The Mixed Success of Islamist Rule in Egypt and Tunisia

5 MINS READFeb 22, 2013 | 08:01 GMT

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the country's powerful military have cooperated well enough since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak to move the government forward. The same cannot be said of Tunisia, whose politics have devolved into a stalemate. Whereas Egypt's main political institutions have a sense of cohesive authority and mutual interest, the pillars that made up the Tunisian state have fallen in the absence of the uniting force of the single-party system that ruled Tunisia from 1957 to 2011. These two countries show the struggle Islamists face in shifting from opposition to governance. In Egypt, it is ironically the military's coherence and measured support that has enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to forge ahead.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.

Today, the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, the Shura Council, adopted an electoral law that sets Egyptian legislative elections to begin April 28. This is no small achievement. The electoral process will last three months, but when elections are over, Egypt will be the first North African country affected by the Arab Spring to move from a transitional government to a permanent sitting government codified under a new constitution.

Egypt's road has been difficult. President Mohammed Morsi's government has contended with persistent unrest since coming to power. Even as Cairo struggles to avert financial collapse, the Muslim Brotherhood government cannot afford the political costs of implementing austerity measures to secure a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan. The Brotherhood already faces intense opposition from secular, Coptic Christian and rival Islamist factions that have fueled protests across the country for several months. In the riot-prone post-Mubarak society, Morsi is naturally reluctant to follow through with corrective economic measures that will further stoke political and social discontent.

The Egyptian military does not mind allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take the blame for the country's myriad problems, but the Brotherhood remains the largest and most popular political movement in the country. The military has little desire to govern the state and therefore has an interest in minimizing threats to the Brotherhood-run administration. The military has shown it is willing to work with the Brotherhood to protect its own standing in the country and has even quietly intervened against the secular opposition.

The military remains the ultimate arbiter of power in Egypt. It is a cohesive, centralized institution that is still largely viewed by Egyptian society as a stabilizing force. While it maintains some independence from the civilian government, the military has a fundamental interest in supporting the government's authority, and that general understanding — however unsteady or contentious it has appeared in public — has allowed Egypt to move from a transitional to a permanent government.

The situation in Tunisia is only superficially similar. In Tunisia, the Ennahda Party was empowered by its electoral success in October 2011, which gave it a plurality in Tunisia's Constituent Assembly. An intellectual affinity binds the platforms of Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, but that is where the similarities between the two end. Tunisia has never had an institution analogous to the Egyptian military. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's previous ruler, took considerable measures to make sure the Tunisian military could not challenge his rule. Ben Ali reduced the military's size, delayed promotions, lowered the defense budget and jailed alleged coup plotters.

Ben Ali, and Habib Bourguiba before him, depended on a single-party system to dominate the pillars of Tunisian politics. Tunisia's influential labor unions, the military, municipal councils elected with the approval of the central party, and tribal influences were all manipulated by Tunisia's dictators to maintain their power. The result in Tunisia today is a fractured political system in which myriad groups compete for political influence without any cohesive, centralized authority to govern the whole.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned Feb. 19 and reiterated today his unwillingness to serve as prime minister even after Ennahda tried to nominate him for the post. Tunisia's Constituent Assembly is essentially back at step one, having made little progress in writing a constitution under which legitimate elections could be held, even though the assembly has been in place for more than two years. Tunisia has economic issues of its own, and its political gridlock has jeopardized Tunisia's pursuit of a $1.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan. Furthermore, the country's location between restive Algeria and Libya has caused growing security concerns that the Tunisian Interior Ministry today said it does not have the resources to combat.

Egypt and Tunisia both saw major changes occur in their governments following the protests and unrest associated with the Arab Spring. In both countries, moderate Islamist parties that had been suppressed by previous regimes enjoyed significant electoral successes. While Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood will continue to face significant challenges that include balancing Egypt's economic problems and its social unrest, the Brotherhood has the support of the Egyptian military, an unlikely partner that ultimately enables them to govern the country. Meanwhile, Ennahda must navigate Tunisia's fractious political environment mostly by itself, and the party is rife with internal disagreements on how best to govern. In both societies, ideology is less important than the actual source of political authority. That reality is the reason for the stark differences in the continuing political evolution of Islamist governance in Egypt and Tunisia.

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