Islamists Aren't the Obstacle

How to Build Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia

Sunset in Old Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

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.

Our research shows that citizens have more moderate attitudes toward the role of religion in politics than conventional wisdom suggests. A minority of the population -- 26 percent of Tunisians and 28 percent of Egyptians -- believes that Islam should play a large role in government. In Tunisia, only 27 percent of those who voted for the religious Ennahda party in 2011 want a close relationship between religion and politics. Similarly, in Egypt, only 16 percent of those who voted for the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and 22 percent of those who voted for the ultra-religious, Salafist Nour Party in the 2011-12 elections believe that religious leaders should influence politics.

Both Tunisians and Egyptians also want economic growth. When asked about the most important feature of a democracy, 69 percent of Egyptians and 32 percent of Tunisians put providing people with basic necessities or narrowing the gap between rich and poor at the top of their lists. Both secularists and Islamists associate democracy with economic prosperity. In Egypt, 69 percent of those supporting the FJP and 67 percent supporting secularist parties believe that democracy will have positive economic outcomes. In Tunisia, 29 percent of Ennahda supporters and 32 percent of secularist supporters share this belief.

Islamist parties received considerable support in both countries' recent elections -- not only because there is a broad ideological affinity for Islamism among the population but also because of Islamist parties' effective campaigning. Going into the elections, Islamist parties were simply better organized and had more resources than other parties. In Egypt, for example, they had roughly fourfold the members and twofold the campaign volunteers of non-Islamist parties. According to polls conducted by the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute and the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Egypt's Islamist parties increased their share of eligible voters' support from 45 percent to 70 percent during the election campaign from September to November 2011. Also, 19 percent of the Egyptians we polled received campaign materials from the FJP, compared with just six percent who got something from the Nour Party, which had the second most resources.

As a result, those we polled knew where Islamists stood on key issues but were less sure about other parties' platforms. Eighty-five percent of Egyptians knew the FJP's position on religion and 61 percent could identify their economic proposals, compared with only 25 to 59 percent of respondents who knew where other parties stood on these key issues. In Tunisia, 83 percent could identify Ennahda's position on religion and 60 percent knew its position on the economy, versus 46 to 65 percent who recalled other parties' positions.

Despite Islamists' popularity, some onlookers argue that these parties will lose support once tested with the hard job of governing. Indeed, our recent study shows that 47 percent of Tunisians and 38 percent of Egyptians feel that their country is worse off than before the revolution. But this does not mean that Islamists are losing support. No other parties have come close to challenging their dominant positions. Moreover, Islamist parties appear to have even gained popular support since they assumed power. Our Tunisian post-election survey found that Ennahda now pulls in about 46 percent of voters, up from 35 percent in the October 2011 election. In Egypt, 43 percent of decided voters support the FJP, up from 38 percent during the 2011 elections. Support of the Nour Party has also increased since the 2011 elections.

On a related note, Islamist parties have shown a remarkable ability to maintain their base. Among decided voters, 86 percent of those who voted for the Ennahda and 84 percent of those who supported the FJP in the last elections would vote for them again. Other parties simply do not have this pull. Egypt's liberal Wafd party, for example, has retained only 60 percent of its voter base. Islamist parties are also pulling ahead of their more conservative counterparts. Twenty-three percent of those who voted for the Nour Party in Egypt's November 2011 election state that they would vote for the FJP if elections were held tomorrow, compared with only two percent of FJP voters who would vote for Nour. In Tunisia, only 29 percent of those who voted for the social democratic Ettakatol party and 33 percent of those who voted for the Congress for the Republic party would vote for them again in the next election. To be sure, Islamist parties might have a hard time maintaining high levels of support given the uncertain political environment in both countries. A large proportion of voters remain undecided: 60 percent of Tunisians and 39 percent of Egyptians. Furthermore, both countries are still in the throes of profound change.  

Tunisia has fared better than Egypt so far in the post-Arab Spring transition, with less violence, fewer demonstrations, and greater political stability. This is in part because challenges are easier to confront in a country of only 11 million, 98 percent of whom are Sunni Muslim, compared to the more diverse and populous Egypt. But Tunisia's success is primarily a result of its stronger institutions, which provide a conduit for political debate. Most important, conflicts over difficult decisions have largely remained within institutions, especially the Constituent Assembly. Even when debating contentious topics, such as women's rights and the establishment of an electoral commission, representatives have remained seated, and public attention focuses on debates within the legislature, as opposed to on the street. The assembly's slow process has generated criticism but has also helped to avoid crises. In Egypt, on the other hand, parliament has been dissolved, the presidency is highly contested, and street violence is frequent. Many onlookers claim that Egypt's more tumultuous post-revolution trajectory is because of the country's legacy of religiosity and Islamism.

Indeed, there are substantial historical differences between Egypt and Tunisia when it comes to the role of religion in the state. The postcolonial Tunisian regime led by President Habib Bourguiba promoted a secular society and cracked down on Islamists. Islamism was also weakened by Bourguiba's modernization reforms, which increased women's participation in society and set Tunisia on a path of secularization, and later by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's repressive regime. In Egypt, on the other hand, observers argue, secular leaders, such as President Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to reconcile Islam and modernity rather than to exclude religion from the public sphere. Consequently, Egypt's Islamists have enjoyed greater latitude and are more conservative than their Tunisian counterparts. Egypt's Salafist movement is also much stronger and better organized: its influence was demonstrated in the electoral gains of the Nour Party, which won nearly 28 percent of the votes and came second only to the FJP in the 2011 parliamentary elections.

Our research, however, debunks the myth that religiosity is to blame for the divergence between Egypt and Tunisia post-Arab Spring. Egyptians, in fact, are no more religious than Tunisians. For example, Egyptians are more likely to say that they rarely attended religious services than Tunisians (30 percent compared to 11 percent). In the end, it is not religiosity but the relative strength of state institutions that accounts for post-Arab Spring differences between Tunisia and Egypt.

Egypt's institutions are weak and have been routinely undermined by entrenched interests. The countries' different geopolitical situations play a role here. Tunisia's minimal strategic importance means that foreign countries have less reason to intervene. But Egypt's proximity to Israel and the Palestinian territories, its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and its role as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas make its political developments important to Israel and the United States. Consequently, Egypt is vulnerable to foreign interference, particularly to attempts to prop up its military. Furthermore, beyond serving as a pillar to Egypt's authoritarian regimes, the Egyptian military has significant business interests and accounts for ten to 30 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product.

Egypt's judicial branch, which is also more powerful than Tunisia's, has at times undermined democratic processes. With a tradition of autonomy and liberalism -- most notably demonstrated in the Supreme Constitutional Court's dissolution of two pro-Mubarak parliaments in the 1980s -- the Egyptian court has taken center stage in the transition and its involvement has been divisive and destabilizing. Last year, for example, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the Islamist-dominated parliament and the Constituent Assembly it elected were unconstitutional, because Islamist parties contested seats intended for independent candidates. The move polarized the country and pushed the executive branch to take extreme measures. Following the presidential elections, and to avoid a similar court ruling, President Mohamed Morsi controversially granted immunity to the Constituent Assembly and to his own decrees. This in turn sparked the most serious wave of protests since the presidential election in June 2012.

The absence of effective labor unions also contributes to the chaotic scene in Egypt. The country's labor unions were state-controlled for nearly sixty years, until Mubarak reluctantly granted labor the right to independently organize a few months before he was ousted. When the Arab Spring came to Egypt, workers were still disorganized, having had little time beforehand to decide on unified platforms. Consequently, disordered labor disputes have added to the sense of lawlessness and have worsened the economic decline.

Egyptian democracy is undermined by the inability of institutions to address citizens' demands and the impulse of powerful actors to interfere, not by the divide between Islamists and secularists. Institutions in Egypt fail to provide a meaningful forum for debate. As a result, violent street protesters and extremist sheiks are gaining power. Meanwhile, the opposition's attempted coalition, the National Salvation Front, is losing relevance. Rival actors lack a means through which they can address deteriorating situation, which hinders the government to the extent that Egyptians might tolerate an authoritarian comeback by the military -- something that would be unthinkable in Tunisia. Even though institutions in Tunisia can be slow and indecisive, they still provide a safety valve against serious escalation. To be sure, Tunisia's future is also uncertain. Dissatisfaction with the transition is mostly due to worsening economic conditions and the failure of the new government to provide jobs and other necessities to the poor. Nearly half of Tunisian respondents reported being very dissatisfied with the government, and another 28 percent stated they were only somewhat satisfied. Economic problems in Tunisia might weaken the widespread commitment to democracy, but without a strong military it is unlikely that a new authoritarian government could take power.

Tunisia's Constituent Assembly continues to provide a forum for deliberation, legislation, and decision-making. Responding to the crisis caused by Belaid's assassination, Tunisia's Prime Minister decided, against the will of his Islamist Ennahda Party, to call for a government of technocrats, supported by opposition parties and powerful labor unions. This move further illustrates the effectiveness of institutions in resolving crises.  

Taking a close look at public attitudes reveals that democratization in the Arab world is more nuanced than commonly portrayed. There are obstacles ahead, but they cannot be boiled down to a struggle between secularists and Islamists for a democratic or undemocratic region. The fundamentals of democracy, which the United States and other outside powers must support, are institutions, rule of law, economic growth, and the constraint of undemocratic players. The factor that most distinguishes Tunisia from Egypt is not the prevalence of moderate Tunisians versus radical Egyptians but, rather, the differences in institutional capacities.

Effective representative institutions are better developed in Tunisia, whereas inherited authority-based institutions, such as the military and the judiciary, are more powerful in Egypt. The lesson, then, is to move the spotlight away from the Islamist-secularist divide and toward inspiring economic growth and strengthening institutions. U.S. policy must support institutions rather than actors, and processes rather than outcomes, in order to help Egypt and Tunisia achieve their democratic potential.

Browse Related Articles on {{search_model.selectedTerm.name}}

{{indexVM.results.hits.total | number}} Articles Found

  • {{bucket.key_as_string}}