POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 15, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 2:36 a.m. HST, Jan 15, 2014
Tunisia and Egypt, the neighbors whose twin revolts ignited the Arab spring, are a dual lesson in the pitfalls and potentials for democracy across the region.
On the third anniversary of the flight of the former strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's constituent assembly was poised Tuesday to approve a new constitution that is one of the most liberal in the Arab world. A carefully worded blend that has won the approval of both the governing Islamist party and its secular opposition, the new charter presents the region with a rare model of reconciliation over the vexing question of Islam's role in public life.
Egyptians, meanwhile, trudged to the polls Tuesday for their third referendum in three years to approve a new constitution: this time for one that validates the military ouster of their first fairly elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and also gives power and immunity to both the military and police.
"'Train wreck' might be a charitable way to describe where Egypt is right now," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab legal systems at George Washington University. In Tunisia, he said, "Everybody keeps dancing on the edge of a cliff, but they never fall off."
The difference, scholars said, lies in the shape of the shards left after each country's revolt. Tunisia's brutal security police virtually collapsed during its revolt, while its small, professionalized military historically had no interest in political power. In civilian politics, its Islamist and secular factions were relatively evenly matched, with the Islamists winning only a plurality in Tunisia's first free vote. Each side needed the other to govern.
In Egypt, where the military has been a political player since Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup, the generals stepped in to remove former President Hosni Mubarak, himself a onetime military man, and never fully receded. Further complicating matters, each side of the political divide had reason to hope it might rule alone: The Islamists dominated the elections, while their opponents knew the military was waiting in the wings.
"The opposition knew that, first, it might never win another election, and, second, the military was there," Brown said.
With the ouster of Morsi and the violent crackdown on his supporters last summer, what started out as a revolution in Egypt became just another chapter in "the very old and always violent story" of "the rivalry between the security state and the Muslim Brotherhood," said Zaid al-Ali, a legal expert in Cairo tracking both charters for the International Institute for Democracy Electoral Assistance.
"In Tunisia, we have turned the page completely, and you really feel that a revolution has taken place," he said. "In Egypt, that is debatable."
Tunisia, scarred by its own grinding and sometimes violent conflict between secular autocrats and political Islamists, was trapped in an even more restrictive police state than was Egypt, with less space for political participation or dissent before the revolt.
Until mid-December, its process also appeared to teeter on the brink of collapse. There were assassinations of left-leaning political leaders and allegations that the moderate Islamist ruling party, Ennahda, had done too little to combat the rise of a militant Islamist insurgency. For five months, a political deadlock halted the drafting of the constitution.
Perhaps prodded by the overthrow of the elected Islamists in Egypt, however, the two sides reached an accommodation last month, settling on a caretaker prime minister for the government and getting back to work on the charter.
Ennahda won wording stating that Islam is the religion of Tunisia but gave up on any reference to Islamic law. "Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state, Islam is her religion, Arabic her language and republic her regime," a clause of the constitutional preamble reads.
The more liberal parties, with strong lobbying from civil society groups, secured guarantees that Tunisia would remain a civil state with separation of powers and pledges of freedoms and rights. "Tunisia is a state of civil character, based on citizenship, the will of the people and the primacy of law," the counterpart clause of the preamble reads.
Neither clause can be amended by future governments.
The constitutional assembly "finally found some equilibrium," said Ghazi Gherairi, secretary general of the International Academy of Constitutional Law in Tunis, the capital. "It is a result of consensus and this is new in the Arab world."
Egypt's referendum Tuesday appeared to be set to produce a near-unanimity in votes but hardly a consensus. A landslide approval is expected to open the presidential campaign by the military leader who removed Morsi, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Voters at several polling places seemed to doubt that anyone might vote against it.
"What? Everybody is voting yes to the constitution!" one man exclaimed on leaving a polling place after he mistakenly thought he had overheard another say he had cast his ballot against it.
"No, I meant I voted against the last one," that voter, Sami Hadid, 73, clarified, referring to the constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly and approved in the referendum a little more than a year ago. "I hate the Muslim Brotherhood."
The public debate has been one-sided, to say the least. The Brotherhood is boycotting the referendum, dismissing the vote as an attempt to legitimate an illegal coup. The government has shut down Egyptian news media outlets sympathetic to the group, declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, jailed its leaders, seized its assets and criminalized membership.
In recent days, the new government has arrested at least seven activists merely for trying to hang signs or stickers opposing the new charter. On Tuesday, more were arrested, state news media reported.
The voting began with a small explosion near a court building in the Imbaba neighborhood of Giza, damaging the facade but injuring no one.
By nightfall, the ministry of health said that at least 11 people had died, but even the deaths were disputed. The Brotherhood said at least four of the dead were civilians, including a child, who had been killed by the police. The Interior Ministry said the four had been killed by members of the Brotherhood. Dozens of other supposed members of the Brotherhood were arrested on charges of attempting to disrupt the vote, but there were no major protests.
"This time it has surpassed Mubarak at the height of his authoritarianism," said Hossam Bahgat, the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
For virtually the first time since the 1989 one-candidate plebiscite that granted Mubarak a fourth term, Bahgat planned to sit out the vote, he said. "Like most Egyptians, I guess that I am indifferent," he said.
About a third of the electorate turned out in December 2012, to vote on the last charter, which passed by about a 2-to-1 ratio. During the run-up to the vote, anti-Islamist politicians, judges, government officials and most of the privately owned news media had attacked the draft of the charter for opening a door to potential religious restrictions on individual rights.
The new charter retains the main clause stipulating that the principles of Islamic law are the wellspring of Egyptian jurisprudence. But it removes a more controversial clause that sought to constrain the way judges interpret those principles, by defining them according to the broad schools of mainstream Sunni Muslim scholarship.
Many voting Tuesday said they sought mainly to be rid of the Brotherhood, which had failed to master the bureaucracy, revive the economy or calm the streets. With patriotic music blaring from military vehicles outside and helicopters flying low overhead, polling places had the feel of a kind of martial pageant.
"It is all for the love of our country and the love of Sissi!" crowed Nadia Sayed, 64, sitting with a group of friends in Nasr City. "He will do everything good for our grandchildren," she said, before the women broke into ululation and a pop song, "Bless the Hands," celebrating the army and police for removing Morsi.