Leaders have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya amid the Arab Awakening and calls for revolution continue across the region. But how much real change can actually be expected? When the dust settles on the new Middle East, what role will the old leaders, power players, parties, and institutions play in a transformed region?
In a video Q&A, Marina Ottaway explains that the changes will be different in every Arab country. We should anticipate the biggest transformation in Libya, with fewer breaks from the past in Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike the experiences in Eastern and Central Europe—where communism and backing from the Soviet Union were the common elements propping up the regimes—each country in the Arab world faces a unique situation.
With the old leaders gone in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, how much will the new governments be different from the former regimes?
The departure of the three leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will lead to very different consequences because the different regimes had a different degree of institutionalization. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, there were rulers, but there was also a state apparatus behind the rulers and there were militaries that survived the fall of the regime intact.
In the case of Libya, essentially the regime was Muammar Qadaffi, so the departure of Qadaffi leaves behind a huge institutional vacuum—a huge vacuum of everything. In fact, one of the problems now is that the country has to start from scratch. The Transitional National Council has presented a transition plan that started with the gathering of a broad assembly of people from all parts of the country.
If you look at a place like Tunisia or Egypt, the situation is different. Egypt started with amending the constitution—in other words, there was a constitution and there were mechanisms for amending the constitution that were put into place. You have a similar situation in Tunisia. But in the case of Libya you really have to start creating a system from scratch.
This means two things. One, the transition is going to be much more difficult in Libya, but the second thing is that the transition has the potential to be much more thorough than is the case in Egypt and Tunisia, where we may end up with a slightly revised, updated, liberalized version of the previous regime.
What challenges will Tunisia face in the coming months?
The biggest challenge in Tunisia in the next few months is to reconcile the Islamic element of the population with the non-Islamic element of the population. There is a true division, a true chasm in the country between the Islamists and the rest. And en-Nahda, the major Islamist party or Renaissance Party, is probably the most important of the political parties that exist in the country.
The Islamist party is likely to get the plurality of votes in the upcoming elections—nowhere near the majority of the votes, but the plurality of the votes, and that has all of the other parties very alarmed. In fact, when I was in Tunisia in June, I had a lot of interviews with leaders and high-ranking officials of all the political parties, and if you started asking other political representatives of other political parties about what their party wanted, they always answered in reference to en-Nahda.
They are obsessed with the problem of the Islamists. And the real challenge with successful elections is to find some degree of modus vivendi between Islamists and the rest, otherwise it risks degenerating into conflict.
Will upcoming elections in Egypt transform the country into a thriving democracy?
Egypt has a very complicated situation. First of all, keep in mind that it is a very large country, which means that all problems are magnified. What you have in Egypt are some parallels to the situation in Tunisia, but also a drastically different element. The drastically different element is that you have the military playing a very important role today.
The military is in control right now and although the military has declared that it wants to have elections as soon as possible—and I think by the end of the year we will have parliamentary elections in Egypt—the military is going to continue wielding power behind the scenes. It has no intention of totally withdrawing, so that creates a question mark. That creates questions about if they are going to try to manipulate the elections, to what extent they are going to do so, what is going to be the relationship of the new government that will be formed after the elections with the military, and so on. These are huge questions that don’t exist in Tunisia.
What is very similar is the fact that there is a real divide between the Islamist element and the other element. There have been well over a hundred new political parties formed in Egypt since the new election law was passed that facilitated the registration of new political parties—the numbers have mushroomed in the last few weeks. Now, most of them probably don’t count for anything, but what we are beginning to see is the emergence of two major coalitions in the country.
One is a coalition that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and a few of the old liberal parties like the Wafd and the al-Ghad Party led by Ayman Nour, which is a new party that was formed in the 1990s and had modest success in the election, but it’s still one of the established parties as compared to the ones that were created now.
And then you have another coalition of parties that you could define as slightly right of center and slightly left of center, but that are unified by the fact that they argue that they want a civic state. This is the code word used all over the Middle East now for a civil state—to indicate a state that is not an Islamist state.
Just to make matters more complicated, the Muslim Brothers also claim that they want a civil state and not an Islamic state. But it’s quite clear that there are two coalitions that are emerging. One that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and one that includes these other parties that are more aggressively secular, if I can put it that way.
The battle is going to be between those forces and what we are likely to see in the coming months is a battle for the allegiance of some of the non-Islamic parties that have sided with the Muslim Brotherhood so far. The Wafd is the oldest of all political parties in the country; it’s the old liberal party from back in the days of the monarchy and the British presence. It really goes back to the 1920s and it has sided with the Muslim Brotherhood, but there are signs now that some of its members are jumping ship, and maybe the entire organization is going to jump ship.
So those are the determinant issues—Islamists versus non-Islamists, the relationship between the new government and the military, and the role the military will choose to play.
What lies ahead for Libya with Qaddafi driven from power?
Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t think the uphill battle is against Qaddafi. Qaddafi is gone. The same way as it took many months in Iraq to find Saddam Hussein, the fact is he was gone months before. My impression is that Qaddafi has ceased being a factor at this point. He is issuing defiant statements, but he has no troops at this point or any outside support. In that sense, there is still a risk of blood being spilled in the battle for Sirte, for example, but I don’t think it will change the course of history.
The big battle in Libya now is to put together some sort of cohesive, transitional government that can be seen as legitimate by the majority of Libyans. Libya has a transitional council that originated in Benghazi in the east of the country, but Benghazi and Tripoli are very different.
More people have joined in and in fact the Transitional National Council has been very careful in broadening itself as it liberated more areas of the country. The plan was to double the size of the council once Tripoli was liberated to make clear that this is not a Benghazi council coming to rule the rest of the country. I think they are conscious of this, they talk about it, and they know that it is a problem. That does not mean that it’s going to be easy to put together a coherent group.
In parallel to that, something that is as serious—perhaps even more dangerous—is the fact that there are a lot of militias in the country, because the fight was not carried out by a rebel army, it was carried out by a lot of separate militias. There were problems of coordination experience by the rebels because these were separate militias not under a unified command. I don’t blame them, however, because I suspect that if they had waited until they had a coherent military, they would still be in Benghazi and nothing would have happened so far.
But the fact is that at this point they have a real challenge of how to put these groups into some sort of coherent organization and also how to absorb the elements of Qaddafi’s military into this new system. We have seen very clearly in the case of Iraq that disbanding an army is a real mistake, because then you have a lot of young men who are very angry, who don’t have a paycheck, and who have weapons in their hands. And what happens as a result is not pretty.
So there is this double problem of integrating all these militias, plus what’s left of Qaddafi’s military, without having a solid nucleus. Of course, the top ranking officers of Qaddafi’s military are not going to be integrated, but you still have people who have to be integrated.
What does this mean for the rest of the Arab world?
The important thing to keep in mind is that every situation is going to be unique in the Arab world. There is a distortion in the way we think about these transitions that comes from a false analogy with what happened in Eastern and Central Europe. The transitions in Eastern and Central Europe were much more similar to each other than they are likely to be in the Arab world for two reasons.
One reason is that the countries had very similar systems that were heavily bureaucratic and heavily controlled by one party, so the basic underlying conditions were similar. The second factor—which is often left out when we draw parallels between Eastern and Central Europe and the Arab world—is that all the European regimes were supported by the Soviet Union. There was a common element that led to all of them collapsing at the same time, because when the Soviet Union made it clear that it was not going to roll its tanks across the borders into the Czech Republic and into Hungary, the way it had done before, the countries were left defenseless and they essentially collapsed.
There is no common element that props up the Arab regimes. These are going to be battles that are fought one by one between the existing regimes and their populations, and therefore you are going to have a variety of different outcomes. You see this now in two countries that are perfect examples—one is Yemen and the other is Syria. There are very negative dynamics at this point, but it’s certainly very different from what you have anywhere else.
And the international community is not going to react in the same way everywhere—you are not going to have a military intervention in Syria and you are not going to have a military intervention in Yemen.