The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Of Tunisia and Egypt

We were in Tunisia for nearly a week and it was impossible for me not to spend a lot of my time there making comparisons with Egypt. 

It would be hard to find two more different countries than small, Francophone, organized, serious Tunisia and boisterous and chaotic Egypt, a cultural and intellectual hub of Arabism with a population eight times larger. 

But the comparison between the two countries in the Arab world who, through peaceful demonstrations, overthrew their dictators, in nonetheless unavoidable. And, sadly, much to Egypt’s detriment. 

One thing that was so moving in Tunisia was the sense of what dramatic and unhoped-for reversals have taken place there -- what true flips in power. Dissidents who had been completely marginalized and persecuted are now in government. 

Of course there is powerful resistance. The judicial process has yet to hold the former regime accountable for its staggering corruption and its human rights abuses. The informers and policemen who once terrorized the country are still there. But they are cowed. They didn’t want the election to succeed -- but they were seemingly powerless to sabotage it. 

And people went to the polls -- after months of planning and of public awareness campaigns -- in joyful but very serious-minded way, convinced that the votes they cast mattered, and that they should matter; that they were exercising a duty and a right. They owned their election. Small infractions and irregularities were met with indignation. 

After having seen what an election that the state is truly supportive of and wants to succeed looks like,  I can’t help thinking that the Egyptian election is being orchestrated to fail. Egyptians head to the polls in a month with the police unreformed and in near-open rebellion; with fundamentalist emboldened and violence against Coptic voters a distinct possibility; with former NDP members running and openly challenging the state to prevent them; with the rules themselves intricate, confusing and announced at the last minute; with the government refusing to allow international election monitors; and with the general public resigned to violence and chaos. And this electoral process (taking place in rounds, for both the lower and upper house) will last six months

Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces continues its slide from just plain undemocratic to positively anti-democratic. While I was in Tunisia, I checked Egyptian news once, to read that two April 6 activists have been referred to military courts (the ones that Field Marshall Tantawi announced would be suspended a few weeks ago) for putting up election graffiti. Yousri Fouda, an OnTV presenter whose show has been a beacon of reasonableness and courage, has gone off the air, reportedly due to military censorship. An army spokesman, meanwhile, has helpfully explained that calling for an end to military trials is itself illegal. 

The disastrous way in which the Egyptian elections are being conducted is not just a matter of mismanagement (although there is plenty of that too) -- it is a matter of making democracy as dangerous and confusing as possible. It a purposeful politics of chaos. 

In Tunisia democratic and opposition forces from across the political spectrum managed to form a consensus about what the transition process should be -- and even now, after competitive and at times acrimonious campaigning, that consensus largely holds. 

Here in Egypt, everyone is competing -- from the Muslim Brotherhood to the liberal and progressive parties -- in the hopes of securing some influence over the transition period. But the new parliament will have little power as long as SCAF rules the country. I fear that they will simply be legitimizing election-laced autocracy.