Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have each ousted longstanding autocratic leaders, but they appear likely to follow varying political trajectories, Arab reform expert Michele Dunne tells the Council on Foreign Relations. Economic malaise and insecurity are the greatest threats to democratic transition and free-trade agreements will have a bigger impact than democracy assistance programs.
Tunisia just had its first election since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia. How would you assess the elections?
….The most impressive thing is the voter turnout, which was extremely high for any country…… The election results should be announced soon, but it certainly looks as though al-Nahda, the major Islamist party, seems to have won a plurality. There are talks underway between al-Nahda and some other parties about some kind of power-sharing for this transitional government. Al-Nahda is already making pledges that in the writing of a new constitution, they will preserve, for example, the significant gains for women’s rights that have been made in Tunisia over the years.
How would you describe the situation in Egypt since the popular uprising started in January and led to President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation?
Egypt carried out a kind of “half-revolution,” in which the demonstrators handed over power to the military, which in the beginning sided with the demonstrators and against Mubarak in order to avoid bringing about chaos and a great deal of violence. But that transition is not going all that well.…..
Is this causing a great disillusion among the young people who spurred this revolution?
There’s a lot of disillusion in Egypt now with the way the transition is going. In fact, some of the youth movements and the civil society organizations who were active in one way or another in the revolution are facing explicit repression from the military. They’re facing harassment campaigns in the government media to besmirch their reputations. Unfortunately, the military leadership is using a lot of the old tools of the Mubarak era and turning them against groups that were active in the revolution because they want to stop the process of change.
What’s the situation in Libya, where long-time dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi has been killed and the National Transitional Council (NTC) is supposed to take over?
The NTC has a roadmap for the transition, which they announced some time ago. So far, they are saying they’re going to abide by that. ……But there are a lot of questions about to what extent the leadership of the NTC will stick together now that Qaddafi is gone. A lot of different political, tribal, and geographic forces united to bring down Qaddafi. Now that the regime is decisively down, there’s going to be a temptation for them to pull apart and begin competing with each other. ….
How do you think the turmoil in Syria will be resolved?
The Syrian uprising is not going to be resolved quickly. Right now it looks as though it will be very difficult for the Bashar al-Assad regime to completely overcome these protests. The protests have been very persistent, but they’ve also been at a lower tempo, and that has enabled the Assad regime to keep the casualties to a level that, frankly, the international community can tolerate.………. What we might see happening is more and more parts of the Syrian military splintering off, fighting against each other. My fear is that Syria may follow what happened in Libya, and turn into a real armed conflict.
Any hopeful signs in Yemen?
I don’t see any hopeful signs for Yemen right now. The return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the fact that Saudi Arabia allowed him to return was a great mistake. He continually offers to resign but never does. It has inflamed the situation there, [and it is] probably going to go on for some time and get more violent before it’s resolved.
Are things relatively calm in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based, after the crackdown by the Sunni ruling family on protesting Shiite majority, or is it unsettled?
I foresee a lot more trouble there. There are ongoing protests at a relatively low level, but there are also repressive measures being taken by the government against people in the opposition…….
You co-wrote an article recently suggesting that a major step forward would be if the United States and Europe pushed for more free-trade agreements (PDF) with these burgeoning states. Is that still your view?
I advocate negotiating free-trade agreements with the countries that actually are in political transition. That would include Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but not with countries like Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria that are still in the midst of uprisings. ……
The United States still needs to be involved with our regular diplomacy, democracy-assistance programs, and rhetorical support for the political transitions. But those tools, while necessary, are insufficient. I’m concerned that if the countries in political transition don’t also have good plans for economic growth, the lack of economic progress can bring down the political transitions. Clearly it’s not in the cards for the United States or Europe to give enormous new aid programs to these countries. We simply couldn’t give enough to make a difference in these economies. What’s really going to be much more important is helping these economies open up to trade with Europe, which is their most important trading partner; with the United States; and also to trade with each other–intraregional trade.