TUNIS – What came to be called the Arab Spring began in December 2010 after a young vegetable seller in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire in protests. The anti-regime protests soon spread to the capital, and not long afterward across North Africa to Egypt, the largest and most influential country in the Arab world. In two months, the long-ruling dictators of both countries had been deposed, and democracy movements appeared on their way to victory.
Much has happened since in Egypt and Tunisia, and elsewhere in the region, even as a full-fledged war continues to rage in Syria. But this past week has also seen two starkly different pictures in Tunisia and Egypt that are worth noting.
General Abel Fattah el-Sisi is everywhere in Cairo (@frapac)
In Cairo, the military-led government has pushed through a new Constitution, and looks more ready than ever to assert its full control of the country after deposing popularly elected Mohammed Morsi in July. Meanwhile, Tunisia is again celebrating – and being celebrated as a democratic example for the region – after the passage by Parliament of a new Constitution, reached after hard-won political compromise amongst all major components of civil society.
The respective quests for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt are indeed in very different places, and here are some basic reasons why:
1. Tunisia's military is comparatively weak and not a dominant force on the political scene. Egypt's army is everywhere.
2. Tunisian television, unlike Egyptian TV, does not broadcast sycophantic clips of the army hard at work.
3. Tunisia's new government of technocrats was achieved after Islamists agreed to give up power, rather than have it wrested away from them by men in uniform.
4. Tunisia's constitution, produced by an elected Assembly, does not name Sharia law and guarantees gender equality before the law (women's rights were also inserted into the new, recently approved Egyptian constitution that was de facto imposed by Egypt's military-backed government)
5. Tunisia's main Islamist Party has not been declared a terrorist organization by the state unlike what has happened with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Members of Tunisia's main Islamist party Ennahda take part in approval of constitution (Ennahda)
6. The post-revolutionary Tunisian Islamists never had the same clout as Egyptian Islamists — Tunisian Islamists, with only about 40% of the seats in the parliament, were required to compromise and work with non-Islamist allies.
7. The new Tunisian constitution was not pushed through by Islamists against the wishes of a significant portion of the population, as happened under Morsi in Egypt last year.
8. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia is not home to significant groups of religious minorities. Almost all Tunisians are officially registered as Muslims, and almost all of those Sunni. Egypt's Christian minority has been a target of pro-Brotherhood, anti-army Egyptians, who blame Christians for their leaders' prominent support of the summertime coup. This has led to widely publicized violence, including the burning of churches, fanning the flames of anger and distrust across society.
(cover image: Tunisia's President of the Republic Moncef Marzouki after having signed the new constitution - photo Chokri Mahjoub/ZUMA)