Tunisia, Not Algeria, Is the Model for a New Egypt

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Op-Ed Financial Times
Both Islamists and secularists are wrong if they think they can build a new Egypt on their own. There is no way the country can be successful if only one party rules.
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Egypt is more divided than ever. All sides – from Islamists to secularists – are headed to their corners, looking to be victors in the battle for power and refusing to make efforts to accommodate and compromise. If this continues, the country is in real danger of becoming the next Algeria. It should follow, instead, in Tunisia’s footsteps.

Recent events offer ominous signs. Reactions to the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, inside and outside Egypt, are simplistic. The picture is painted in black or white: the military’s action was either a coup against democracy or it was a move in defence of democracy.

But, rather than looking for someone to blame, Egyptians should realise that everyone lost the moment they stopped co-operating.

Islamist and secular forces are trying to exclude each other at every turn. When the Muslim Brotherhood won democratic elections, it pushed through a constitution without winning a consensus, believing victory entitled it to carte blanche in policy decisions. It felt its electoral mandate gave it the right to change society’s behaviour. But, although Egypt is a conservative society, most people do not want their government to tell them how to behave when it comes to religion. More than 10m people poured into the streets – far more than the number of protesters that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the former president. Clearly, a significant portion of society felt excluded in the aftermath of the revolution two years ago.

The secular forces are behaving no better. Their parties and leaders set a dangerous precedent when they stopped trying to work with Islamists in the democratic system, turning instead to the military – what is to stop others doing the same next time they are unhappy?

And, at this critical stage, they are not doing enough to include the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, with the army cracking down and rounding up hundreds of Islamists without clear charges, there will soon be no one left to talk to about how to address Egypt’s severe challenges and end the crisis.

Both Islamists and secularists are wrong if they think they can build a new Egypt on their own. There is no way the country can be successful if only one party rules. It should be clear to all that the transition was on the wrong track from the start. To avoid perpetuating this, all sides must stop antagonising each other and work together.

First, Egypt needs a bill of rights that enshrines basic principles. It must guarantee the right of every individual – regardless of religion – to work in government. It must guarantee the rights of minorities. And it must guarantee the peaceful rotation of power. As with the American constitution, no laws can be passed that go against its spirit.

The bill of rights can then be used to agree a new, complete constitution. It must be based on consensus reached following negotiations including all sides, much like the one the Tunisians have created. It must not reflect the desires of only some. This is the only way to ensure no force will be able to exclude others or dictate norms of behaviour on Egyptian society.

All this must be done before elections are held. It is important to recognise, however, that just because Mr Morsi has been deposed, it does not mean the Islamists are out of the game. While an Islamist candidate is unlikely to win a new vote for president, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties are likely to be victors in any near-term parliamentary election.

At this point, Egypt has two possible paths. Either it follows the Tunisian route and establishes an inclusive coalition government where tensions are still prevalent but progress is obvious; or it follows the Algerian route of deep polarisation and possibly civil war. Algeria’s glaring divide persists two decades after Islamists mounted a civil insurgency when they were denied a legitimate electoral triumph.

If secular forces assume a winner-takes-all position and Islamists refuse to learn from their mistakes, Egypt will be back at square one. Even if it maintains the status quo, it faces a continued deterioration of the political and economic situation.

The country still has the opportunity to choose its own destiny. But the only way for secularists and Islamists to find a way out of the crisis is together.

This article was originally published in the Financial Times.

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About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Comments (6)

  • Zeid
    The only way to keep Egypt away from splitting is for the army to take over. Any worry about human rights and or a government to represent all is a luxury the country cannot currently enjoy.
    With a level of illiteracy high enough to allow priests and sheiks to formulate people opinion on falsely attributed religious premises , it will be now more dangerous to return to an open democracy
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  • Maged
    The Tunisians are in no better situation. The core issue is the intention of Islamists in both egypt and tunisia to establish a theocracy . In both countries this very project is not acceptable to the majority of the population. Islamists must relinquish such intention before they could contribute positively to the evolution of both countries. Offcourse easier said then done since this idea is pivotal to their ideology....that is the fix.
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  • Paul A. Ballard
    1 Recommend
    I fully agree Egypt's fundamental political problem is that all the major parties never worked together and show dangerous signs of doing this even more so now. But, isn't a truly massive problem now the very result of the overthrow of Pres. Morsi because he was freely and fairly elected? By refusing to work with him, and instead colluding with the Egyptian Armed Forces to engineer a coup, and now by cracking down massively on the Muslim Brotherhood once again - as Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak did before, doesn't this all but preclude any real reconciliation - particularly one that quietly forgets Morsi was ever elected?

    I would agree that Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood did not do enough to build national consensus and erred by trying to move too unilaterally and too quickly. But, to judge from our own Western democracies, isn't that what parties that come to power do at the outset? Think George W. Bush with tax cut, then Iraq War among other things. Think Obama and Obamacare. Think Cameron-Osborne with the UK Conservatives' austerity economic program. After all, leadership means taking the initiative.

    By the same token, constitutional democracy rests entirely upon common acceptance of the democratic rules of the game. All parties accept that the ruling party has the prerogative to govern, because they all expect to be afforded that when they win power. In Egypt, sadly, the so-called liberal-secular parties tragically refused to accept it. Instead they trashed the constitutional system before it could get going. By engineering a military coup haven't they said loud and clear they don't accept the rules? If that doesn't very clearly change, why would the Muslim Brotherhood ever trust them again - either in power or in opposition?

    On the model of constitution, given that Egypt is a predominantly rural (60%) extremely poor (per capita income half China's), very traditional and in the countryside very devout Muslim country, won't the values and principles that drive the majority of Egyptians' thinking now be quite different from more urbanized developed societies - like Tunisia and especially the USA? So, shouldn't the principles that drive Egypt's constitution emanate from the Egyptian people as they are now for the most part? It can then later be amended in light of social and political changes over time - as happened a lot in the USA - twelve amendments within 25 years? So, wasn't the Constitution already adopted in 2012 a good enough starting point?
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    • Prof Dr. Aliaa Rafea replies...
      Twisting the realities. Morsi came to power to represent the whole population of Egypt. He was serving his group's interests only, never responded to people's aspiration. Your given examples do not match the Egyptian case.
  • Samir
    The key binding and real-world questions, I think, are: based on the indigenous local culture of the Egyptian society, and in light of latest ground developments, and taking into account the conclusions of multiples reports, including those published by the Middle East Monitor and the BBC on the “Numbers Game” of Tahrir Square, will the new planned secular constitution enjoy the popular acceptance of 64% of the society? Or, most probably, two-thirds majority will suffer from political exclusion and restrained choice? Can the regime change constitute a sustainable transformation consistent with liberalism, pluralism, objectivity, transparency, free elections, piecemeal social engineering, Law of Requisite Variety, and respect for basic human rights? Or, on the contrary, this grand utopia and forced change exceptionally violate all enduring western values? Pragmatically speaking, will the final outcome comprise a stable and democratic regime??
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  • Prof Dr. Aliaa Rafea
    First of all, this division between Islamists and secularists does not apply in the Egyptian case. After one year of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) reign, it has become clear that they are fascist disguised under religious framework, and should not be called Islamist. On the other hand, the majority of people, including Copts accept to consider Shari’a principles as the main source for Egypt’s legal system. Why then should be a need to name certain groups that claim to be pro Islam. MB and Salafi consider themselves superior and privileged by holding the absolute truth. If they came to power, they would not allow different opinions to take place in the political sphere. Just listen to their leaders' speeches, to understand how they turn political differences to religious issues. They consider their opponents enemies of Islam, and call for jihad, meaning using violence against those who did not like their governance style. During their governance, they ignored the Egyptian cosmopolitan cultural identity. Under Shari’a and Islam, MB addresses in Shura council were full of prejudice and discrimination against Copts, women. Egypt with its long history would have never yield to this trend. Now, Egyptians should learn the lesson, do not give these groups chances to come back to power. This can be accomplished through short and long term strategies. For the short strategy, no parties should use religion in their propaganda; for the long strategy, chronic economic problem should be addressed seriously, education curriculum should encourage critical thinking, and multiplicity people should feel their role in the decision making process. In the meantime, society should not discriminate against individuals who belong to MB. If MB like to form new parties, they should abide to the civic rules, and not use religion to gain popularities among the needy and ignorant. This page is over.
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/07/14/tunisia-not-algeria-is-model-for-new-egypt/gfjy

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