The victory of Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunisia’s first free presidential elections has been widely welcomed. But Islamists and young Arab spring revolutionaries across the region will see the outcome as a further sign of the return of the old guard – as Gerald Butt explains.
When popular protests began in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in 2011 it was thought they would create a domino effect, removing entrenched autocrats and opening the door to democracy. The reality was something quite different. Each country coped with the upheavals in its own way and the results have varied. Few have seen the establishment of free and fair democracy.
The fate of Syria and Libya is unlikely to be known for some time. Many more lives will be lost and many more civilians forced to flee before solutions are found to the crises in these two countries. The same is true of Yemen, which appeared for a time to have found a unique and initially successful form of power transfer.
Egypt has been through periods of turmoil which saw the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, his removal from power by the military and the election of a candidate from the ranks of the army. Tunisia has been by far the most successful of the countries to emerge from the morass of street protests and regime change – as the recent election of Beji Caid Essebsi shows.
But in both Egypt and Tunisia the new presidents represent the interests, in part at least, of elements of society that were prominent during the eras of Mubarak and Ben Ali respectively. The Egyptian army and, more significantly, its state security and intelligence services were largely untouched by the revolution. Reappearing on the scene, too, are some of the prominent political and business figures associated with the former regime.
The army’s role in Tunisia is far less pronounced than in Egypt, and its institutions far more developed than in most other Arab states – a factor that helped the country to weather the storms of the past years. But Essebsi himself, who is 88, held senior positions under both Ben Ali and Bourguiba before that. He is a pillar of the traditional political establishment – anathema both to the supporters of the Islamist Ennahda movement and the young revolutionaries who envisaged a new beginning for their country. Several members of Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party are loyalists of Ben Ali.
Both Sisi and Essebsi are firm opponents of Islamists’ participation in politics. So serious rifts still affect both Egypt and Tunisia – in the first, political Islam has been outlawed; in the second, it has suffered political defeat and will seek to fight back. Long-term stability cannot be guaranteed in either country.
The challenge that Sisi and Essebsi face is to convince the electorates at large that their ascents to power don’t mean, as their detractors allege, that the clocks are being turned back. If their countries are to enjoy long-term stability and prosperity they will need to prove that they can foster a political climate that encourages political and social integration rather than even more pronounced divisions. In practical terms this will mean at very least an attempt by the Egyptian authorities to include the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process. Nidaa Tounes, for its part, will need to seek accommodation with Ennahda and not – as many Tunisian Islamists fear – order a crackdown of the kind seen during the Ben Ali era.
The problem is that some key figures from the past who now find themselves back among the political elites in Cairo and Tunis will be arguing strongly against either course of action.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.