Explaining democratic divergence: Why Tunisia has succeeded and Egypt has failed

By Eva Bellin, Brandeis University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt emerged as the two heretofore autocratic Middle Eastern countries with the greatest promise for successful transition to democracy. Both countries had successfully jettisoned longstanding autocratic leaders, both were endowed with strong and effective states, and both enjoyed a coherent and unified sense of national identity. But already by year three it was clear that the two countries were on very different tracks: Tunisia was successfully transitioning to democracy while Egypt was turning back to authoritarian rule. What explains their divergent trajectories?

One of the most conspicuous differences between Tunisia and Egypt lies in their socio-economic standing, with Tunisia enjoying greater wealth (measured on a per capita basis), a higher level of urbanization, a larger middle class, and a higher rate of literacy. Hence it is tempting to attribute Tunisia’s greater success at democratization to the country’s superior performance along standard indices of “modernization.” While I acknowledge the enduring insights of the modernization school, I reject the argument that structural factors of the socio-economic variety explain the divergent political outcome observed in these two cases. The different paths taken by Tunisia and Egypt were in no way “carved in stone” by socio-economic conditions. Rather, to explain Tunisia’s political success and Egypt’s failure one must look to other factors – some that are quasi-structural in that they are long-standing (although not necessarily socio-economic) and some that are much more contingent and located in agency-based factors such as leadership and strategic choice.

Inadequacy of structural or material explanations

Two observations discourage us from taking a purely structural or material approach to explaining the divergent trajectories of Tunisia and Egypt. First, although the correlation between economic development and sustained democracy is one of the strongest findings to come out of 40 years of democratization studies, four decades of such research has also revealed that there is no economic determinism governing democratic transition. There are countless examples of countries that have transitioned to and sustained democracy despite dire poverty and terribly low levels of development (e.g. Mongolia, India, and any number of sub-Saharan African countries). Conversely there are the many relatively well-developed countries in Latin America (Argentina, Chile) that sustained authoritarian regimes well into the 1980s long after their level of economic development might have led one to expect them to go democratic.

Second, both Tunisia and Egypt fall into the category of lower middle-income developing countries – a category that many analysts consider an “indeterminate zone” for democratic transition. Statistically the political trajectory of these countries can go either way. Clearly, other factors come into play to steer countries in either a democratic or authoritarian direction. What follows is the identification of six variables that played this key role steering Tunisian and Egypt along different paths.

  1. Institutional endowment: The military

Institutional endowment, and specifically the character of one state institution – the military – is pivotal to explaining the different trajectories of Tunisia and Egypt. The militaries in these two countries are very different in terms of their size, legacy of political engagement, and (hence) susceptibility to authoritarian temptation. Tunisia has a small military, very professional, with little experience of political engagement. As Risa Brooks has argued, it has over time developed an institutional culture that accepts civilian supremacy.[1]

The reasons for this have deep historical roots: the negligible role played by the military in the struggle for national independence; Tunisia’s distance from the Arab-Israeli crisis and other regional wars that in other Arab states swelled the prestige and self-importance of the military. The restraint of the Tunisian military is also a consequence of deliberate policy adopted by Habib Bourguiba and later Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, both former presidents who starved the military of resources and limited its operations.

By contrast, Egypt possesses a very large military, with a long august history of political engagement (starting with former president Gamal Abdel Nasser) and an institutional culture that is ambivalent about the notion of civilian supremacy. For this military the susceptibility to authoritarian temptation was much stronger.

This very different historical legacy proved crucial in shaping the countries’ divergent trajectories. In Tunisia, the military elite early on announced that it would submit to civilian control and stay out of politics. In Egypt, by contrast, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces grabbed the reins of power when Hosni Mubarak fell; it did not cede power until then-President Mohamed Morsi was able to force it out after its security failure in Sinai during the summer of 2012. Even then the military negotiated a not insignificant policy domain that remained immune from civilian control. Consequently, when politics took a disorderly turn and millions of Egyptians mobilized to protest the Morsi regime in early summer 2013, the military was at the ready to grab the reins of power again.

  1. Civil society

There is no question, at least in the case of Tunisia, that civil society played a central role in nudging the country along in a democratic direction. Civil society played two roles in this process. First, it played a watchdog function, keeping tabs on the regime’s performance and holding the regime’s feet to the fire when it strayed from democratic ideals. Second it facilitated dialogue and compromise across the political divides when the normal course of politics in Tunisia’s formal political institutions hit an impasse.

Evidence of civil society playing the watchdog function was salient at any number of critical junctures in Tunisia. It was evident during the cobbling together of the constitution – liberal and feminist civil society organizations mobilized thousands of people to protest in the streets of the Tunisian capital of Tunis when religiously conservative elements proposed an article endorsing the principle of gender “complementarity” rather than equality. It was evident in the institutionalization of freedom of the press – the journalists union organized a strike that forced the Ennahda-led government to retreat from the appointment of political cronies to leadership posts at national newspapers. Evidence of civil society organizations facilitating dialogue and compromise across the political divide was also notable: The national trade union movement (the UGTT) played a central role in hosting national dialogues to bring all the parties together and force them to talk through their issues when political discussion over the constitution and governance stalled in 2012. These efforts proved key to getting a rather liberal constitution ratified in early 2013.

By contrast, Egypt did not have the same level of organizational resources at its command to foster this process. Egypt did possess an admirable array of human rights organizations but they did not have the popular depth or historical weight of their Tunisian counterparts and so were not able to exercise the same level of influence in overseeing the behavior of the government or in facilitating dialogue between opposing forces. The Muslim Brotherhood was by far the most organized force in civil society (and it dominated many of the professional syndicates as well). But since the MB constituted a political party as well and was a central political player in 2012-13, it could not very well police itself nor act as a neutral arbiter and facilitator of national dialogue.

Both of these factors, the character of the military and the strength of civil society, are long-term variables that are largely beyond the control of individual leaders and the exercise of individual choice and initiative. But even this should not be overstated. For example, the UGTT ultimately proved successful in negotiating dialogue and compromise between opposing political forces in Tunisia and facilitating the ratification of a rather liberal constitution. But the UGTT’s success in this venture was never a sure thing, ordained by its institutionalized strength. By the report of participants, the UGTT’s success at delivering a political bargain was a consequence of the unique authority, charisma, and persistence of the UGTT leader Hussein Abassi who relentlessly insisted on discussion and compromise, virtually hectoring his fellow elites into agreement. Similarly, the decision of the Egyptian military leadership to take over in July 2013 cannot be explained without reference to the personal ambition of then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The military as an institution could have defended its interests without taking the presidential helm. Thus even if we acknowledge the important role played by dissimilar institutional and organizational endowments in explaining Tunisia and Egypt’s divergent political paths, we must also acknowledge the decisive role played by individuals and the discretionary choices they made within these institutions to account for the political outcomes observed. Institutional and organizational endowments appear, at best, as permissive rather than deterministic factors in shaping these outcomes.

  1. Leadership/norms/preferences/ideas

Leadership as well as leaders’ normative preferences and ideas are crucial to explaining the different paths taken by Tunisia and Egypt. The different degrees to which leading political actors were committed to democratic institutions and the different degrees to which leading political actors were committed to dialogue, compromise, inclusion over the long durée, dramatically differentiated Egypt and Tunisia.

With regard to normative commitment to democratic institutions, in Tunisia it was absolutely clear that the political elite, secular and Islamist, were committed to the establishment of democratic institutions in the country: free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. The desire to break with the authoritarian past and embrace a democratic path was evidenced in their declarations and behavior. In Egypt, by contrast, such commitment was less clear. Non-Islamists feared domination by Islamists in popular elections and so leaned toward prolonging a period of “guardianship” under the military. This is also what explains the decision of the High Constitutional Court to dissolve a freely elected parliament just a few months after its election and on the eve of the election of the president. Thee HCC feared that both the executive and legislative branch would be controlled by Islamists. Islamists also showed ambiguous commitment to democratic institutions. For example, Morsi, the MB president, declared himself, at one point, above legal review by the judicial branch.

Tunisian and Egyptian leaders also diverged in their commitment to dialogue, inclusion, and consensus building across the political divides. For example, Rachid Ghannochi distinguished himself by reaching out to the non-Islamist camp and by pressing his base to compromise on key issues such as the role of sharia in the constitution, the ban on blasphemy, and the issue of gender equality. He argued quite eloquently that even if Ennahda had had the power to push through its views unilaterally, it should not, that in building the country’s foundational political institutions the country ought to come together and strive to build consensus. He counseled his base to take the long view, not to win in the short term only to lose in the long.

By contrast, Morsi distinguished himself by spurning the opposition, refusing to practice inclusion, and failing to make reassuring gestures to non-Islamists. He was strident and embarked on a Muslim Brotherhood power grab. This was evident in his composition of a constitutional committee, his appointment process, and even in the MB decision to run candidates in all districts in the parliamentary elections. This approach deepened the divide between the political camps in Egypt and opened the door later to military intervention.

None of this was carved in stone. These approaches were a matter of choice, preference, and normative commitment. And they proved crucial in sending the two countries in different directions.

  1. Luck

For lack of a better term I will call this fourth factor luck. Here I am referring to factors that occurred by chance but that nonetheless had very important consequences for the two countries’ trajectories. I include in this category the electoral results of the first elections in Egypt and Tunisia. In both cases the electoral results were surprising and somewhat random. This was because the process of truly free and fair elections was new and because there were almost no political parties with substantial track records known to either voters or analysts. So it was something of a crap shoot as to how those first elections would go.

In the Tunisian case, there were over a hundred parties competing – most completely unknown with no reputations. People were baffled by the choices and they did not have strong policy preferences for one or the other. In the end 37 percent of the seats went to Ennahda (but no one would say that 37 percent of Tunisian society were hard core Islamists). A good portion of this vote was likely a protest vote. And Ennahda benefitted from that, unlike so many of the pop-up parties, it had an established reputation and was not a totally unknown quantity. That public opinion polls in 2012 and 2013 showed a great deal of political ambivalence and lack of party commitment in Tunisian society confirms just how random these first election results were.

Still, this “random” outcome failed to deliver a majority to any party, including Ennahda. As a result of this lucky outcome, a coalition of parties, secular and religious, had to work together in order to govern. The electoral results fostered accommodation and compromise.

In Egypt, the first elections also delivered a surprise – the strong showing of Salafi parties. Salafis who had historically eschewed politics suddenly commanded about 25 percent of the seats in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood coalition commanded about 45 percent of the seats. What this meant was the leading party, the MB, had less incentive to reach out to non-Islamist constituencies in society while governing. But perhaps equally important, the electoral victories of the Islamists meant that the non-Islamist constituencies felt excluded and under threat, and that made them especially receptive to encouraging the military to intervene.

Related to this was the issue of “luck” with regard to the presidential elections. Morsi won by a small margin, only 3.5 percent, over Ahmed Shafiq and some analysts point out that if military men had been permitted to vote (they are forbidden by Egyptian law) then Shafiq would have won the election. This would have sent Egypt down a very different path – perhaps one that would not have involved military take-over.

The point is that these electoral results were somewhat random (they cannot be traced to enduring structural or institutional conditions in the country) though of course they had consequential impact.

  1. Timing

A fifth factor that pointed the two countries in different directions concerns the matter of timing. As Amira Yahyaoui argues, that Tunisia faced a critical choice (to ratify a liberal constitution) several months after the Egyptian military had ejected (and repressed) the Muslim Brotherhood meant that Ennahda could “learn” from the Egyptian experience.[2] The Egyptian experience served as a cautionary tale for the Ennahda leadership in Tunisia and it persuaded the party’s elite to make difficult compromises that they had resisted for the year prior.

  1. International factors

A final factor that nudged the two countries in different directions was international forces. In the Tunisian case, the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union, and the United States held concerted carrots and sticks over the regime in late 2012-early 2013, just as it was deciding the constitution and whether to embrace a “technocratic” interim government.[3] This was one more finger on the scale nudging it toward compromise and democratic accommodation. By contrast in Egypt, the most important carrot (namely the promise of financial bail out from Saudi Arabia) was linked directly to repressing the MB and reverting to authoritarian rule. Although international factors such as these are certainly secondary in importance (relative to domestic variables) they clearly play a role in shaping the distribution of resources on the domestic front which in turn shapes the calculations and capacities of elites on the ground.


Tunisia and Egypt have charted very different courses since the inauguration of the Arab Spring in 2010-2011. But while Tunisia’s advantaged socio-economic position was certainly an asset, pointing the country in a more democratic direction, it cannot account for the radically divergent political trajectories observed in the two countries. As 40 years of democratization studies have revealed, economic structure is not destiny. Materially inhospitable contexts can still yield democracy given appropriate leadership, institutional endowment, timing, and luck. And materially favorable contexts can sustain authoritarian regimes long after one might expect them to depart. In Tunisia, a fair number of contingent and agency-based factors delivered the country’s transition to democracy. As such, it should serve as a source of hope and optimism for other countries in the region.

Eva Bellin is the Myra and Robert Kraft Professor of Arab Politics at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.


[1] Risa Brooks, “Subjecting the Military to Rule of Law: The Tunisian Model,” in Eva Bellin and Heidi Lane (eds.) Building Rule of Law in the Arab World (forthcoming).

[2] Anouar Boukhars, Nathan Brown, et. Al, “The Egypt Effect,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 13, 2014 (http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/02/13/egypt-effect-sharpened-tensions-reshuffled-alliances/h5ps).

[3] Serge Halimi, “Tunisia: Change But no Change,” Le Monde Diplomatique March 2014.


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