, an estimated number of between 5,000 and 10,000 people were detained without trial (Press release, par. 7).
Police brutality was also widespread during Hosni Mubarak’s reign. According to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Egypt recorded 567 cases of police torture, including 167 deaths during the period between 1993 and 2007 (Staff writer, par. 7). With such breach of human rights, it was prudent that citizens would fight for their course.
In Tunisia, despite being a multi-party country, Ben Ali’s government thwarted any effort by opposing political parties and civil society to check it. Anybody who criticized the government would risk being detained. President Ben Ali even enacted a ban on political parties deemed unsavory. Such measures curtailed various political freedoms and were a direct insult to democracy. Democracy demands freedom of association and expression.
President Ben Ali’s government must have been too much of a dictatorship and thus oppressive to the citizens. This can explain why Bouazizi’s self-immolation spontaneously caused nationwide protests that resulted into the fall of Ben Ali’s government. Tunisia’s government was sitting on a time bomb waiting to explode and Bouazizi’s self-immolation was like a switch on the circuit.
Third, both governments grossly violated freedom of speech as provided for in democracy. President Hosni Mubarak’s reign was marked by frequent media censorship and detention of anybody who expressed any critical view on the operations of the government. This over restriction of the media denied the press a chance to report on government’s wrongdoings.
The situation was the same in Tunisia. President Ben Ali’s government restricted media freedom through media regulation and censorships, despite the same government preaching press freedom. Limiting a press is like denying citizens a right to information; a direct insult to democracy. Such levels of oppression must have been too much for citizens of these countries hence the witnessed uprisings that led to the fall of the oppressive governments.
Last, Both Tunisia and Egypt’s governments were marred with corruption. Political corruption became the order of day in President Hosni Mubarak’s government with powerful businessmen allied to the ruling party rising to power and monopolizing Egypt’s business sector. As a result, they accumulated wealth and became the core players in Egypt’s economy.
This created a perception among Egyptians that the nation’s wealth only benefited businessmen allied to NDP. In Tunisia, the situation was somehow similar. President Ben Ali and his first family ran the nation’s economy for their personal gain. President Ben Ali solely made all the key decisions concerning privatization and investment, despite the existence of well-defined liberal economic legislation in the country.
As a result, his first family accumulated wealth in the key sectors of the economy leading to a perception that connections to the first family were necessary for business survival. In 2010, Egypt recorded a Corruption Perception Index of 3.1 whereas Tunisia had a CPI of 4.3 (Corruption Perception Index 2010, results table). The high level of corruption in Hosni Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s governments angered citizens and hence, the fall of Tunisia and Egypt’s government.
Having outlined the underlying political causes of the fall of Tunisia and Egypt’s governments, I now shift my discussion to the future of these countries. The citizens nonviolently fought and defeated the governments they perceived oppressive and obstacles to their democracy.
However, the question remains, could this be a new dawn in Arab world? Will these countries become democracies? From the recent uprisings, everyone would be quick to conclude that Tunisia and Egypt have started a democratic journey and will soon become democracies. The demonstrations by citizens proved that they are democratic and are aware of their democratic rights. However, understanding the prospects for democracies in these countries requires a deeper understanding of the concept of democracy.
From its definition, democracy is a fusion of two important ideologies, i.e., popular sovereignty and freedom (Mandelbaum, par. 3). Freedom as contained in democracy comes in three forms: political liberty, religious liberty, and economic liberty (Mandelbaum, par. 4). Here is where the challenge lays a head for both Egypt and Tunisia.
Egypt is extremely Islam with well-organized Muslim groups that pose a threat to full democracy. For instance, Muslim Brotherhood is against religious liberty and rights of women. Should such extremists have access to power, then there will be very little room for liberty in Egypt (Benhenda, p. 10).
Tunisia, on the other had, has made some progress in protecting women’s rights, but is still largely Islam hence may reject religious liberty. These countries may enjoy popular sovereignty exercised through free and fair elections, but popular sovereignty without liberty in not genuine democracy. As Pipes (2011) maintained, democracy is much more than just holding elections (par. 2).
Moreover, the establishment of liberty requires such institutions as legal system with impartial courts (Mandelbaum, par. 7) that are unfortunately lacking in both Egypt and Tunisia. A true democracy would mean a complete overhaul of the countries’ judicial system, which may take years to be achieved.
Whether this will be possible is still unclear and we can only wait and see. Furthermore, the development of democracy requires free-market economy as have been witnessed in successful democracies in Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately, both Egypt’s and Tunisia’s economies are based on capitalism, whereby individual’s economic prowess is determined by his political connections contrary to free-market economy hence not fit for democracy (Mandelbaum, par. 10).
Nevertheless, both Tunisia and Egypt have some prospects for democracy. The citizens of both countries have proved that they are democrats through the recent uprisings. Egypt does not have many ethnic inclinations or even natural resources that have been the major obstacle to democracy in most Arab countries hence its democratization would be easy.
However, Tunisia, have more prospects for democracy than Egypt. First, Tunisian elite have been demanding for political reforms since 1970s. Second, Unlike Egypt, Tunisia has made significant progress in protection human rights especially women’s rights. Third, the country has an extensive middle class that is well aware of their democratic rights hence a good foundation for democracy.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt made a significant democratic step in the Arab world. From political point of view, the demonstrations are largely attributed to the apparent lack of democratic space in these countries. As Marxists put it, a lack of democracy encourages thrive of all political vices hence an impetus for uprisings.
The success of every nation requires existence of some level of democracy. However, whether Egypt and Tunisia will become democracies is a wait-and-see scenario. From the prevailing conditions, Tunisia has more prospects for democracy compared to Egypt.
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Held, David. Models of Democracy (3rd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006. Print.
Mandelbaum, Michel. “Can Egypt Become a True Democracy?” Project Syndicate, February 14th, 2011. Web. April 22nd, 2011.
Pipes, Daniel. “Why Egypt Will not Soon Become Democratic.” State Brief Blog, February 5, 2011. Web. April 22nd, 2011
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Sobelman, Daniel “Gamal Mubarak, President of Egypt?” Middle East Quarterly Vol. 8. 2 (2001): pp. 31–40. Print.
Staff writer (13 August 2007). “Egyptian Police Sued for Boy’s Death”. BBC News, August 13th 2007. Web. April 22nd, 2011.