Tunisia: Transitional failure or an impossible situation?

Marina Ottaway, eminent democracy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, writes this week in the National Interest about the risks in transitional governance in Tunisia and Egypt. She highlights the illegitimacy of the regimes and how the lengthy transition between the uprisings last winter and the elections, almost one year later, have threatened the countries with chaos.

The delay is putting new pressure on the transitional governments. Governance cannot be in abeyance forever. Decisions need to be made, measures enacted. People are tired of waiting; they want to see change; they want officials of the old regime to be brought to justice; they demand economic improvement. And they are sending a clear message by taking to the streets again. This is initiating a vicious circle. Governments have less legitimacy than ever, yet they are expected to act. And they are feeling directly under attack, which is beginning to prompt an authoritarian response….

…The lesson of Tunisia and Egypt for countries likely to enter transition soon is that it is impossible—as well as unadvisable—to organize elections in a few months. Too much needs to happen first—constitutional amendments, new laws, new parties and some consensus on principles. But a slower process requires a clear roadmap and timetable, with benchmarks and deadlines, not a vague process left to the whims of governments with scant legitimacy and of impatient crowds. Such a process should ideally be agreed upon early on.

Tunisia and Egypt did not do so and are paying the price now in the form of increasingly chaotic situations.

Ottaway’s contention that the slowness of the process is a threat unto itself is valid. However, in the context of Tunisia, this would have been extremely difficult to overcome. As we have seen the challenges in the voter registration process, it has become clear that the initial decision to hold early elections was indeed too ambitious.

The government and the High Commission have continually had to balance competing views on the elections (notably from the differeing views between small and large parties, and secular parties and Ennahdha). While they could have avoided street protests by sticking to a tight timetable and limiting debate about the elections, this would have bypassed critical political stakeholders. These stakeholders have, despite a contentious and alienating public debate, generally respected the timetable and played by the rules of the game.

It is easy to second guess the decisions of the transitional governments – and indeed there are many things for which to be critical. But it is far more difficult to come up with viable alternatives that do not themselves carry substantial political risks.

One aspect Ottoway does not bring up has been the near absence of civil society pressure on the government. While a few well established CSOs, most notably women’s and human rights groups, have been active. Youth groups have either not had the organization, the exposure, or the funding to make a noticeable impact on the public debate. This should not be ignored as political scientists analyze the success or failure of transitions toward democracy in the region.


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