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A Year of Spring

Tunisia and Egypt One Year On

by ESAM AL-AMIN

January 25 marked the one-year anniversary of the inception of Egypt’s revolution against the dictatorship of the Mubarak regime, eleven days after the success of the Tunisian revolution, when its former president Ben Ali fled the country. Within weeks of the brisk success of these two revolutions (28 days for Tunisia and 18 days in the case of Egypt), the Arab peoples across the region launched their own simultaneous revolts to rid themselves of their decades-long dictatorships, especially in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain.

So what is the current status of the Arab Spring? And what are the likely scenarios?

In late October, nearly ninety percent of Tunisians cast their votes in historic democratic elections. With an impressive victory, the Islamist Ennahdha party received the largest share of votes (42 per cent). It not only displayed the discipline of a political party with sophisticated machinery, but it also demonstrated sensitivity to the concerns of the public, as half of its elected officials were women, thus shattering the myth of being an anti-women party by virtue of its religious affiliation.

Furthermore, it was able to form a coalition with the leftist-leaning and nationalist-liberal parties. The three blocs claimed the top three positions in government, with the General Secretary of Ennahdha, Hamadi Jebali becoming the head of government or Prime Minister, while the other two junior partners occupying the seats of head of state and speaker of parliament, respectively.

The biggest losers of the elections were the secularist, anti-religion parties as well as the remnants of the Ben Ali regime. It was clear that the public voted for an alliance between parties that preserved the Arab and Muslim identity of society, and respected the principles of democratic governance, political pluralism and civil and human rights. The major task of this elected body was to write a new, modern, and democratic constitution for Tunisia and then call for new elections within a year. But the government immediately devoted most of its energy and resources to the pressing economic problems such as unemployment and the deteriorating infrastructure, rebuilding the security apparatus, and reforming the judicial branch to become truly independent.

Many of the critics, including former Prime Minister Al-Baji Qaid Al-Sibsi criticized the elected assembly and government for not speeding up the process of writing the new constitution and holding new elections. The government, on the other hand, insisted that it could not ignore the pressing needs of the people while embarking on writing the new constitution.

The likely scenario for the Tunisian revolution is that a new constitution will be written and offered as a referendum in the fall, followed by new parliamentary elections at the end of the year. If the current government is able to lessen the economic hardships on the poor and the middle class, reform the security agencies and the judiciary as promised, then Ennahdha may not only repeat its victory but is likely to further consolidate its gains.

Likewise, the triumph of the Egyptian revolution was not only historic but also swift and stunning. Once Mubarak was deposed, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over and promised sweeping reforms. But throughout the year, the revolutionary youth learned that their objectives were achieved only by taking their demands to the streets. For instance, the trial of Mubarak, his sons, and the corrupt elite of the former regime did not take place until millions of Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square. Even then, the corrupt figures of the old regime were tried on minor criminal charges (taking bribes or technical misuse of authority) rather than the gross political corruption and constitutional violations they committed with impunity for decades.

The unity displayed during the eighteen revolutionary days in Tahrir and across the country had quickly dissipated because of ideological differences, Islamic on one hand and liberal-secular on the other. Throughout last summer and fall, the debate was centered on the future nature of the state in the new constitution. Although everyone agreed that the state would be civil, the dispute focused on the role of Islam in the state. In contrast to the others, Islamic parties called for Islamic law to be the main frame of reference in all legislative matters.

Ultimately, this debate was settled with the new elections for the Peoples’ Assembly. Held over three stages over a period of nine weeks (between the end of November and mid-January), an unprecedented 62 percent of eligible Egyptian voters, or over 27 million people, went to the polls. The Islamic parties won big, with almost 73 per cent of the seats by the end of the vote. Out of 508 seats, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP is the political wing of the pragmatist Muslim Brotherhood Movement) won 235 seats (including 22 seats to its junior partners in the Democratic Alliance), the Salafist-literalist party, Al-Noor, and its Islamic Alliance won 123 seats, and 10 seats went to Al-Wasat, a more moderate Islamic party. Meanwhile the liberal and secular parties received 99 seats (liberal parties Al-Wafd, and the Egyptian bloc received 42 and 33 respectively, while other leftist or centrist parties got 14), former regime remnants received 13, and independents won 28 seats.

Predictably, the Egyptian electorate voted overwhelmingly for the Islamist parties. But, surprisingly, they elected not just moderate and pragmatist elements, but the more conservative groups gained almost 25 percent of the seats. As in Tunisia, the biggest losers were the remnants of the former regime and the hard-line secular parties. Quickly the FJP formed a tactical alliance with Al-Noor and the liberal Al-Wafd (together, they hold 400 out of  the 508 seats) electing as speaker of parliament FJP General Secretary Mohammad Saad Katatni, as well as two deputies, one from each of the other partners in the alliance.

The first act of parliament was to promise to launch full investigations into the former regime’s crackdown on the revolution in its early days, during which more than 800 people were killed. It also promised full accountability of the current government appointed and controlled by SCAF. Meanwhile, the revolutionary youth took back to the streets demanding the end of military rule. Although the youth received only nine seats in the elections under the party name “The Revolution Continues,” many of the revolution’s objectives would not have been achieved without the sacrifices of the revolutionary youth and their persistence throughout the year to challenge SCAF’s authority, even if other more disciplined and organized political parties reaped the benefits.

After the elections the FJP announced that it will not contest the authority of SCAF and would not demand to immediately form the government. Rather, the party said it would stick to the timetable determined by SCAF, to hold the presidential elections in June. FJP also vowed to keep its promise of not offering a presidential candidate or even supporting an Islamist candidate in the election, which supposedly would mark the end of military rule. Many liberals, secularists and leftists fear that FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), could make a deal with SCAF at the expense of the prime objective of the revolution, namely establishing a democratic, civilian, and transparent government. In short, they are fearful that the entrenched military presence in the economy (over 40 per cent control) and its political (behind the scenes) interference in state affairs will be preserved in return for the military granting permission to the FJP to rule.

During his visit to Egypt during the elections, former President Jimmy Carter expressed these sentiments, saying that he doubted that SCAF would transfer power to a civilian rule. Meanwhile, FJP denies that there are any secret deals with the military. Rather it vowed that it would demand to form the next government after the presidential elections, and that it would seek the widest possible national unity government.

But perhaps the main battle will be in the formation of the committee of 100 that will write the future constitution of Egypt. According to a previous constitutional declaration, the elected members of parliament are supposed to select this committee. However, secularist forces are fearful that with an overwhelming majority of elected Islamists in parliament, they would be effectively shut out. Meanwhile, the MB/FJP continue to give assurances that no group will be excluded.

It is clear from the elections results in Tunisia and Egypt that the public wanted a complete break from the previous dictatorial regimes, and placed its confidence in established Islamic parties (which for decades were the major rivals of the deposed regimes). Nevertheless, there are stark differences between both experiments.

In the case of Tunisia (at 11 million people, it is less than one seventh of the Egyptian population of 82 million), a comfortable alliance has taken shape between the moderate Islamic movement and the liberal-leftist-religious-friendly parties. On the other hand, in the Egyptian scene, the Islamists (moderate and conservative) received a much bigger piece of the pie, and the liberal and secular forces are nervous and skeptical. In Tunisia, the military has withdrawn from political life for the most part, while in Egypt the military is still in control and demands to have a large, if not dominant role, behind the scenes going forward.

Further, Tunisian society, which is 99 percent Muslim, is more homogeneous and women were elected to over 40 percent of parliament. In Egypt, Christians comprise 8-10 percent of society, feel discriminated against and very apprehensive about the role of religion in public and political life. Meanwhile, Egyptian women, although very prominent during the revolution, were elected to only 2 percent of parliament. In Tunisia, the Islamic movement claims to have developed its philosophical doctrine to be completely in harmony with democratic principles and governance. In Egypt, the Islamic parties struggle to harmonize their understanding of what democracy means and promise to develop their own model that will be compatible with their ideology and understanding of Islam on the one hand and democracy with its grandiose promise of personal freedoms on the other.

Tunisia is considered a minor country in the Arab-Israeli conflict or the ensuing Iranian-Western confrontation, with minimal demands asked of it from international powers led by the United States. On the other hand, Egypt is a major country in the region with respect to both conflicts, and has maintained a peace treaty (although very cold) with Israel. It has also been historically applying tremendous pressure on the Palestinians (both the Palestinian Authority and the resistance movements) succumbing to American and Israeli pressures. The behavior of the future government of Egypt towards these international conflicts will determine not only its relationship with major powers in the world as well as international financial institutions, but also its future relationships with regional pro-Western countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, which it desperately needs for investments and economic development.

In short, Tunisia promises a much smoother transition to a more stable society and democratically functioning system than Egypt. But with the cautious moves of the FJP and other Islamic parties, Egypt’s future also appears to be heading towards steady though slow progress, and following a promising yet challenging path. However, it’s important to keep in mind that all these significant changes in both countries are taking place while severe economic problems and hardships are mounting, and as they struggle against enormous foreign interference and external pressures.

Esam Al-Amin can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com