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Obstacles to Democracy after the New Arab Revolutions:
The Tunisian and Egyptian Cases

Farhad Khosrokhavar
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

The obstacles to democracy in Tunisia and Egypt following the revolutions that overthrew the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes can be divided into two distinct categories. The first category is structural, and includes the historical background of these two societies in terms of religious, economic, and geo-political structures. The second is tied to the revolutionary conjuncture itself, with each society facing a unique situation after the uprising began—in particular, the peculiar features of the activists, the strength or weakness of the civil society, the role of political institutions, and the ability of the revolutionary actors to articulate their demands in the political arena.

The structural obstacles to democracy

In order to understand the structural obstacles to democracy, one has to refer to the history of Egypt and Tunisia within the Arab world, the decolonization process, the circumstances of secularization, and the emergence of the Arab identity as a political phenomenon within the globalization process1.

Islam as a new bone of contention?

The failure of the Six Day War (1967) against Israel called into question the concept of Pan-Arabism within Egypt, initiating a transformation that would continue for the next several decades. The Sadat's and Mubarak's regimes were thus challenged by an Islamization from below, first through Muslim Brotherhood charities and organizations in the middle class districts, then through the Salafis, who shunned politics but promoted Islamic mores in the rural areas and lower class quarters of the cities. This Islamization from below had been largely achieved in Egypt by the time the Revolution broke out in January 2011. In Cairo, for example, a large majority of women wear the hijab (veil), and Islam has become far more pervasive in the public life than during Nasser's time. Islamization for the Muslim Brotherhood meant making the religion a driving force behind political activities; among the Salafis, it meant encouraging sharia as the basis for a way of life. As an alternative to a secular, "individual-oriented" culture, the Muslim community (umma) promoted a strict obedience to gender segregation and a rejection of what was regarded as a sinful Western way of life in order to preserve the Islamic identity.

In that respect, Islamization went in new directions after Mubarak was ousted. Among the Muslim Brothers, acceptance of the popular vote, and an ambiguous attitude toward gender issues, went hand-in-hand with their increasing participation in the electoral process. Among the Salafis, the establishment of political parties Al-Nour, and then, Al-Sha'ab) after the revolution illustrated their newfound acceptance of the political system. They even presented a non-unified political front in terms of social priorities: the Al-Nour party is economically conservative, whereas Al-Sha'ab tends to take into account the needs of the marginalized, low income working class people in the cities and rural areas.

The Salafi political parties demonstrated as well the split between their religious and political leaders. Whereas the former tend to be ultraconservative in their religious creed, the latter tend to make political compromises, and this rift between the political and religious leadership opens up new pathways to secularization2. Still, the need for dialogue remains, as the Salafis' emphasis on sharia is seen as antagonistic toward the Copts and secular people of Egypt.

The Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood's relations are from time to time strained, but it is the secularists who are at loggerheads with both on cultural and religious matters (though, in political matters, ad hoc alliances between the Salafi and secular parties against the Muslim Brotherhood have occurred, in order to loosen the MB's hold).

All in all, the Islamization process—in overt opposition to the secular minorities within the Egyptian middle class—has contributed to an attitude of suspicion between secularists (sometimes with leftist leanings) and the Islamists (MB and the Salafis), undermining compromises on the political level. Islamists believe that secularists intend to restore the former political order through the old guard of the Ancien Regime (called the folul in Egypt, and in Tunisia, the RCDs, members of the Ben Ali's party, Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique). Conversely, secularists attribute to the Islamists a hidden agenda of Islamic theocracy, with the dissent between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood being regarded as sheer political show. In a political system marked by instability, mutual distrust and an inability to cooperate have pushed the public discourse toward "street politics" and violence, with all parties being unable to integrate those who have opposing views on society and its future.

The conflicting secularization process

The lack of trust between these groups dates back to the nineteenth century, when the process of modernization encouraged a deep opposition between people whose worldview was transformed by secularization and those who clinged to the Islamic perspective. Muslims were divided into Reformists, the traditionalists who followed Islamic law without claim to political supremacy, and, from the 1920s onwards, the Muslim Brotherhood and similar activists who intended to implement Islam within the political sphere. These latter groups introduced revolutionary motives to the political discourse—among others, the notion of hakamiyah [legal authority], coined by the Indian-Pakistani thinker Abul Ala Mawdudi and further developed by Sayyid Qutb. This Islamic perspective made a deep impression in the Muslim world, the Shiite sphere included; the Milestones of Sayyid Qutb, for example, written in 1964, was translated into Persian by the current leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei. Another version of Islam, that of the Wahhabis—which had taken root in the 18th century Arabia and was based on a literalist, anti-Shiite, anti-Sufi interpretation of the religion—became influential with the rise of the Saudi regime, whose oil revenues helped them to promote the ideology throughout the Sunni world. Salafis in Egypt and Tunisia have been inspired by this variant of Islam. These two trends, the MB-activist and the Salafi (Wahhabi-inspired) types, competed with each other, with the jihadist trend being at the crossroads of both.

This complex web of conflicting Islamic versions, along with emergence of secular groups, made the opposition between the developing trends inevitable. The tension between secularists and Islamists has thus been one of the structural features of the politics and the social movements in the Muslim world since the second half of the 20th century. This tension frames as well the context of the Arab Revolutions.

Moreover, the secularization process has been coupled with class structure. The beginning of secularization in the 19th century affected mainly the upper and the fledging new middle classes that were emerging in the Muslim world. In the 20th century, side-by-side with the secular middle classes, a religious middle class emerged as well, using the modernized version of Islam to counter the secular versions that were mainly influenced by Marxist or Fascist views of society, with the Muslim Brotherhood being the offshoot of this new Islamic middle class trend. The success of Ataturk in the 1920s in imposing a hyper-secular political and social system in Turkey, and the imitation of his model by Reza Shah in Iran in the same period, further sharpened the divide between secularists and Islamic groups. In the 1950s and '60s, the Pan-Arab ideology fostered by Nasser repressed the major opposition group embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting and executing some of the major figures of the MB, among them Sayyid Qutb in 1966. To tighten his hold on society, Nasser imposed the state's domination of the Al-Azhar theological university, its head being chosen by the government.

Shortly thereafter, the failure of Pan-Arabism in Egypt, symbolized by the heavy defeat of the combined forces of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day War, and the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, rekindled the question of secularism versus Islamism. This time, the debate was framed in radical terms, epitomized by the Islamists' attacks against not only secularists (who were accused of being unbelievers, heretics, idol worshippers), but also, against non-activist Muslims who refused to subscribe to their theocratic view.

The Arab Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt opened up still another phase in the secularization process, at least in its early stages, when young, secular, middle class or aspirant middle class people (the "would-be middle class" as I have called them3) sent a new message based on the dignity of the citizen (karamah), avoidance of violence (selmiyah), and a "non-religious" view of politics. This message was in contrast to the Islamist view, which was religiously centered, and proclaimed Islam as the "solution" to the Arab malaise (Islam huva al hall was the major slogan of the Islamists before the 2011 revolution). In Egypt, the first period of the revolution ended with the rise of the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis to the forefront. This was due to the fact that the MB were the only major political organization besides the pro-Mubarak' National Democratic Party (which was founded by President Anwar Sadat and dissolved in 2011), while the Salafis attracted people in disarray from the lower classes, for whom the MB had no viable economic solutions. The lack of organization of the "Tahriri youth", and the secular parties' inability to form political coalitions, gave the MB's Freedom and Justice Party a strong advantage in the first parliamentary election in 2011–2012.

In 2013, a new type of rupture between the secularists and the Islamists surfaced in the form of street politics. To the secularists (including the radicalized youth, the leftists and those activists who have criticized Muhammed Morsi's Presidency), the Muslim Brotherhood embodied an illegitimate rule that contradicted the ideals of the revolution. Thus, they rejected the Brotherhood's version of the Constitution, siding with opposition parties who qualify the document as non-democratic (procedurally, the Constitution was approved in November 2012 by the Constituent Assembly and voted by the population in a referendum held in December 2012).

Since opposition political parties are divided and unwilling to take part in the elections within the framework of the new Constitution, they are unable to integrate the opponents to President Muhammed Morsi and give an institutional outlet to their social views. The result is a simmering street violence in many towns. Semi-organized militias such as the football fans known as the Ultras, who played a significant role in fighting against the Mubarak regime's thugs (Baltajiya), and clandestine organizations such as the Black Bloc, further spread violence and destabilize the fledging new political system4. Demonstrators have even expressed a desire to see the army side with them against the Brotherhood-dominated government. If street violence is pushed to the extremes, amplifying the economic crisis and perpetuating political instability, the democratization process will be sacrificed to the army's strongmen, who will assure security at the price of political pluralism. The way out of street violence is for the anti-Brotherhood forces to organize themselves along party lines and build up alliances in order to become prominent on the political scene, pushing society toward a gradual democracy.

The obstacles induced by the Arab revolutions

The two major types of revolutionary actors

Though the tension between these groups has been prominent world since the 19th century, the Arab Revolutions gave a new impetus to it through the social and political actors that emerged during and after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. In both countries, the most visible revolutionary actors were secular5 in their outlook, rather young in age, with most of them belonging to the middle classes, and some to the Arab Diaspora in the West. In Tunisia, trade unionists (members of the UGTT, Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens), jobless diploma-holding youth (the "diplômés chômeurs"), and the so-called "Netizens" (the Internet-savvy youth) were the major promoters of the revolutionary movement6. In Egypt, the protesters gathering at Tahrir Square in Cairo were mostly secular or pluralistic in their religious beliefs, with Muslims celebrating prayers side-by-side with Christians (Copts), and women feeling free to participate in the daily political activities (though the security forces, the army and the Mubarak soldiers, did try to intimidate them, to no avail) 7.

After the predominantly nonviolent overthrow of the authoritarian regimes, a new type of social actor became prominent with the elections. In contrast to the first period, when the protesters regarded themselves as anti-authoritarian, pro-democracy protagonists, these new actors primarily defined themselves as Muslims, and typically identified with either the Muslim Brotherhood (in Egypt), Ennahda (in Tunisia), or the Salafis. The emergence of these actors came as a shock to the predominantly "secular" and "liberal" Muslims, for whom religion was not the major issue, and who were not against Islam but did not put religious demands at the heart of their political and social claims8. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were more familiar to the public, as the organization had a long history of political opposition dating back to its founding in 1928. Still, the hierarchy of the Muslim Brotherhood did not act against the Mubarak regime for the two first weeks of the uprising, and only did so when the crisis became irreversible. The MB youth took part in the demonstrations in spite of the hierarchy's refusal to back the protest movement, and after the departure of Mubarak, the latter publicly announced that it would not present a candidate for the Presidency. At any rate, during the protest movement, the MB was acting "behind the scenes" rather than in the forefront. The Salafis were even more of a surprise as social and political activists to many people (the MB included), since under Mubarak the group defined itself as nonpolitical, and characterized any protest movement as an illegitimate dissent against the powers that be (fitnah).

Compared to the secular, modernist youth that was at the heart of the incipient revolutionary movement, the Islamist actors presented another picture of the revolution. Their capacity to win elections, draft a new constitution, and politically marginalize the first group brought about not only social unrest, but also an identity crisis among the revolutionaries of the Tahrir Square in Egypt, as well as those of the UGTT and the secular revolutionaries in Tunisia. Not surprisingly, the visible actors of the first period believed that the revolution "was stolen" by the Islamists who "betrayed" the ideals of the popular uprising9. This deepened the divide between the secular and religious strata in a more dramatic way than before.

The two types of actors have been motivated by the same aspirations in many respects (social justice, an end to corruption and nepotism, and resisting the remnants of the old regime), but their major differences lie in their conception of religion and its relationship to individual freedom and politics. In Egypt and Tunisia, the new political parties that came to the fore and won the elections were not accustomed to exercising political power and rapidly alienated the opposition that felt ignored or unduly marginalized. The Islamists who took the reins of power after the elections in Tunisia and Egypt are themselves divided into two major groups: those who intend to promote Islamization through the democratic process, and those who aspire to create an Islamic society by imposing it once they take hold of the political system. This has led to a deepening gap among the Salafis, with many of them refusing to participate in a democratic game which they regard as "idolatrous" (as in Tunisia), whereas others accept in an ambivalent manner the electoral rules, pushing progressively toward an Islamic government (the Salafis in Egypt). With the development of political activities, Islamist parties have become more autonomous with regard to their respective religious associations, as they are compelled to play the political game and thus disregard some of the Islamic tenets of their own associations, as for instance the issues of gender equality, apostasy, and polygamy10. Secular, liberal parties denounce this Islamists' dichotomy between their political and religious structures as sheer hypocrisy and doublespeak.

The situations are different in Egypt and Tunisia in many respects. Egypt is a society whose Islamic identity was reinforced after the death of Nasser in 1970, through the process of Islamization described above. Tunisia, meanwhile, was influenced by the French type of secularism (laïcité), encouraged by the first President Habib Bourguiba (1957–1987) and continued by President Ben Ali (1987–2010). As a result, Tunisia's secular middle classes adopted a non-religious modernity, and became the most visible part of Tunisian society after the "Jasmine Revolution" of 2010. The Muslim Brotherhood, although for a long time forbidden, was not uprooted in Egypt and was active at the grassroots level, if not at the political level. In Tunisia, Ben Ali repressed Ennahda and forced its leadership and part of its intermediary hierarchy to migrate to England and France, or sent them to prison. Party leaders still held ties with the Tunisian society, and their prestige remained intact as the only political organization that continuously fought the regime.

The new revolutionary forces

The protest movement was not primarily intent on acquiring power and establishing its hold on the government. Contrary to the classical model of revolution embodied in the French, Russian, Chinese, and Iranian revolutions, in which the elite that overthrew the old regime was eager to take up the reins of the government, the two major Arab revolutions were initially led by people who shied away from power. Not only were they unprepared to seize political control, they were mostly adamant not to seek any political authority, in part due to their moral stance, and in part due to their view of the government as being by its very nature corrupt. One could argue that what prevented the first period revolutionaries from acquiring power was a mindset that can be explained through the concept of the "beautiful soul" (the Hegelian "Schöne Seele"); the new generation, mainly young, educated, and middle class, wanted to discard the autocratic government, and put an end to its corruption and the social injustice attached to it. Once the government fell, many activists thought their task was accomplished. The revolutionaries were so intent on avoiding the mistakes of the previous generation that many chose to step away from the political process entirely once the old regime was overthrown. As a result, they were simply unable to cope with the political and social reality after the collapse of the old regime.

In Tunisia, the UGTT was deeply involved in the revolution through its middle range supporters (the upper range was loyal to the Ben Ali regime). But trade unionists were deeply distrustful of political commitment and restricted their field of activity to the defense of the workers' interests. In so doing, the only organized group that could have built up an alternative to Ennahda excluded itself from the political arena. The other organization with political clout was the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique), founded in 1988 by Ben Ali and dissolved in March 2011 by a court decision. The political arena was thus open to the Ennahda, the only political group with a robust organization, even after decades of repression by Ben Ali regime—or precisely due to that repression—which legitimized it because of its martyrs and exiles. Its steadfastness in opposing the regime and its gradual opening to the democratic demands of the population, pushed Ennahda to the fore, with the main figure being Rashid al-Ghannouchi.

Another weakness of the revolutionaries that helped MB and Ennahda was their dispersal into numerous stillborn political parties. After the uprising, more than 150 political parties emerged in Tunisia. Among them, 115 were legalized on the eve of the elections, 97 presented distinct lists of candidates, but only 19 earned a seat in the parliament. Most of these parties were simply not accustomed to political action11, nor were they animated by a spirit of communication and political compromise, and their lack of political experience enabled Ennahda to become the major political party in the country after the revolution.

The secular middle classes

Another factor that impaired the revolutionaries' ability for political action was the history of the secular classes in the Arab world. Middle classes had been, for the most part, subservient to the former authoritarian regimes. Many intellectuals and opposition groups arose from their ranks, but the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt strengthened their alliance with the West through their "modern", "secular" outlook. They had promoted in Tunisia, under Bourguiba, a relatively modern legal code in which few aspects of the traditional Sharia were preserved (for example, the heritage of women remained half of the men, and the marriage of women with non-Muslim foreigners was restricted). The legal system, largely inspired by the French model, prohibited polygamy and promoted women as legally equal to men in many respects. To the Islamists' eyes, secular middle classes were either on the side of the authoritarian regimes or, at best, neutral toward them. In reality, many secular Tunisians and Egyptians were opponents to the regimes, but they shared with the authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt a deep distrust of the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and what secular Muslims perceived as the MB's hidden agenda of political Islamization. The regimes in turn protected the secular middle classes—who were at best minorities—particularly middle class women, at the price of denying them a legitimate political voice. The Ben Ali regime repressed secular middle classes while claiming to be a bulwark against the Islamists. In that sense, there was an implicit compromise between the secular middle classes and the Ben Ali regime, which made them, in the eyes of many Islamists, accomplices of the regime.

Thus, secular middle classes were caught between the Islamists and the autocratic government. Many middle class people refused this alternative and revolted against the authoritarian regimes. But the majority of their members acquiesced to the prevailing power structure for lack of an alternative.

Another disservice done by the authoritarian regimes to the secular middle classes was the monopoly they exerted over the political parties with large numbers of secular members. Islamists escaped this monopoly in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood preserved its political autonomy and structure even when harshly repressed). Islamists were either banned, or restricted to a minority position: for example, under American and international pressure, the Egyptian elections in 2005 were less exclusive than before and Muslim Brotherhood members obtained 88 out of 454 seats as "independents", much less than their real electoral weight; but in 2010, even that small opening was negated when members of that party were completely swept out of the Parliament through fraud.

Ennahda held to its Islamic identity and its political structure in Tunisia as well. Due to its exile and the arrest of its leaders, many of its members fled to Europe in 1991, where they continued to oppose the Tunisian regime. Secular middle class organizations, meanwhile, did not have the same type of organization and after the overthrow of the governments in Tunisia and Egypt could not claim the same type of "heroic past" that would make them familiar to the electors.

Women's issues

In terms of gender, the same predicament befell secular women under the Tunisian and Egyptian autocracies. In both countries, the notorious wives of the Presidents (Suzanne Mubarak in Egypt and Leïla Trabelsi in Tunisia) were the leaders of the government-sanctioned women's organizations. Leïla Trabelsi was the head of the Organization of the Arab Woman, while the National Council for Women in Egypt was run by Farkhonda Hassan, Suzanne Mubarak's friend and "straw-woman". The Egyptian government had previously banned autonomous Egyptian feminist organizations. In the 2010 elections, in which opposition groups complained of government-sponsored fraud, a new law guaranteed a quota of 64 seats to female candidates, a significant rise in the number of female parliamentarians compared to the former representation of women in the 2005 elections, when only four women were elected12. All in all, women, particularly middle class secular ones, suffered from the domination of the "First Ladies" over women's organizations13, but in exchange, it seemed to them that Islamists were held back in their attempts at imposing a patriarchal system inspired by sharia, as had happened in Algeria in the "Code de la Famille" in 198414. Secular women were provided with legal equality with men in many respects and were protected from implementation of the sharia, in particular in Tunisia, at the price of their social and political subservience to the regime.

The paradox of women's place in the two revolutions is that many female participants played a significant role and achieved individual fame while showing a capacity for leadership during the protests. In Egypt, for example, the young Asmaa Mahfouz (b. 1985) became a leader in the protest movement in Cairo. In Tunisia, young women journalists became involved in the movement, and their role was paramount in bringing down Ben Ali's regime. Women, individually speaking, were thus present not only as foot soldiers (something they had already achieved, for example, during the Algerian war of independence), but also as leading figures15. Organizationally, however, they were weak and had no say in political matters, due to their lack of relations with political parties that could defend their cause.

The divide between secular and Islamist women in Tunisia resulted in their not seeking common ground, the first suspecting the second to be "backward" and the second believing that their opponents were soulless, selfish, and Westernized, unconcerned about the majority of Muslim women due to their "French" (i.e. "colonial") attitude toward gender issues. Fear and anxiety of regressing in their social status through the Islamic rule has been one of the major concerns of secular women16. The fact that they are minorities among women in their own society makes them even more insecure and suspicious toward those who claim Islam as their social identity. Beyond this divide, the scarcity of women as social actors in the Arab world, be they secular or Islamist, is related to the patriarchal prejudices, but also to their own invisibility in the public sphere, and their absence, in part imposed on them, from the public arena. Political leaders simply do not consider them as assets to defend17. In the parliamentary elections after the Egyptian Revolution, women held 2% of the seats, down from the 12% in the last elections held under Mubarak18. But the 2010 elections were rigged, according to many contenders, though the outcome still perceived by many secular women as a positive step toward the recognition of their status as citizens. Institutionally, the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions seem to have pushed secular women toward a regressive political and social status, whereas they heightened at the same time their self-awareness as citizens.

The number of women (secular and Islamic) in the parliament has dwindled, and secular women feel they are losing their gains at the hands of the Islamists. Among secular women in Tunisia, many regard the situation as becoming close to the Iranian theocratic model, in which women are denied many rights in the name of sharia. This view, although far from the political reality of the Tunisian society, is in danger of becoming a "self-fulfilling prophecy", deepening the existing gap between secular and non-secular women and preventing both from becoming political actors. Instead of becoming unified in order to preserve their rights, women have begun to oppose each other, weakening their capacity for action, marginalizing themselves in the political arena. Still, there are a few exceptions and a beginning of self-awareness that might in the future bear fruit19.

Tunisia, the two worlds at odds

After the elections in Tunisia, the advent of the Ennahda as the major political actor, along with the emergence of the Salafis as hyper-fundamentalist Muslims, took both the secular middle classes and Ennahda by surprise. Many seemed unaware that there were such groups within Tunisian society who seemed to have not undergone the type of French-inspired secularization process of laïcité. During the two long reigns of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, a secular identity was taken for granted: women enjoyed the most equitable legal gender conditions in the Arab world, and religion was pushed to the private sphere in the name of a Western-style modernity. After the elections, the disruptive intervention of the Salafis was a direct challenge to this worldview. The influence of the French way of life was so deep among the middle classes that they could not imagine large Salafi groups publicly claiming their fundamentalist view about Islamic orthodoxy, demanding that women dress in a "modest" manner, asking for an Islamic government that would apply sharia, occupying universities to allow for the entry of totally veiled female students, and destroying alcoholic beverages in bars and restaurants (which happened in the town Sidi Bouzid in September 2012, where Bouazizi's self-immolation by fire had set off the Tunisian revolution in 2010). This other image of Tunisia seemed to the secularists to be a nightmare, making them question the Tunisian revolution, and evoking nostalgia for the overthrown secular government. For Ennahda the Salafis were also a challenge in that the party had to figure out how to compromise between them and the secularists, each of whom Ennahdia regarded as fundamentalists in their own fashion.

The murder of Chokri Belaïd on February 6, 2013, at the instigation of radical Salafi preachers, triggered the largest street demonstrations since the Jasmine Revolution. Thousands of people took to the streets, accusing Ennahda of having failed to protect the victim. With the constitution still in limbo, the economy in a critical stage (17% unemployment compared to the 13% at the end of the old regime at the end of 201220), and politics deadlocked, the rift between Islamists and secularists has dangerously widened21. A deep resentment toward Ennahda in Tunisia has set in, among different strata for different reasons: among the secular middle classes, due to their unwillingness to fight the Salafis and their supposedly hidden agenda of establishing an Islamic theocracy Iranian style22; and among the lower classes, due to the deterioration of their economic situation, (due in large part to political instability undermining the tourism industry, one of the pillars of Tunisia's economy). Street politics seems to have replaced traditional politics, with the national army becoming more visible and the crisis within the political parties pushing toward radicalization on the street23. The rift between Islamists and secularists has never been as wide, making dialogue extremely difficult24. Still, violence there has not reached the Egyptian level, and dialogue between political parties can prevent radicalization and the return of the authoritarianism. Tunisia is swinging between street politics and political reform, as the new government led by Ali Layaredh in March 2013 has agreed to include other parties (two secular parties) and independent technocrats in its ranks in order to appease political protest against Ennahda's governing style.

Egypt: The incompatibility of the radicalized youth and the government

In Egypt, the inauguration of Muhammed Morsi as President coincided with the economy—heavily dependent on tourism—falling into crisis. Although Morsi and the parliament were both elected democratically, their method of proposing the new constitution and having it passed by the legitimate bodies seemed out of touch with the opposition's demands and the revolutionary youth's aspirations. The latter had imagined the uprising as a radical departure from the past. Among them were militia-type organizations like the above-mentioned Ultras the Black Bloc (black-wearing youth with masks that hide their faces), who do not refrain from violence against "fascism" (as they describe the new government), and who believe that the period of "Selmiyeh" (peacefulness) that characterized the revolution in its early days is over. The political opposition is powerless against these groups, which are bourgeoning in the large cities of Cairo and Alexandria but also smaller cities such as Port Said. There, a tourist industry at a standstill has the potential to trigger even more violence. Indeed, the contentious verdicts in the Port Said football case25, delivered around the second anniversary of the revolution, inflamed the city. The subsequent curfew imposed by the President in Port Said and neighboring cities was simply ignored by the protesters.

The rupture is not only between the radicalized youth and the government, but also between disgruntled jobless people, secular revolutionaries of the Tahrir Square, leftist sympathizers, citizens who begrudge the government for local grievances on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The obsessive fear of a Muslim Brotherhood dominating the state apparatus is one of the leitmotivs of the opposition26. Activist youth, some of middle class background, are less willing to accept their marginalization in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi's government is in their eyes not only illegal, but more fundamentally, illegitimate and counter-revolutionary, due to its contempt of the revolutionary ideals that promised political freedom and social justice. With the wall of fear broken since the revolution, this part of the society seeks confrontation with the state, while the police and the security forces, still reminiscent of their having been accused of repressing the demonstrators under Mubarak, are largely unwilling to contain violent protests. Many young demonstrators, seeing no solution through electoral politics, opt for street violence in which anarchy goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of revenge and hopelessness27. Beginning locally (for instance in Port Said), violence spreads then to the other cities, finding favorable echoes among the middle class secularists, disaffected youth, jobless lower class people, and many young people who are disillusioned with the Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Violence thus tends to become less political and more self-sustaining28 as many actors believe that their role is to continue the uprising in revenge against a Muslim Brotherhood government that has betrayed the ideals of the revolution. This self-perpetuating violence has crystallized in a major symbolic place: Tahrir Square. Those who occupy it from time to time aim to keep the revolutionary ethos alive, celebrating their resistance to President Morsi. This cycle of violence gradually becomes blind to its original causes, preventing the institutionalization of democracy. In short, the incapacity of the "Tahrir youth" revolutionaries to become involved in politics in an institutional manner after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, their inability to compromise with the other opposition forces in order to build up a political coalition against the Muslim Brotherhood, and, more generally, the dispersal of the non-Brotherhood political actors into many political parties, has contributed to the acceleration of violence on the street.

As the economic crisis deepens and the political issues are still unsettled between the opposition and the government, there is a growing rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood, the consequences of which have been visible in the student elections in March 2013. The MB candidates earned only 27% of the seats, while liberals and leftists as well as Salafis have encroached upon the Muslim Brotherhood's lists. In spite of this rejection, opposition parties show no sign of positively engaging in the political arena, refusing thus far to participate in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Their lack of cohesion pushes "street politics" to the forefront, the radical revolutionary process gaining ground over the reformist attitude29.

As stated above, the Tunisian road to the institutionalization of democracy seems less tortuous than that of Egypt30. The second anniversary of the revolution was celebrated without violence in Tunisia, whereas in Egypt, the week of celebration witnessed more than sixty deaths in clashes between the police and the street protesters.

The fate of Tunisia and Egypt will be vital for the future of all the Arab societies. The two countries are passing through a transition period in which street violence momentarily gets the upper hand over institutional politics, with Tunisia so far avoiding extreme violence Egypt verging on large scale violence. As these countries represent the cradle of the Arab Revolutions, their failure or success will exert a tremendous impact on the future of the movements for democratization in the Arab world.

Farhad Khosrokhavar is a professor at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris (School of Advanced Studies). The author of 17 books, his most recent publication is The New Arab Revolutions That Shook the World (Paradigm Publishers, 2011).


1There is an abundant literature on these aspects, and we focus only on those factors that played a significant role in shaping the political system after the Arab revolutions. One can consult Daly, M. W. Ed. The Cambridge History of Egypt. Volume 2. "Modern Egypt From 1517 to the End of the Twentieth Century.", 1998.

2See Mai Shams El-Din, "New Salafi party has curious policy mix." 23/10/2012 http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/1196166.

3See Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions that Shook the world, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder and London, 2012.

4"Clashes in Egypt in lead-up to anniversary", Aljazeera, 25 Jan 2013 www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/01/2013124215920363101.html.

5The claims by the revolutionaries in Egypt as well as in Tunisia had no direct bearing to religion. In Tunisia, the young Bouazizi who committed suicide did it without any regard to religion (generally speaking, Islam condemns suicide and his act was not one of martyrdom). On the Tahrir Square in Cairo, none of the slogans had direct religious justification or claim to it. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were "postislamist" in the sense that social demands supposed, in their formulation, a social realm distinct from the religious one, this division of the spheres being not regarded as anti-Islamic by the protagonists. What was at the center of the claims was the end of autocracy, corruption and exclusion of the people from the political arena. The "secular" side of these two paradigmatic revolutions point to this fact. This view is however different from the secular ones in the West in that it leaves in limbo all those aspects of "democracy" that can conflict with Islam, like the citizenship issue (should non-Muslims have the same political rights as Muslims?), the question of the "apostasy" (ridda), of banking (the notion of riba', usury). Those who set off the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt ignored these questions; they were not frontally anti-religious, nor atheists, but "secularized believers" for most of them (besides part of the Diaspora that had adopted Western secular views).

6See "Soulevements populaires en Afrique du Nord et au Moyen-Orient (IV): La voie tunisienne." Middle East/North Africa Report No. 106. International Crisis Group. April 28, 2011. www.crisisgroup.org/fr/regions/moyen-orient-afrique-du-nord/afrique-du-nord/Tunisia/106-popular-protests-in-north-africa-and-the-middle-east-iv-tunisias-way.aspx.

7See International Crisis Group. "Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (I): Egypt Victorious?" Middle East/North Africa Report No. 101. International Crisis Group. February 24, 2011. www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/egypt/101-popular-protest-in-north-africa-and-the-middle-east-I-egypt-victorious.aspx.

8The word "secular" with its Western connotations is difficult to use without caveats. By secular Muslims I mean those who were distinct in their worldviews from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, who did not believe that major reforms should adopt a mould according to the sharia, and who were mostly "non-practicing" Muslims, without denying Islam its moral and social legitimacy. They were "secularized" in an ambiguous manner, not against Islam, but by loosening their ties to the religious prescriptions. Only a tiny minority were "secular" in the Western sense, mostly among the upper middle classes or the Diaspora. Still, religion was not at the forefront of their claims, social justice and political opening being their major concern. See for the ambivalence of this type of secularization in the new generations in Iran, Farhad Khosrokhavar & Amir Nikpey, Avoir vingt ans au pays des ayatollahs: la vie quotidienne des jeunes à Qom, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2009.

9See Mark LeVine, "Tahrir's late night conversations", Aljazeera English, 5 Dec 2011.

10See David D. Kirkpatrick and Mayy el Sheikh, "Muslim Brotherhood's Statement on Women Stirs Liberals' Fears", New York Times, March 14, 2013.

11See Mohamed Akrimi, « La Baraka d'Ennahdha rayonne sur ses voisins », Alhiwar.net, 15 novembre 2011; Mohamed-Ali Razgallah, « Partis politiques tunisiens. L'embarras du choix », Fhimt.com, août 2011; « Tunisie – 111 partis autorisés et 162 autres refusés ! », Business News, 20 septembre 2011.

12See Evan Hill, "Women make leap in Egypt parliament", Aljazeera English, 29 Nov 2010 www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2010/11/2010111813029420433.html

13Feminists perceived the perverse role of the First Ladies toward the feminist movement: "Suzanne Mubarak killed the feminist movement so she could be the leader," said the feminist Nawal el Saadawi. See Iman Azzi, "Suzanne Mubarak Held Women Back". Women's eNews Thursday, February 17, 2011 http://womensenews.org/story/the-world/110216/cairo-leaders-suzanne-mubarak-held-women-back5.

14Teresa Camacho de Abes, Algerian Women between French Emancipation and Religious Domination on Marriage and Divorce from 1959 Ordonnance no. 59-274 to the 1984 Code de la Famille, Journal of International Women's Studies Vol. 12 #3.

15Arab women organised demonstrations and pickets, mobilised fellow citizens, and expressed their demands for democratic change. Aljazeera English, 25 Apr 2011.

16Rana S. Sweis, "Arab Spring Fails to Allay Women's Anxieties", New York Times, March 7, 2012.

17"Why Arab women still 'have no voice', Amal al-Malki, a Qatari author, says the Arab Spring has failed women in their struggle for equality". Talk to Al Jazeera 21 Apr 2012 http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xr4898_talk-to-al-jazeera-why-arab-women-still-have-no-voice_news#.USOMmOgj6Uc.

18Leila Fadel and Ingy Hassieb, "Egyptian women feel excluded, despite the promise of the revolution", Washington Post, May 22, 2012.

19See Mette Eriksen, "Women's groups relaunch Egyptian Feminist Union", 18.10.2011, Al Misri al Youm, www.egyptindependent.com/print/506231.

20"New Tunisian government sworn in amid protest",13 Mar 2013, Aljazeera. www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/03/2013313172732103651.html.

21Aida Alami, "Tunisia Sinks Back Into Turmoil", New York Times, February 13, 2013.

22Echoing the fear of the secular Tunisians, many French Journalists closely identify with the latter, influencing in turn the Secular Middle class Tunisian selfperception. See Martine Gozlan, Tunisie. « Ennahda prépare une république islamique à l'iranienne » , Marianne2, 20 Janvier 2013. www.marianne.net/martinegozlan/Tunisie-Ennahda-prepare-une-republique-islamique-a-l-iranienne_a49.html.

23Larbi Sadiki, "Tunisia: The return of street politics", Aljazeera English, 15 Feb 2013.

24Hashem Ahelbarra, "Tunisia's Islamist-secularist rift", February 11, 2013 http://blogs.aljazeera.com/blog/africa/tunisias-islamist-secularist-rift12.

25On January 13, 2013 the court condemned 21 defendants of the football case to death sentence, a decision regarded by many Port Said inhabitants as unjust and politically motivated against their city. The riots that followed during which 20 civilians and 2 police officers were killed.

26Some journalists find facts that corroborates this vista. See Samar Al-Gamal, "Egypte: La frérisation, toujours plus loin", 27,2,2013 hebdo.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/963/10/124/1811/Egypte-La-frérisation,-toujours-plus-loin.aspx.

27Egypt Conflict Alert, 4 Feb 2013, International Crisis Group - Conflict Alert. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/alerts/2013/egypt-conflict-alert.aspx.

28Sherine Tadros, "Egypt: More violent, less political", January 29, 2013 http://blogs.aljazeera.com/blog/middle-east/egypt-more-violent-less-political.

29See Ellis Goldberg, "Whatever Happened to Egypt's Democratic Transition?", Jadaliyya, 3rd March 2013, www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/10444/whatever-happened-to-egypts-democratic-transition.

30Mike Hanna, "A tale of two anniversaries", Aljazeera English. January 28, 2013. http://blogs.aljazeera.com/blog/middle-east/tale-two-anniversaries11.

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