Home > News > Arab transitions and the old elite
203 views 28 min 0 Comment

Arab transitions and the old elite

- December 9, 2014

Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Tunisia’’s Nidaa Tunis party and presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in the capital Tunis November 15. (Anis Mili/Reuters)
“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come é, bisogna che tutto cambi”
If you want things to stay as they are, they have to change: These are the words challenging an elite faced with ruin which Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa places in the mouth of Prince Tancredi Falconieri in the novel “Il Gattopardi” (The Leopard). Lampedusa’s novel is set in Sicily during the unsettled conditions of the Risorgimento. The problem confronting the old nobility is what to do in the face of the new Italian nationalism and the revolutionary changes to the state and society that the Republican general Giuseppe Garibaldi hoped to impose. To preserve its influence and elite status (that is, to ensure that nothing changes), the family must accept the new forms of governance (that is, accept that everything has changed).
Prince Tancredi’s observation offers a useful framework for understanding the different outcomes of what appear to be similar processes in Tunisia and Egypt. Tunisia has garnered high praise for passing the “Huntington two-turnover” test that every other Arab country has failed: The party that dominated the government immediately after the fall of the authoritarian regime has now peacefully given way to its opposition. Tunisia’s October legislative election therefore marks what political scientists call the consolidation of democracy because it seems that all political actors accept the verdict of the ballot box. This supposed success contrasts vividly with the failure of Egypt’s transition, which ended instead in intense political polarization and a military takeover.
To understand why the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings have had different outcomes, his guidance would be to leave aside the dominant narrative of secularism, Islamism and the political weakness of the youth. Those contentious and seductive issues lead us astray from the more fundamental and essential role of the ruling elite, without whom no country can make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. We must think of those old elites, even in a revolutionary uprising, as active participants who are neither passive nor innocent.
This has not customarily been the focus of most analysis. Many have blamed Egypt’s revolutionary youth for failing to gain mass support or to build a solid organization either to compete with the Islamists in elections or push the revolution to its conclusion. But revolutionary youth in Tunisia had little more impact on the outcome either way whereas the old elite had a very large impact. Another common explanation has to do with the nature of Islamist forces in the two countries, as a weaker and more savvy Tunisian Ennahda party avoided the mistakes of a powerful but clumsy Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Both arguments miss who these various Islamist and revolutionary forces threatened. Democratization succeeded in Tunisia because the old elite was neither excluded nor subjected to the threat of political or administrative marginalization. The old elite, not revolutionaries or Islamists, proved to be the pivotal actor.
The underlying thread of many analyses since December 2010 has been that democracy can be and perhaps should be the result of a revolutionary rising. But democracy, unlike revolution, is a profoundly conservative as well as inclusive solution to the problems of social change. Democracy’s success more or less guarantees, for a protracted period of time, that there will be few political solutions – whether in terms of moderate public policy or dramatic institutional change – to economic inequality. An understandable desire by many observers and analysts to conflate a revolutionary uprising with the process of democratic transition has created a narrative that now lacks not only many details but is, in some ways, a significant distortion of the political trajectory of the two countries.
Rather than thinking of revolution vaguely as a rapid and complete change, I prefer a definition proposed by German political scientist Otto Kirchheimer. Does the new regime destroy the possibility that the old regime and its members can return to power? We will gain more traction in understanding the events of the last four years if we focus on a different set of admittedly elite institutional actors: members of political parties, government officials and holders of significant economic resources. The crucial question is whether the political conflicts in the wake of a mass uprising and the collapse of a regime provided a plausible existential threat to any particular group. Are all parties, including the ones ousted by the collapse of authoritarianism, able to contest for governance?
In early 2010 there was every reason to think that Egypt was more likely to experience a successful transition to democracy than Tunisia. Egypt had a far more open press environment, more competitive elections, and had experienced more turnover among government ministers. For example, in 2010 the Tunisian prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, was the same one who had been appointed more than 10 years earlier by then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Atef Ebeid, who former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had appointed as prime minister in 1999 (when Ghannouchi assumed his office) to replace Kamal Ganzouri, departed after a five-year term. Ahmad Nazif, Ebeid’s successor, had only served seven years when he was replaced on Jan. 30, 2011. Egypt had had three prime ministers in the two decades during which Tunisia had one.
In both Tunisia and Egypt the authoritarian regime centered on a particular figure who had been in power for decades and around whom an increasingly small coterie of family and close associates clustered. By 2010, wide sections of the political elite in each country had been marginalized by a narrow group at the very pinnacle of authority. In each country the regime maintained its grip on power partly through reliance on the police and partly through the manipulation of a single party (the Constitutional Democratic Rally in Tunisia and the National Democratic Party in Egypt).
The Tunisian Supreme Court first appeared as an actor in the transition on Jan. 15, 2011 when it declared that Ben Ali was not incapacitated but had quit the presidency. Consequently, Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker of the assembly, was installed as president rather than Ghannouchi, who then remained as prime minister. Mebazaa, a member of the RCD central committee since 1988, served as the president of Tunisia until Dec. 13, 2011 when he was replaced by the human rights activist and Ben Ali opponent, Moncef Marzouki. Had the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court made a similar ruling when Mubarak left office, it would have declared that either the speaker of the assembly, Fathi Sorour, or Farouk Sultan, president of the court, was his constitutional successor. Both men were as closely associated with Mubarak as Mebazaa was to Ben Ali.
By Jan. 17, Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced a new cabinet that contained 12 members of the RCD including former Defense Minister Ridha Grira, a graduate of the distinguished French institute for training high-level civil servants, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (a distinction he shares with Adly Mansour, the president of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court who served as Egyptian president from the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 until the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2014).
Ghannouchi’s replacement was not an outsider by any stretch of the imagination, but an even more central figure from the old regime. The new prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, had served in several key positions under the republic’s founder, Habib Bourguiba. Essebsi was defense minister from late 1969 until June 1970 and then served as ambassador to France. In Tunisia, as in other former French colonies, the ambassador to Paris is a position of exceptional importance for economic, political and security issues. Between 1981 and 1986 Essebsi was the country’s foreign minister. After Ben Ali ousted Bourguiba, Essebsi moved to the legislature where he was president of the Chamber of Deputies from 1990-91. Essebsi, who would be prime minister in 2011 until he resigned to make way for Ennahda party leader, Hamadi Jabali, on December 24 thus played a key role in determining the nature of the democratic transition. Before the courts in Tunisia (as in Egypt) dissolved the former ruling party in March, the Interior Ministry had already suspended it from official activity. Essebsi thus presided over the liquidation of the party in which he had spent most of his adult career and from which he would draw many of the leaders for the new party he created for the 2014 legislative elections. Essebsi and his associates were quintessentially what Egyptians derided as “feloul” or the remnants of the old regime.
It is possible that Essebsi only pursued this course under the pressure of demonstrations, but nevertheless it was Essebsi and a number of politicians from the old regime as well as some of their long-standing opponents who bore the responsibility for shaping a democratic outcome in Tunisia. Thus, speaking on Nov. 10, 2011 at the African Media Leaders forum, Essebsi noted that it was his government’s responsibility to ensure that the Tunisian revolution did not devolve into a fratricidal conflict nor deviate from what he called its virtuous path.
Among the consequential choices his government made was the exclusion of members of the RCD from participating in the elections for the constituent assembly. Arguably even more important, however, was the decision to encourage human rights activist Kamel Jendoubi to preside over the commission charged with writing the relevant electoral law and carrying out the election itself, the Independent Higher Authority for the Elections, ISIE. Jendoubi and his fellow commissioners chose to employ a particular version of proportional representation that provided Ennahda with the number of seats that corresponded to its share of the vote but that also privileged smaller parties. Other electoral rules, including other versions of proportional representation, would have translated Ennahda’s 38 percent of the popular vote into a majority of seats rather than the plurality it actually received. Ennahda thus, by design, was unlikely to control the constituent assembly without receiving an overwhelming majority of the popular vote.
Ennahda had the votes in the constituent assembly to impose an electoral law banning members of the old ruling party from engaging in politics. In fact, article 167 was drafted into the organic electoral law by a majority in June 2013. Under the rules of the assembly, however, it was rejected in May 2014 because it failed to gain an absolute majority: 38 of 63 Ennahda delegates present abstained. Such a law would have been an insuperable barrier to the old political elite regaining influence through electoral politics and would have made the creation of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tunis, the largest party after the last elections, impossible. The most widely cited argument for not excluding former members of the RCD was simply that there is, in a democracy, no reason for stripping individuals of their political rights unless they have been convicted of criminal activity. Whether Ennahda representatives were convinced of this argument on its merits or simply took a more hard-nosed view of the likely results of excluding their long-time opponents we do not know, but their decision was consequential.
In Egypt events have worked out quite differently. One obvious and crucial difference was the inability or unwillingness of the Muslim Brotherhood to find a way to compromise with members of the old regime. On the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood often sought to marginalize and exclude as much of the NDP as possible. These attempts to marginalize and exclude the NDP and its cadre as well as its leadership were highly popular with a significant portion of the Egyptian public. The top NDP leadership included prominent businessmen, religious officials and government officials all of whom were widely derided as corrupt figures of an authoritarian regime.
Days before Mubarak resigned, on Feb. 6, 2011 Vice President Omar Suleiman met with members of the opposition including the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to broker an agreement about the future of Egypt. These were the days in which several groups of so-called “wise men,” including some of Egypt’s wealthiest and most important businessmen as well as academic figures and former officials engaged a public dialogue through public statements and occasional interviews. Other opposition leaders including Mohamed ElBaradei opposed the talks, which were unpopular with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The first attempt to broker some kind of agreement or transitional pact foundered.
Subsequently there were occasional talks between leaders of the MB and some of their political competitors and more than occasional claims that the MB had worked out a deal with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces but nothing of the kind ever happened. Talks routinely broke down; bargains once made were scuttled; and a heightened sense of distrust permeated relationships between all the dominant actors during the period after Mubarak left office.
Anger and contempt for the political figures of the old regime were common through the first year of the uprising in Egypt and the MB began to present itself as a party dedicated to reforming Egypt by continuing the revolution. Key to this objective was eliminating the feloul. This was surprising to many Egyptians because there was no reason to believe that the MB planned to make significant or rapid changes to the country’s economic or governmental structures which would have been the hallmark of a revolutionary party as widely understood in Western as well as Egyptian academic literature.
The MB’s reaction to the so-called Selmi document of late 2011 shows how different the situation in Egypt was from what occurred in Tunisia. Ali al-Selmi, at the time deputy prime minister, drafted a proposal that had the backing of SCAF and the government, which was then still dominated by liberal elements of the old regime and a handful of its liberal opponents. He offered a set of supra-constitutional principles to guide the work of the still-to-be chosen constituent assembly which had many substantive similarities to earlier such statements issued by the Muslim Brotherhood, his own Wafd party and independent forces in March 2011. It only allowed the civilian government to consider the total budgetary allocation to the armed forces and it gave SCAF the right to prior review of any legislation affecting the army, an unpopular ratification of the military’s hitherto unofficial authority in the new constitution. His proposal also included significant restrictions on how the still to be chosen legislature could choose the constituent assembly. First, Selmi proposed that elected legislators not be allowed to serve as members of the constituent assembly. He also proposed a corporatist plan through which the SCAF would appoint the bulk of the members of the constituent assembly from the existing institutional framework of Egyptian society in which unions, professional associations and other groups would choose their own representatives.
Selmi’s proposal placed mild substantive constraints on what the assembly could write but it egregiously violated one of the few obviously legitimate elements of the transitional process. That an elected legislature would choose the constituent assembly was one of a handful of provisions that had been the object of the March 19 referendum. The MB called for massive demonstrations against the Selmi proposals and hundreds of thousands of people mobilized including sections of the left. Selmi became a lightning rod for protest and mistrust because of his own connections to the old regime. Selmi has a doctorate in economics and had served previously in Mubarak cabinets. He was a prominent member of the Wafd, generally considered a secular pro-business party with a significant Christian base of support. Rejecting the Selmi document placed the MB firmly on the side of electoral legitimacy but it suggested an at best limited tolerance for reaching substantive agreements with the social, political or economic elite of the old regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood initiated demonstrations in Tahrir Square and was able to mobilize significant support against the proposal on Nov. 18, 2011. Police later attacked a sit-in by relatives of the people killed in the initial uprising and protests continued. These included particularly violent confrontations on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir Square, between the police and youth, many of whom were drawn from the ranks of soccer fans and from poorer neighborhoods, which left 41 people dead and perhaps 1,000 wounded. The Selmi document was another victim and so was the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf who resigned on Nov. 21. He was replaced by Kamal Ganzouri, who had served as prime minister under Mubarak from 1996-99.
The left viewed these events as evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was uninterested in pursuing the revolution to establish a democratic order. Viewed in the framework of Tunisian politics, however, they suggest a different interpretation: The MB refused to reach an agreement with members of the old regime about the new structure of the state. The mobilization of street demonstrations and the willingness to accept the outcome of the violent confrontations that it had neither solicited nor endorsed placed the MB on a distinct path in the months to come. This was the path of electoral politics, themselves a fundamental process for representative democracy. It was also, however, a path in which elections and demonstrations together could be used to marginalize and diminish the role of other institutions of the state as well as the political opponents of the electoral victors.
Sometime before his tragically premature death I had coffee with Samir Soliman, the respected Egyptian political scientist. In the years since it has become common to argue that the failure of the Egyptian revolution and Egyptian democracy can both be attributed to the failure of the secular left to organize sufficient popular support to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood. Seen in this optic, the tragedy of Egypt is the fault of the middle-class intellectuals who played such conspicuous roles in front of the television cameras in the early days of the uprising in 2011. Soliman had a different view of how democracy, if it was to work at all, would work in Egypt. The only party that could conceivably challenge the MB and alternate with it, he argued, was a conservative party. Committed as he was personally to the politics of the left, he did not that day argue that the liberal left would be a likely counterweight to the MB nor did he mention from where such a party would draw its leaders or members.
In Tunisia, just such a conservative-centrist party has emerged in Nidaa Tunis to challenge Ennahda and its roots are heavily in the old regime although it also boasts other supporters. In Egypt for a variety of reasons no alternate center-conservative party was built. That would have necessarily been a party with deep roots in the old NDP, the party many of whose members have re-emerged since the 2013 coup. In the absence of a thorough-going revolutionary exclusion, they would likely have re-emerged anyway. The question is whether they did so through elections or as part of an anti-electoral coalition. Attempting to exclude the economic and political elites of the old regime may have seemed like both revolutionary and democratic good sense to the Muslim Brotherhood and to many Islamists and leftists between 2011 and 2014.
Egyptian revolutionaries (in the conventional left-wing sense) and the leaders of the MB feared the re-emergence of the feloul as a political force. They correctly understood that a powerful conservative party with significant support from Egypt’s business elite was not a friend. Such a political grouping was not inclined to support either the projects of economic and social equality that animated the left or the projects of creating new state institutions that the MB favored. The MB was committed to elections. As the old elite increasingly re-asserted itself the MB responded by attempting to marginalize both their institutional and electoral capacity. In this it echoed the very old concern of revolutionaries in Europe and Latin America that electoral democracy is not necessarily the friend of movements for economic redistribution nor does it necessarily lend itself to the creation of strong protections for the political, civil or social rights of the poor and the weak.
The idea that democracy is the last station on the revolutionary road remains seductive and it informs a certain idealized understanding of U.S. history and the process of democratization. Representative democracy itself, however, is less likely the successful conclusion of revolution and more likely the premature end of its utopian hopes and dreams. Only if nothing changes, can everything change.
Ellis Goldberg is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington. This essay is part of a Project on Middle East Studies and London School of Economics and Political Science collection on “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State.”