The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Tunis envy

I have a confession to make.

After three days in Istanbul to attend the World Economic Forum’s summit for the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia, I have become unhealthily and obsessively jealous of the Tunisian revolution.

Maybe it’s just a “grass is always greener on the other side” human nature sort of a thing. But I simply can’t shake the feeling that my Arab brethren to the west are handling their post-revolutionary transition about 1000 times better than we are in Egypt.

The final turning in my descent into full-blown chronic Tunis Envy was meeting and serving on a panel with Rafik Ben Abdessalem, Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He’s impressive, articulate and passionate. And he’s YOUNG—43 years old with no prior experience in government. Prior to accepting the role of foreign minister, he was working as a senior researcher at the Jazeera Center for Studies, a Qatari thinktank.

Bottom line: the Egyptian equivalent of Abdessalem is still no closer to real power than he was two years ago. The ongoing presidential election has proven a triumph for the country’s two old guard machines: the Muslim Brotherhood and the retrograde remnants of Hosni Mubarak’s military/security regime.

Representatives of each power bloc will face off in June 16-17 runoff elections that it’s literally impossible to get excited about. No matter who wins the election, we can safely assume that Egypt’s next cabinet will be stocked by yet another collection of 60 and 70-year olds who had relatively little to do with the revolution and who simply aren’t the right people to enact the kind of sweeping reconstructions that the country deserves. Somebody like Abdessalem will probably be considered too green to serve as Minister of Youth and Sports (that post will go to a 55-year old) much less Foreign Minister and public face of the nation.

In my book on the Egyptian revolution, I detailed just how much Tunisia’s own revolution led directly to the Egyptian uprising two weeks later. But it was as much a negative inspiration as a positive one. Egyptians have always considered themselves the cultural and political anchors of the Middle East, with pretty much everybody else serving as our little Arab brothers.  We built the Great Pyramids, for God’s sake.

The sight of the Tunisians (the Tunisians, of all people!) accomplishing what Egyptians couldn't do, ignited a sort of Egyptian competitive pride -- as if liberation from tyranny was some sort of African Cup match. As one young protester told me on January 25, 2011 in the midst of clashes between protestors and riot police: "The Tunisians have become better than us. They're real men."

Now it’s all happening again. Obviously things aren’t perfect in post-revolutionary Tunisia either, but it just feels like they’re a lot closer to getting it right. Egypt seems to be staggering forward into the worst aspect of its own past, and Tunisia has a 43-year-old Foreign Minister, whom, I wish was representing my country.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.