What Egypt might learn from Tunisia

I’ve spent the last week in Tunis, which has been exhilarating for me, and I think for most Tunisians who have just held the first truly free election in their country's history. The results — a large plurality for the moderate Islamist Nahda Party — are also reassuring, and not just because Nahda says it is committed to pluralism and individual liberties. It is also because secular parties, while divided into three or four major blocs, have also done well enough to counter any temptation Nahda might have to impose itself.

There remains much work ahead for the constituent assembly that has just been elected, including building a more solid transition process, holding members of the former regime accountable and, of course, writing a constitution that reflects Tunisians' desire for democracy and the rule of law. But others — and most notably Egyptians — can learn from the Tunisian process thus far.

Initially, Tunisia's transition was extremely fragile. Ministers associated with the old regime remained in place, chaos was sown by remnants of the old ruling party, and a million grievances were expressed at the same time, overwhelming a fragile government. Over time, after revolutionary forces exercised concerted pressure, things stabilized: more acceptable ministers were appointed, a transition roadmap was agreed upon, and major political forces forged a consensus. At the same time, institutions of the state — old and new — maintained order and, most notably, prepared the ground for the election administratively and politically. This included months of preparations and training for election officials and putting together a remarkable get-out-the-vote campaign with the help of international election specialists.

Why Tunisia's election is such a resounding success, in other words, is no mystery: the Tunisians worked very hard to ensure that it would be. The result is that while there are still cynics and some who are unhappy with the result, most Tunisians have bought into the new system and feel confident that, if the new assembly does not meet their aspirations, they will be able to pressure it on the street or through the ballot box at the next poll.

In comparison, the way the Egyptian elections have been handled is a disaster. The authorities repeatedly ignored the desire of the vast majority of political forces for a fully proportional, list-based system. They finally offered an agreement on a system that was two-thirds list-based and one-third single-winner-based, only two months before the poll, which was only reluctantly accepted by parties. The final delimitation of districts was still uncertain as candidate registration opened, making the parties' electoral planning difficult, to say the least.

Moreover, the SCAF has continued the Mubarak-era policy of opposing foreign monitoring missions, despite this being a widespread practice around the world. In Tunisia, thousands of international monitors did not undermine national sovereignty; they added to the credibility of a well-run process. The concession made in Egypt to the Carter Center and other missions to allow "observers" rather than "monitors" is simply not good enough; it is only by beginning their work long before the actual poll is held and having unfettered access to the organizing agencies and every step of the voting process that monitoring agencies can truly certify the legitimacy of an election. It does not help that the international community currently seems to be placing more emphasis on the elections happening then on them being credible.

Finally, the general atmosphere as the election approaches has not been one of confidence and optimism. The SCAF, through bad decisions and indecision, as well incidents involving the military, such the events of 9 October at Maspero, has been a terrible manager of Egypt's transition. Not only has the Emergency Law been maintained on dubious grounds (do you really need extraordinary legislation to be able to prosecute looters and carjackers?) but military trials have increased exponentially, while abuses by military police remain uninvestigated. A crackdown on freedom of speech is ongoing, both against mainstream media and individual activists. On the political front, the SCAF has undermined the cabinet's independence and authority and chosen to approach political forces in a haphazard, divide-and-rule style.

There is every reason to fear that both voter turn-out and voter confidence in Egypt will suffer from the opaque, confusing election process and the general climate of insecurity.

No wonder many Egyptians are now so depressed. Seeing Tunisia's success will only add to this glum feeling. It's not clear that a reset button can be pressed, as desirable as this may be. The SCAF is not about to abandon power, or even appoint a more independent government. Political forces are invested in the coming elections and the clout they think they will obtain through them, even though the parliament will, in fact, have no executive power and the country will continue to be ruled by the army.

It may be impossible to start over, with a national unity government composed of independent politicians rather than malleable technocrats, and the postponement of elections to allow time for the electoral process itself to be more credible. But political forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, could learn at least a couple of things from Tunisia.

One is that the transition needs to be in the hands of a united front of civilian political forces that draw their legitimacy from the revolution. Political parties in Egypt should take note of the country's dire situation, stop thinking of their relationship with the SCAF and of immediate electoral gains, and begin thinking of their long-term credibility and the national interest. Even as they begin to compete for votes, they should agree that, once elected, their priority will be putting pressure on the SCAF to hold presidential elections as soon as possible and replace the current government with one that is more accountable.

The second point is that when the largest party in parliament is expected to be Islamist — that is, an ideological movement that scares part of the domestic population and is disliked by key foreign allies — the credibility of the process itself is crucial.

In an ideal world, the coming parliamentary elections should be postponed to improve the process. But this is not an ideal world, and the best compromise may be to make these elections first and foremost — beyond partisan considerations — about returning the military to the barracks.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net.

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