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Arab Spring countries in constitutional limbo

Arab Spring countries in constitutional limbo
By Euronews
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Arab Spring countries


Their citizens know what they left behind: decades of status quo, shaped by autocratic rulers which considered themselves – and were viewed, ironically, by the Western democracies – as eternals. But they don’t know yet what their societies are going to become. As they enter the fourth year since the uprisings that freed them from the authoritarian rule, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya face deep political and societal rifts, mainly between secularists and Islamists. This is, when they are not simply confronted, as Libya is, with the Herculean tasks of building the whole functioning state apparatus from scratch, while keeping together breakaway regions.

In the past three years, the exuberance and elation that followed the revolutions in these northern African countries have morphed into uncertainty, frustration and pain. And sometimes into bloody conflict. Their societies are different, as they were structured differently when their despotic leaders were ousted. But the challenges they face in building democratic and accountable institutions are equally daunting.

Academics call this process “transition”. Too poor a word to encompass what often amounts to a very large-scale social engineering process: nations reinventing themselves.

Tunisia, Egypt and Libya each find themselves in different positions on the steep path from dictatorship to democracy. They have no guarantee of reaching the destination, other than the capacity of their peoples to keep alive their dream of freedom and social justice.


Its Jasmine Revolution inspired Arab uprisings elsewhere. And it still gives hope to all those outside Tunisia who want to believe in the peaceful transformative potential of the Arab Spring; to all those who think that parties who champion an Islamist agenda and those that have a secular concept of the state can pursue together political and social aims, within a democratic system; and to those who, seeing a more modern society with a larger middle class, closer ties to Europe, and a greater role for women than is typical in the Arab world, think that Tunisia probably has the best chance of staying on the path to democracy.

But in 2014, Tunisians are looking forward to the Jasmine Revolution bringing some benefits to their own society. Even if the only fact they can cling to is that the country’s second post-revolutionary elections will occur somewhere before the end of 2014. That was decided in mid-December 2013 by Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly’s (NCA) consensus committee. Analysts were quick to underline that the committee’s decision marks a rare example of opposition and ruling parties reaching an agreement, in an attempt to fill the country’s political void.

Tunisians want that void to be filled, but remain sceptical. They want to move on, after three years of transition, four inconclusive drafts of the Constitution and a year – 2013 – that has seen the shocking assassinations of two Tunisian opposition leaders.

Months of street protests were sparked – and are still going strong – after militant gunmen shot dead on 6 February 2013 Chokri Belaid, a prominent secular opposition, just outside his home in the capital Tunis. And on 25 July 2013, left-wing opposition MP Mohamed Brahmi, the leader of the small secular Popular Movement Party, was killed in similar circumstances. Brahmi was a vocal critic of the Islamist-led government and a member of the Constituent Assembly charged with drawing up the North African country’s new constitution.

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Widely blamed on radical Salafists, the assassinations alienated many Tunisians and united the secular opposition parties, powerful trade unions and other civil society groups against Ennahda, Tunisia’s governing coalition’s main party, affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.

It all started well, though, for Ennahda, the Renaissance Party. In Tunisia’s first democratic elections, held in 2011 after the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the party polled 37% of the votes, winning the most seats in a national assembly. Voters were looking for a clean break with the past and Ennahda’s strong anti-corruption credentials proved a powerful electoral asset.

Defining themselves as moderate Islamists, Ennahda ruled the country, for a while, in harmony with the secular parties. The Tunisian talks, called “the national dialogue,” have captivated the Arab world with the hope that, in at least one country, an Islamic party and its secular rivals might overcome the mutual distrust and antipathy.

But while it formally advocates a democratic form of Islamism, Ennahda long treated the radicals mildly, seeing them as informal allies in reclaiming Islam’s place in the small North African country. According to some observers, party leader Rached Ghannouchi has tried to strike a balance between the two camps and is reluctant to confront the hardliners by cracking down on the Salafists.

This elusive position on Islam’s contours in Tunisian society and Ennahda’s initial stance in the Constituent Assembly, for the new ground law to include Sharia, annul the secular regime’s gender equality and drop references to international human rights conventions, led to bitter political divisions.

So while it prepares itself to celebrate the 3rd anniversary of the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – on 14 January 2014 – Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring lacks a post-authoritarian regime constitution. Divisions now run deep in its society – between secularists and Islamists, between those who cooperated with the old regime and those who lived in exile, even between city and countryside. The results of a poll published in October 2013 show a deeply dissatisfied electorate and an extremely polarised society.

The poll found that two-thirds of Tunisians feel their country is moving in the wrong direction; less than one-third of Tunisians say that the government has been effective in addressing priority concerns like expanding employment opportunities, dealing with the high cost of living, and protecting personal and civil rights; almost three-quarters of all Tunisians say they believe that Ennahda is not committed to “fulfilling the goals of the revolution.”


Ennahda has seen its support plunge and is currently distrusted by almost three-quarters of the electorate. The party now has the confidence of only 28% of Tunisians – this 28% being almost exclusively comprised of its own supporters. The 72% of the rest of the electorate that is against Ennahdha, is divided amongst a number of relatively weak parties with no one party able to muster the confidence of more than one-quarter of the adult population.

Sensing probable defeat at the polls due by the end of 2014, Ennahdha accepted a compromise with the secular opposition under an agreement brokered by the powerful UGTT union. The appointment on 14 December 2013 of 51-year-old Mehdi Jomaa as consensus prime minister is the first step of the deal. Ennahda accepted that the coalition government would step down once politicians decided on a caretaker cabinet, completed the new constitution and set a date for elections.


There is no metric system to measure a society’s progress towards building a democracy. But there are benchmarks and various checklists about the extent to which there is freedom in a society – freedom of speech, of religion, of political parties – and respect for human rights. The European think-tank ECFR appreciates that, by those standards, just about everything in Egypt is going in the opposite direction.

After Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, the country has been run for 15 months by the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces. A chaotic and divisive year followed, under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi and, since July 2013, Egypt is run by a caretaker interim government backed by powerful Defense Minister Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. Human rights groups underline that each successive administration has demonstrated both an inability to handle opposition, and a tendency to rely on heavy-handed security solutions to political problems.


Morsi’s downfall set a terrible precedent in the ‘new’ Egypt of a democratically elected president being ousted by force and it ushered in a brutal ongoing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. More than a thousand of Morsi’s supporters have been killed and thousands more arrested on judicially suspicious mass charges. Membership of the Brotherhood or its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has essentially been criminalised.

Critics of the government – including secularist voices – have been vilified and marginalized. With two important anniversaries looming – 25 January 2014, three years since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution and 11 February 2014, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak – a new law passed by the interim cabinet and signed by interim president Adly Mansour on November 24 essentially outlaws all unauthorised protests. Among a range of restrictions, the new law requires Egyptians to secure seven different types of permits in order to demonstrate, bans gatherings of more than ten people – in public and private – and carries hefty fines.

Pointing towards the sadly ironic situation of a government which, while owing its very existence to massive street protests, is trying to suppress the rights of Egyptians to express themselves in public, observers say the new protest law is an indication of mounting authoritarianism.


On 18 December 2013, the charging of former president Morsi and 35 other top Islamists with conspiring with foreign groups to commit terrorist acts in Egypt – in a case that could result in their execution – marked a further escalation in the suppression of the Islamist movement. Supporters of the military coup, including some of the original 2011 revolutionaries, insist that the July 2013 coup saved Egypt’s democratic transition rather than aborting it. The military, they say, had no choice but to step in and save the country from impending disaster under Mohamed Morsi. That view is not shared by all international observers – not even by all those who acknowledge Morsi’s many errors and missteps in office.

“An extremely significant criterion right now is the overwhelming scale of political persecution that is underway, and that is this campaign to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party and its members, from senior officials, to midlevel officials, to low level officials,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for Human Rights Watch, quoted by ECFR. “That is the biggest, darkest cloud hanging over everything in Egypt right now in terms of our assessment of what Egypt’s human rights record is.”

On 14 and 15 January 2014, Egyptians are expected to vote in a referendum on a new constitution. The new document is designed to replace the one passed by Mohamed Mursi, paving the way for new parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to take place later in 2014.

A 50-member assembly appointed by interim President Mansour finished the new draft in December 2013, removing Islamist-inspired provisions from the constitution approved in a referendum in 2012. While offering more room on freedoms and women’s rights, the new constitution restricts the formation of religious political parties and enshrines enhanced political powers for the military, including freedom from presidential control and broad rights to try civilians in military courts.

The new draft also allows the authorities to switch the order of elections expected in 2014. The initial plan, unveiled in July 2013, required parliamentary elections to be held first, but the new constitution could allow presidential elections first.


Some analysts predict that General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the commander of Egypt’s armed forces, will run for president and win, but that his victory will not assure Egypt’s stability. The heavy-handed ways of Egypt’s military have begun to alienate not only the Islamic elements of the society, but also some of its sectors that have stood behind it so far.

2014 might see increased tensions between military and security forces and Islamist actors and worsening relations between the military and the secular opposition, especially the youth. Should the violence continue, the polarisation of Egyptian society will deepen, and the country that once was a trendsetter of the Arab world will find itself powerless in confronting its other pressing needs: rebuilding the economy and creating jobs and opportunities for Egypt’s youth.


Absolute lawlessness makes Libya a completely different story of the Arab Spring, after three years from its popular uprising. Because of the highly personalised nature of the regime of Moammar Gaddafi, his downfall left a complete administrative vacuum, an atomised society and not many people with any executive experience untainted by affiliation with the previous regime. The post-revolutionary order is marked by the lack of basic security and central government control and these two aspects supersede any other concern.


The clearest example of this crisis came in October 2013, when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was held hostage for several hours in Tripoli by militia gunmen.
Armed militias that have run rampant after the ousting of Gaddafi still maintain the upper hand in the country. They have various agendas – financial, territorial, political, and religious – and operate with impunity. Successive interim governments have failed to assert control over these militias, preferring to contract them as parallel forces to the army and police. A revealing detail: the militia that kidnapped the Libyan Prime Minister Zeidan works with the Interior Ministry. This is a common practice in Libya, where various ministries have teamed up with militias for their own needs, including providing security services.

Consequently, the militias retain a stranglehold over key security objectives, such as protecting Libya’s oil fields, making it ever harder for the government to break its financial dependency and hold on these lucrative opportunities. The structure of the militias and related armed groups, their shared interests, political aspirations and the tribal nature of Libyan society are further complicating factors. Many militias outgun the state and some of the militias responsible for today’s crimes did not exist at the time of the armed uprising against Gaddafi.

Libya desperately needs state-building but lacks crucial factors including a relatively cohesive leadership, an active civil society and national unity. This last element has become particularly troublesome since mid-2013, when a movement for self-rule in oil-rich eastern Libya, backed by some militias and local tribes, declared the region to be an autonomous state named Barqa, claiming broad self-rule powers and control over resources. The movement has already set up a shadow government, complaining of central authorities’ neglect and discrimination. Along with local tribes demanding better pay and more political rights, it has effectively halted exports from the region’s main oil terminals since summer, blocking a critical government revenue source.

The leaders of the movement say they have formed a regional oil company to handle its sales of crude, in one of the most serious challenges yet to the central government. Advocates of self-rule in the east have been pushing for the revival of the system maintained under King Idris in 1951. Libya then was divided into three states, with Cyrenaica – or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic – encompassing the eastern half of the country.


No wonder, then, that Western powers worry the country will slide into chaos. Libya may, in prospect, split into two or even three states. Some territories ruled by certain tribal clans have set up their own borders. The major cities have a competing sense of entitlement to the fruits of the revolution: Misrata, where Gaddafi’s body was displayed; Tripoli, which hosted the liberation ceremony; and Zintan, which is holding prisoner Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. And all of them, like most Libyans, share the unrealistic expectation that their new-found freedom will somehow solve their socio-economic woes.

In this situation, attempts by the so-called central government to adopt an all-Libyan law, a constitution accepted by all, seem to have little chance of bearing fruit. For what is a constitution without strong institutions? While the National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim governing body that replaced Gaddafi’s regime, failed to lay the groundwork for a modern state, the elected leadership that took power in November 2012 has been grappling with the need to create effective administrative institutions and foster an independent judiciary. One of its major tasks is building the national army – something that the NTC neglected. Persuading the militias to transfer their loyalties to the state will not be easy, especially given the fighters’ strong, often ideological connections to their individual units. But it is a crucial step toward establishing order and enhancing the legitimacy of the newly elected government.

In 2014, Libya will hold elections for a Constituent Assembly that will draft the country’s constitution and it will convene a much-anticipated national dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations and the prime minister’s office. 2014 could also see a potential boost to Libya’s army, police, and border guards, as a result of training and material support from the United States, the European Union, and other members of NATO.

There are analysts who believe that these events hold the promises of political reconciliation, of the beginning of a slow recovery toward greater stability and cohesion. Perhaps, but this overly optimistic scenario won’t happen without a systematic program to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate the country’s numerous militias into society.

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