Arab Spring still waiting to blossom

January 17, 2014

Three years after the flight into exile of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali triggered popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, there is little to show for the cost in blood and chaos.

The results of the “Arab Spring” demands for reform are neatly summed up in Egypt where, after a brief experience of crude democracy, a constitutional referendum seems certain to return the country to rule by a general in a business suit that has been the norm since the 1950s.

Meanwhile, an increasingly horrific civil war rages in Syria, the last domino to fall in the Arab uprisings. For some months it has been evident that the rebels’ chances of removing President Bashar Assad are shrinking, and that he will either defeat the insurgents or be a central figure in any political settlement.

The picture is not all of doom and gloom, however. In all four countries where long-standing dictatorial regimes were toppled by the popular uprisings, the hammering out of new constitutions is in process, with elections in the offing.

Not all of these constitutional negotiations are going smoothly, and some may yet falter. In Libya, for example, where dictator Muammer Gaddhafi was killed by rebels in late 2011 after a brief and conclusive civil war aided by NATO air power, regional militias continue to reach for their guns when they don’t like the direction talks are taking.

The deadline for completing a new Libyan constitution continues to be pushed forward. It now seems unlikely that Libya will be ready for new elections before 2015.

The same goes for Yemen, where the first draft of a new constitution is not expected before the middle of this year and elections could still be two years away.

In Tunisia, where it all began when a street fruit stall owner died by self-immolation in protest at harassment by officials, a new constitution is almost complete and elections are expected mid-year.

The process in Tunisia, however, has been affected by events in Egypt where post-uprising elections in 2012 produced a hardline Islamist government led by Mohammed Morsi. He and his Muslim Brotherhood followers pushed through a sternly Islamic constitution, alarming Egypt’s secularists and its large Christian minority.

When the army responded to mass public anti-government demonstrations by deposing Morsi at the beginning of July last year and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood, it sent shivers of anxiety through Tunisia.

As in Egypt, Tunisia’s first free elections, held in October 2011, produced an Islamist government. In contrast to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, though, Tunisia’s Ennahda Party is a moderate Islamic organization and also had to form an alliance with two liberal secular parties in order to gain a governing majority in parliament.

Even so, the army coup in Egypt and two political assassinations in Tunisia raised the spectre of violent political instability. In response, the Ennahda government resigned and handed power to an administration of technocrats, who have been overseeing the preparation of a new constitution and will arrange fresh elections once that process is complete.

The public approval this week of a new constitution in Egypt has probably paved the way for a successful presidential run by army chief Gen. Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, who led the coup against Morsi and who has been serving as Deputy Prime Minister in the interim government. This, however, is not as bleak a prospect as it sounds.

To begin with, this week’s referendum on the fresh constitution gave the document a good deal of credibility. The constitution is said by state media to have been backed by 90 per cent of voters, with an estimated turnout of 55 per cent. Even if these numbers have been massaged, they are still well ahead of Morsi’s 64 per cent “yes” vote, with a 33 per cent turnout for his Islamist constitution.

The new constitution envisages the President remaining the dominant player in the Egyptian administration. But the document places significant checks on the President’s powers, checks that had not been there while the country languished under a succession of officers-turned-politicians following the military overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.

The new President will only be able to remove the government or carry out a Cabinet shuffle with parliament’s approval.

He – and perhaps in the future a she – can be impeached by parliament for breaching the constitution. His financial assets must be made public.

He will be required to gain parliamentary approval before giving presidential pardons. Parliament will have the power to withdraw confidence in the President with a two-thirds majority and approval in a public referendum.

However, largely as a result of Morsi’s attempts to crush the independence of the judiciary and the political role of the military, parliament’s powers over these two bodies have been limited.

Budgets for the judiciary, the Supreme Constitutional Court and the military will not be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, the military emerges as a relatively independent arm of the state, with even the presidential nominees for Defence Minister subject to the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Egyptians learned the hard way with the coming to power of Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, that elections don’t automatically create democracy.

Egypt was rushed into holding elections, largely under pressure from Washington, after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarack early in 2011. No significant political or administrative groundwork was done and the FJP, the only party with significant grass roots organization because of decades of repression, inevitably won.

The new constitution is not perfect, but it is a good starting point to promote the growth and maturation of a secular and liberal political culture in Egypt.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014