Friday, June 24, 2011

Which Destination In Cairo And Tunis?

 By Michael Meyer-Resende and Paul O’Grady  
The optimism of the early Arab Spring has been overshadowed by war in Libya and the brutal repression in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Even more important in defining such optimism, Egypt and Tunisia must make headway in showing that “Arab democracy” is no oxymoron.
The two countries’ trajectories appear to be similar. In order to fill a legitimacy gap, both Egypt and Tunisian plan to hold elections soon and in due course will write new constitutions. However, on the surface Tunisia’s transition seems to be the less stable. Two governments were forced to resign and elections, which were initially planned for July, have been postponed until October.
In contrast, in Egypt the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed power after Mubarak’s ouster, has effected quick, limited constitutional changes. These it saw approved in a referendum and the council is now planning for elections in September. Yet, on closer scrutiny, Tunisia’s performance may actually indicate a process that holds more democratic promise than the one in Egypt.
Without a leader or a coherent opposition, Tunisia’s transition has lacked an anchor. There has been no Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa to offer reassurance to a restive public. With nobody enjoying particular legitimacy, the transition has often been propelled by street protests. Amidst the turmoil the government created a transitional body to draft, among other things, a law on upcoming elections.The 170-member High Commission for the Realization of Revolutionary Goals, Political Reforms and Democratic Transition has proved to be as unwieldy as its name.
Yet after seven weeks of intense discussions, it managed to reach a consensus on the law, and more significantly, on the system for the election of the Constituent Assembly.
An electoral system translates votes into representation and hence will have a major bearing on the composition of the assembly, which will lay the foundations for the new Tunisia. At the outset, most political figures in Tunisia favored a system of many small electoral districts with few deputies, in order to create strong links between the deputies and constituents. However, by the time negotiations were concluded, a sizable majority in the High Commission had agreed on establishing few large districts, each with many deputies.
This ought to allow new parties and those with modest support to gain representation, facilitate the election of more women, and prevent a relative majority of votes from turning into a landslide for one party.
Other than reaching a convincing outcome, the process was important for allowing genuine debate, after which the commission reached near consensus on one of the thorniest questions in any transition.
Unlike Tunisia, Egypt has yet to determine its electoral system. The military council has passed this hot potato to a committee, which is supposed to make proposals for electoral legislation. But many believe that the military has its own fixed ideas.
Whatever the outcome, if the Mubarak-era electoral system is not fundamentally changed, this would favor the more established political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly the notables who underpinned the Mubarak regime, rather than the newly formed parties that need time to organize. As in Tunisia, a more proportional election system would allow for the proper representation of women.
Egypt’s military council is also planning constitutional reform, but it decided that the Constituent Assembly would be elected by the next Parliament rather than directly by the people. The current rules do not specify how Parliament should elect members of the Constituent Assembly. Some worry the next parliamentary majority might pack it with their candidates, resulting in a highly partisan institution – the exact opposite of what a Constitution-writing body should be.
While Egypt has approved some important reforms in the past months, the military council has not set up a framework for real public consultation. Rather, it seems single-minded in seeking to drive the country to elections in autumn on its own terms. This approach risks alienating important segments of the population.
In Tunisia, the risk has been the reverse. The government, fearful of demonstrations, has often appeared to hesitate, so that significant time has been devoted to consultations. This process has often seemed to be adrift. An election date was set for July 24, suggesting that the country was moving toward a fixed goal. That is why the postponement of elections until October disappointed many Tunisians. Ultimately, however, it was a reasonable price to pay for reaching consensus on the ground rules for these crucial elections.
Egypt and Tunisia may be moving in the same direction, but they are not on the same track.
In Egypt the military council is the driver but the people wonder about the destination. In Tunisia, many people are involved in charting the course. While there have been complaints about timetables and delays, they agree on a desired destination.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 24/06/2011
-Michael Meyer-Resende and Paul O’Grady are directors of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based non-governmental organization promoting political participation

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