Tunisia was the spark of the revolution that is the Arab Spring. The Tunisian foreign minister has announced that the transitional government is ready for elections to take place next month on October 23. The elections will be the first since the overthrow of the long-serving dictator and more than 100 parties will be contesting seats in parliament. He said it “will be really a landmark in the modern history of Tunisia,” and it is “probably going to be bellweather model for the others if the Tunisian experience takes root and succeeds.”
It isn’t certain, though. In the same interview he said he hoped the people “would put aside their ‘egocentric’ demands, protests and strikes and focus on the best interests of the country.” Still, nobody doubts that Tunisia’s prospects for liberal government respectful of individual rights are much better than Egypt’s.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Egypt is a much bigger, more complex country with many divisions and problems unique to it. But the fact that Egypt is so much more subject to the US domain of influence is one reason it is falling behind Tunisia.
Egypt is a mess. This month, the country’s interim military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), issued Decree 193, stipulating that the country’s long-standing emergency law would be expanded to include such offenses as “infringing on others’ right to work,” “impeding the flow of traffic,” and “spreading false information in the media.” The SCAF had promised that the law would be repealed by September, before scheduled elections began; a few days ago, officials declared that it would be extended until June 2012. No one knows when a constitution will be drafted or presidential elections held, because the SCAF won’t say so. Egypt’s military rulers seem not so much determined as paralyzed.
There are concerns, writes Traub, that “Egypt’s revolution is in danger” and that there are fears “that the SCAF won’t leave, that Islamists will control the new government, and that the interim council’s drift and opacity will deepen chaos” to the point of jeopardizing the prospects of good governance.
The ruling military council reactivated the emergency law, which they had promised to do away with, just after Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, fed up with the relentless hostility and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians. They did this after heavy pressure from the Obama administration to crack down and get protesters under control, or else face “consequences.” The emergency law, let us remember, consists of trying “suspects” in emergency state security courts, censoring the press if it “endangers the stability and security,” and cracking down on mass demonstrations.
US pressure was central to imposing harsh restrictions on democracy then. And the US has leverage. In July, 125 tanks, M256 Armament Systems, M2 .50 caliber machine guns, 7.62mm machine guns, spare parts, maintenance, support equipment, personnel training and other related elements of logistics and program support were announced. Another $1.5 billion in U.S. aid has been allocated to Egypt for fiscal year 2012, mostly in security assistance (that is, military stuff). And unfortunately, many in the ruling council are veterans of the Mubarak regime who was so closely aligned with Washington for so long you’d think it were Israeli.
Last month, Egypt and the US postponed a long-standing joint military-to-military exercise, but it was not a sign of weakening ties between the two. Quite the opposite. Just as Mubarak’s unleashing of brutality on protesting civilians back at the beginning of the revolution was recognized as US-induced and supported, so too are the ruling military council’s current actions. Ahead of the beginning of Mubarak’s trial, the Egyptian army cleared Tahrir Square with force, detaining hundreds and brutally beating many.
In contrast, US aid to the Tunisian government has declined since the revolution. US aid and connection to Egypt’s rulers, despite consistent rejection of it by the population, has continued unabated.
We know that an Egyptian government whose policies reflect the will of the people is starkly contrasted with what Washington would prefer (hence, propping up a dictator for decades). The fact that it’s not clearer to people that continued US-Egyptian alliance is detrimental to authentic democratic progress is a pity. Success in Egypt could propel other Arab countries towards independence. If only the US would get out of the way.