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Islamists Aren't the Obstacle
How to Build Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia
LINDSAY BENSTEAD is an assistant professor in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. ELLEN M. LUST is an associate professor in the political science department at Yale University and is currently a fellow at the New York University Law School’s Straus Institute for the Advanced Study of Law and Justice. DHAFER MALOUCHE is an associate professor at the École Supérieure de la Statistique et de l'Analyse de l'Information. GAMAL SOLTAN is an associate professor of practice in the political science department at the American University in Cairo. JAKOB WICHMANN is the founder of JMW Consulting.
Research conducted in Tunisia was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Center for Maghrib Studies in Tunis/American Institute for Maghrib Studies, Portland State University, Princeton University, the Project on Middle East Political Science and Yale University. Research conducted in Egypt was supported and implemented by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute.See more by Lindsay BensteadSee more by Ellen M. LustSee more by Dhafer MaloucheSee more by Gamal SoltanSee more by Jakob Wichmann
Two years after the Arab Spring swept through Tunisia and Egypt, many citizens of both countries are frustrated with the slow pace of change, discouraged by unmet expectations of more jobs and increased wages, and wary of lingering authoritarian political practices. Most recently, violent protests have broken out in Egypt and, in Tunisia, the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent opposition leader, has spurred calls to dissolve the government. International observers are increasingly cynical about the prospects of democracy, arguing that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist winter.
This bleak prognosis is based on an incomplete understanding of the complex issues at hand and unrealistic expectations of a rapid, smooth transition. Analysts, such as Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pipes and Fareed Zakaria, use anecdotal evidence to explain the underlying political, economic, and social cleavages driving events on the ground. Even the most informed discussions often myopically focus on the strength and intentions of Islamists. Media coverage of ferocious contests in the streets, in parliament, and at the ballot box give the impression that the outcome of the transition will be determined by the relative strength of Islamists and secularists. Our recent research, however, suggests otherwise.
Surveys of 1201 Tunisians and 4080 Egyptians conducted in October-November 2012, nearly a year after post-revolutionary elections, show that institutions matter more than Islam in the democratization of both countries. Therefore, instead of fretting over Islamists, the international community needs to have a more nuanced conception of political transition in the Arab world and should strive to bolster institutions and economic reforms in post-Arab Spring countries.