January tends to be an introspective month for the Arab world as the region reflects on the anniversaries of the 2011 Arab Spring, debating what has changed and, perhaps more important, what has not. Five years ago, public protests looked like they would not just change the face of many modern Arab states but fundamentally redefine the politics of the region.
And in some places they did, for better or worse. In countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen, where popular protests attracted thousands, the Arab Spring left in its wake civil wars that continue to this day and could well endure as proxy battles for competing interests for some time to come. But the countries in which the protests actually began — Egypt and Tunisia — were untouched by the same level of violence that befell their neighbors in the region. Their stability is owed partly to the resilience of governments that only appeared to adopt democratic reform. Still, there are indications that these old and deeply entrenched governments will continue to face challenges to their power.
It does not take deep analysis to show how little actually changed within the power structures of Egypt and Tunisia. True, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned his post as the president of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak did the same in Egypt. That they did so attests to how powerful the protests against them were. But current Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was part of Ben Ali's administration, and current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was a trusted general in his country's powerful military council under Mubarak. Many current ministers and lawmakers in both countries hold similar jobs to the ones they held five years ago.
Part of the reason they were so successful in maintaining power was their willingness to bend — but not break — in the face of the demands of a post-Arab Spring environment. And now, the biggest threat to both governments is external security crises that threaten internal stability. Libyan unrest — rife with militias, factions of al Qaeda and the Islamic State — as well as power vacuums in Sinai, the Sahel, the Algerian mountains, and distant Iraq and Syria have led to attacks on Tunisian and Egyptian soil and have lured young Tunisians and Egyptians to the fight. Containing jihadist threats, which increasingly target important Tunisian and Egyptian tourism sites and security installations, is an important priority for Tunis and Cairo. Egypt has reinforced its security capabilities better than Tunisia has, partly because Tunisian security forces feel underpaid.
The issue of inadequate payment points to economic problems that will shake the foundations of both governments in different ways. Both countries have high youth unemployment rates, as well as rising costs of living. More than 60 percent of young graduates in Tunisia are unable to find work, and youth unemployment hovers at around 30 percent, even as overall unemployment has declined by 3 percent since 2011. In Egypt, youth unemployment is just over 40 percent.
Tunisian protests over the weekend took shape around the same urban centers that kicked off the Arab Spring in 2011, and cries for jobs echo the demands, word for word, made five years ago. Even police officers marched peacefully to the presidential palace in Carthage today, demanding a raise in pay, flanked by the presidential guard in solidarity. Amid these protests, Tunisia's leaders have asked for patience as they remind their constituents that security threats like the Islamic State could become worse if they do not curb unrest.
Just as important to how Egypt and Tunisia manage their economic issues is how they manage their political opposition parties. To maintain legitimacy among outspoken and politically galvanized citizens, Cairo and Tunis worked with opposition parties and Islamists in ways that were unthinkable — and illegal — before the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party must work closely with the ruling Nidaa Tounes party if it is to achieve anything at all, something made clear by a closed-door agreement that helped both parties maintain their pre-eminence in Tunisia's volatile political environment. This deal may have compelled some stalwart Nidaa Tounes lawmakers to break from their party to form smaller coalitions recently, but it has also safeguarded Tunisia's political institutions — at least for now. These nascent coalitions could well undermine the relationship between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes in the future.
The relationship between the Egyptian political establishment and its Islamist opposition, of course, fared much worse. The military council stood by as popular protests pushed out Mubarak as well as his son Gamal, whose ideas on economic reforms directly threatened its interests. It allowed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi to take the blame for the country's economic and security crises, positioning itself as the saving grace for a large segment of the Egyptian elite unnerved by an Islamist presidency. The military leaders then sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood using the very same techniques it used under Mubarak. And yet Islamist political sentiment remains, and countries with a vested interest in Egyptian stability, including the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are concerned that for all its steadiness, Egypt is not quite as unshakable as it may appear.
Egyptian stability is of particular interest to Saudi Arabia, which has given Cairo loans, grants and energy provisions — in other words, the resources it needs to pacify its citizens. Saudi Arabia has traditionally regarded Islamist parties as threats to its own legitimacy, but Riyadh now realizes it must moderate its stance for the sake of greater regional security, since desired Sunni allies such as Turkey hold Islamist parties in high regard.
And for Egypt, today was an important test of the government's ability to maintain order — a test it appears to have passed, with minimal violence thanks to weeks of arrests leading up to today's commemoration of the Jan. 25 revolution. Perhaps with this milestone behind them, Egyptian leaders can relax on some issues, such as death sentences for certain Muslim Brotherhood members, that present obstacles to Egypt's warming ties with other Sunni states.