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Assessing Political Transitions in the Mideast

Interviewee: Michele Dunne, Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 28, 2011

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Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are headed for political change following the mass uprisings that resulted in the ouster of their long-serving autocrats. But each of their transitions is faring differently, says Mideast expert Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council. She says Tunisia holds more promise than Egypt because the Tunisian military, unlike its Egyptian counterpart, "stepped back and let civilians take control." In Libya, Dunne says, it is uncertain whether the transitional government, united to bring down Qaddafi, will manage to bridge their political and tribal differences to stay together. Dunne cautions that lack of economic progress could also derail political transition in these countries and recommends the United States negotiate free-trade agreements with them.

Tunisia just had its first election since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia. How would you assess the elections?

In Tunisia, the election was for a constituent assembly that's going to appoint a transitional government and undertake the process of writing a new constitution. The constituent assembly is only supposed to be in office for a year. They will move on from there to parliamentary elections. It is up in the air as to whether they will continue the presidency.

The election is getting very high marks. The most impressive thing is the voter turnout, which was extremely high for any country. It speaks to a great deal of enthusiasm and a great deal of confidence in the political transition. The international and domestic organizations that monitored the elections are reporting a clean electoral process. The election results should be announced soon, but it certainly looks as though al-Nahda, the major Islamist party, seems to have won a plurality. There are talks underway between al-Nahda and some other parties about some kind of power-sharing for this transitional government. Al-Nahda is already making pledges that in the writing of a new constitution, they will preserve, for example, the significant gains for women's rights that have been made in Tunisia over the years.

How would you describe the situation in Egypt since the popular uprising started in January and led to President Hosni Mubarak's resignation?

Egypt carried out a kind of "half-revolution," in which the demonstrators handed over power to the military, which in the beginning sided with the demonstrators and against Mubarak in order to avoid bringing about chaos and a great deal of violence. But that transition is not going all that well.

The Military Council has agreed to schedule parliamentary elections, which are going to begin on November 28. It's going to be a very long electoral process lasting until March until the parliament is finally selected. And the military is putting off scheduling a presidential election, because it seems that the military is not comfortable handing off executive power to a civilian president. There are all kinds of rumors that the military is looking for various kinds of guarantees that [it] will have an enhanced political role in the new constitution--which is due to be written only after the parliament is elected--or that there might even be a military candidate for president.

Is this causing a great disillusion among the young people who spurred this revolution?

There's a lot of disillusion in Egypt now with the way the transition is going. In fact, some of the youth movements and the civil society organizations who were active in one way or another in the revolution are facing explicit repression from the military. They're facing harassment campaigns in the government media to besmirch their reputations. Unfortunately, the military leadership is using a lot of the old tools of the Mubarak era and turning them against groups that were active in the revolution because they want to stop the process of change. They want to limit how much change this revolution is really going to bring about.

Tunisia is doing very well in its transition, largely because the Tunisian military stepped back and let civilians take control, whereas in Egypt, the military is trying to steer the transition to its liking.

Why was the transition so seemingly easy in Tunisia, but not in Egypt?

Tunisia is doing very well in its transition, largely because the Tunisian military stepped back and let civilians take control, whereas in Egypt the military is trying to steer the transition to its liking and it's causing a great many problems.

But we have to remember the relative importance of these countries. Tunisia to me is a dolphin, sort of jumping nimbly through the waves of this transition and getting everyone's admiration. But Egypt is a whale, and although the Egyptian transition is a difficult one, we have to remember how important Egypt is. If this whale dives down, it's going to take everything with it. So it's extremely important for the international community to keep their eyes on the Egyptian transition and not give up.

What's the situation in Libya, where long-time dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi has been killed and the National Transitional Council (NTC) is supposed to take over?

The NTC has a roadmap for the transition, which they announced some time ago. So far, they are saying they're going to abide by that. They are supposed to appoint a transitional government within the next couple of weeks and then start a clock toward elections. The process would be similar to the process in Tunisia, where they would elect, initially, a constituent assembly that would write a new constitution, and later on move to elections to standing political bodies like the parliament.

But there are a lot of questions about to what extent the leadership of the NTC will stick together now that Qaddafi is gone. A lot of different political, tribal, and geographic forces united to bring down Qaddafi. Now that the regime is decisively down, there's going to be a temptation for them to pull apart and begin competing with each other. Everyone's waiting to see what will happen.

How do you think the turmoil in Syria will be resolved?

The Syrian uprising is not going to be resolved quickly. Right now it looks as though it will be very difficult for the Bashar al-Assad regime to completely overcome these protests. The protests have been very persistent, but they've also been at a lower tempo, and that has enabled the Assad regime to keep the casualties to a level that, frankly, the international community can tolerate.

Economic tools and especially free trade are going to be our best ways of helping to support political transitions in these countries.

But there's a tendency over time for this kind of uprising to become more violent. What we might see happening is more and more parts of the Syrian military splintering off, fighting against each other. My fear is that Syria may follow what happened in Libya, and turn into a real armed conflict.

Any hopeful signs in Yemen?

I don't see any hopeful signs for Yemen right now. The return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the fact that Saudi Arabia allowed him to return was a great mistake. He continually offers to resign but never does. It has inflamed the situation there, [and it is] probably going to go on for some time and get more violent before it's resolved.

Are things relatively calm in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, after the crackdown by the Sunni ruling family on protesting Shiite majority, or is it unsettled?

I foresee a lot more trouble there. There are ongoing protests at a relatively low level, but there are also repressive measures being taken by the government against people in the opposition.

This is a really difficult situation for the United States. The most recent development is that a planned arms sale to Bahrain has been stopped, or at least suspended, because of objections from the U.S. Congress that the Bahraini government has not come clean about human rights abuses that were committed and are being committed in an attempt to put down the uprising. That's a signal to Bahrain that the relationship with the United States might be in jeopardy. The decision to relocate or look at other locations for the U.S. Fifth Fleet base would be a far more serious step, but the United States doesn't seem to be close to that at this point.

You co-wrote an article recently suggesting that a major step forward would be if the United States and Europe pushed for more free-trade agreements (PDF) with these burgeoning states. Is that still your view?

I advocate negotiating free-trade agreements with the countries that actually are in political transition. That would include Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, but not with countries like Yemen and Syria that are still in the midst of uprisings. Economic tools and especially free trade are going to be our best ways of helping to support political transitions in these countries.

The United States still needs to be involved with our regular diplomacy, democracy-assistance programs, and rhetorical support for the political transitions. But those tools, while necessary, are insufficient. I'm concerned that if the countries in political transition don't also have good plans for economic growth, the lack of economic progress can bring down the political transitions. Clearly it's not in the cards for the United States or Europe to give enormous new aid programs to these countries. We simply couldn't give enough to make a difference in these economies. What's really going to be much more important is helping these economies open up to trade with Europe, which is their most important trading partner; with the United States; and also to trade with each other--intraregional trade.

Under the Bush administration, because of the war in Iraq, U.S. standing was fairly low in these countries. Is the Obama administration standing higher in the eyes of people bringing about change?

The way the public sees the United States depends to a large extent on the relationship that the United States had with the previous government. In Egypt, where the United States had a very close relationship for many, many years with the Egyptian regime and provided billions of dollars of support, U.S. standing is very low with the Egyptian public. The Obama administration is seen as not having supported the Egyptian revolution. There's a lot of suspicion that the United States will support an ongoing role for the Egyptian military in order to secure its other interests.

In Libya, where the United States had relations with the Qaddafi government but was never seen as close to Qaddafi, and where the United States participated in the international intervention against him, the U.S. standing is much higher.

In Tunisia, the United States didn't have a particularly close relationship with Ben Ali--and people noticed, for example, that Ben Ali's last visit to the United States, which was during the Bush presidency, was a very chilly visit. President Bush clearly indicated U.S. displeasure with the repression of the Ben Ali regime. So U.S. standing in Tunisia right now is reasonably high.

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