Year One of the Arab Revolution: Some Pointers to the Future

January 27, 2014

By Roger Owen

The first anniversary of the Arab revolutions presents a mixed picture, the popular movements largely contained in the Arab East but with considerable success to their credit in Egypt and its two western neighbors, Libya and Tunisia. Even if, as always seems to happen in human history, events have not turned out as well as many people might have hoped. All revolutions have to be institutionalized at some stage. And the on-going attempts to do this via elections to a constituent assembly that will lay down the guidelines for a future, more plural system have already provided significant pointers to what still lies ahead.

To begin with the elections. In both Egypt and Tunisia the electoral laws emerged out of hastily-made decisions without, as far as can be seen, any clear intent to favor one or other of the competing parties. If they did have a discernible purpose, it seems likely that it was to make it difficult for the religious parties to obtain a majority. At least this is how the introduction of the proportional list system was interpreted in Tunis. But in neither case, of course, did it have this effect, making it less likely that these systems will be much amended in the near future, given the fact that both the Muslim Brothers and the Nahda will be very happy to leave things as they are. What will require watching, though, in the run-up to future elections, are possible changes in the rules governing the actual conduct of the elections in terms of the amount of money that can be spent by each candidate, the form of political advertising, the way polling is subject to neutral observers and so on.

What is also clear is that, whatever the system, the elections proved an effective way of sidelining the young people who had made the revolutions in the first place. As it turned out, they lacked the electoral skills to make their presence felt in the new parliaments. Nor was it easy for them to adulterate their own desire for root and branch reform of the old system to meet the short-term demands of electoral politics with its need for simple slogans and instant fixes. For one thing, the creation of new systems of policing, of law, and of education cannot be anything but the work of many decades. For another, there has not been time to do the thinking that such work requires via position papers or, better still, the creation of institutionalized think tanks which do not depend too much on outside support or outside money—unless it come from somewhere else in the Arab world.

Then there is the economy and the need to address two pressing issues. One is what to do with the vast holdings previously owned by fugitive or imprisoned cronies connected with the old Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. The second how to create a stable environment that will both encourage private foreign investment and create the confidence among foreign governments and aid agencies that moneys given will be properly used and accounted for by reformed ministries of finance. A tall order indeed.

As for Libya, the first attempt at a draft electoral law to produce a two hundred–member constituent assembly quickly excited a considerable amount of public protest, particularly in Benghazi, on the grounds, first that it has been produced without any public consultation and, secondly, that its winner-take-all rules would encourage voting either along tribal lines or for well-known local notables. Whether this was, indeed, its purpose is difficult to say. But it’s certainly possible to argue that, by making it easier for tribal leaders or rich and prominent citizens to be elected, one aim was to keep members of radical religious groups out. At any rate, a larger point obtains: in the present state of knowledge about the electoral geography of any of the North African states, no one can say for sure what system will actually benefit what social or religious or ideological group the most.

Turning now to where to Egyptian and Tunisian thinking about the constitutional system is concerned, the odds certainly favour the development of a mixed presidential and parliamentary system with considerable debate ahead as to the powers of the president concerning his right (or not) to choose the leader of the government from a member of a new assembly, as well as to be able to dissolve that assembly itself. In Egypt, where these points are of singular importance to both the Army and the Muslim Brothers, it may be that presidential powers will end up by being larger than they will in Tunisia, as a way of protecting the military from too much parliamentary oversight. Tunisians, on the other hand, having suffered so obviously from the powerful pretensions of a Ben Ali, can be expected to opt for a relatively weak presidency, and with extra legal protection against any future presidential abuse of human rights coming from the courts.

We can also say that people in the other Arab states will be watching this experiment in new systems of government very closely indeed. The notion that revolutions are inevitably followed by popular elections for new governments and new constitutional arrangements is a heady and exciting one. But they, equally inevitably, take one into uncharted and sometimes dangerous waters. There are parliaments to be managed, and new forms of economic relationships between government and particular popular constituencies to be developed following the demise of the old social contract guaranteeing jobs and education and health care for all. And much of this will involve political skills, including the ability to build coalitions, and to create new institutions, which have been rarely practiced in last decades of despotic presidents for life.

Let us hope that, by and large, the Tunisians, the Egyptians, and, soon, the Libyans can manage all this well enough to become models for the rest of the Arab world. For only then will we be able to talk of what Jon Alterman calls an Arab “decade” in which the popular revolutions produce a stable structure of popular government the envy of other parts of the Afro-Asian world.

This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in January 2012. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.