How Tunisia beat Egypt in the democracy game

The two countries ushered in the Arab Spring together. Both are voting on new constitutions. Only one is a burgeoning democracy.

Moez Belhaj Rhouma
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Aimen Zine))

This week, both Tunisia and Egypt are expected to approve new constitutions. The comparisons are almost inevitable. The twin uprisings in the North African neighbors, started by self-immolating Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, sparked the regional upheaval broadly called the Arab Spring. In the three years since, Tunisia and Egypt have followed separate paths. Not surprisingly, this week finds them at different destinations.

Tunisia is now "setting a standard for dialogue and democracy that is the envy of the Arab world," say David Kirkpatrick and Carlotta Gall in The New York Times. Egypt "has become a study in the risks of revolution, on a violent path that seems to lead only in circles."

In Tunisia, where popular protests forced the corrupt, authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country three years ago, an elected assembly is widely expected to approve a constitution The New York Times calls "one of the most liberal in the Arab world," with religious freedoms and women's rights indelibly written into the charter.

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Egyptians, meanwhile, are finishing voting today on their third constitution in as many years. This one, The Times says, "validates the military ouster of their first fairly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and gives power and immunity to both the military and the police."

There are plenty of reasons Tunisia and Egypt are in such different places on the winding road to democracy, but two stand out. First, Tunisia's professional military has traditionally steered clear of politics, and when Ben Ali's regime and fearsome security apparatus collapsed, the military remained neutral and was widely respected for that.

In Egypt, the military has been perhaps the strongest political faction since the 1950s, and not only did it forcibly retire President Hosni Mubarak, but also his democratically elected successor, Morsi. After ousting Morsi, the military has overtly called the shots, outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and jailing its leaders, shutting down independent news organizations, and otherwise quashing dissent. This week's constitutional vote is widely viewed as the beginning of the bid by the country's leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to formalize his rule with a run for president.

The other big difference between Tunisia and Egypt is that "Tunisia's politicians have opted for compromise rather than zero-sum politics," says The Economist. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was handed a majority in parliament in the first free elections, and it wasn't keen to compromise with the secular minority. Tunisia's Islamist party, Ennadha, won a plurality of seats in parliament, but had to — and chose to — compromise with the more-or-less evenly matched secular parties. The Economist fills in some details:

Tunisia's ability to broker compromise between those who espouse Islamist principles in government and those who want to keep religion out of public affairs has given it the edge over other Arab states in transition. The relative homogeneity of this nation of 10.6 million helps. Education levels are higher than in Egypt. The army prefers to keep out of both politics and business while career civil servants have developed a professional ethos. A feisty civil liberties lobby finds a willing ear in the media at home and abroad. This has obliged Ennadha to face down conservatives within the party, as well as more radical Islamists outside it. [Economist]

Egypt's democratic failures may also have helped Tunisia's relative political comity. Last summer, Tunisia's fragile peace was at the cusp of falling apart after suspected Islamists brazenly assassinated two secular politicians, sparking protests against the already flailing moderate Islamist government. It was at this point that Egypt's military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood, sending "shivers through Ennadha," says Eleanor Beardsley at NPR News. "They agreed to sit down with the secular opposition to draft the country's constitution."

Significantly, Ennadha also agreed to turn over power to a non-political caretaker government until elections later this year.

Tunisia's relative success has deeper roots, too, says Robert Zaretsky at The Jewish Daily Forward. Its surprisingly secular new constitution is "building upon the foundation that has been in place since Tunisia's independence from France in 1956."

Under its leader Habib Bourguiba, the fledgling nation enacted a constitution that created a vital space between secular and Muslim law. To be sure, its first article states that Islam is the nation's religion, but in terms of jurisprudence, this was tantamount to recognizing the Dallas Cowboys as America's football team. Not only did the 1959 constitution dismiss sharia as the basis for its law, but it also insisted upon the "civil character" of the Tunisian state. [Forward]

It's too bad that the foreign media has largely ignored Tunisia's "remarkable effort to reject disaster at home," Zaretsky adds. The Egyptian train wreck has been getting plenty of press, but for "embracing a politics of the possible and taking the measure of moderation, Tunisia deserves the world's attention," too. Unfortunately, "nothing, it seems, fails like political success."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.