Last week, the Middle East Institute held a “breaking news dialogue” on North Africa and the Arab Spring. Called “The Arab Uprisings in North Africa: More Dominoes to Fall?” the event featured Dr. Clement Henry, Chair of the Political Science Department at the American University in Cairo and Dr. Robert Parks, Director of the Centre d’Études Maghrébines en Algerie in Oran, Algeria. Drs. Henry and Parks participated via Skype, while in the Institute’s seminar room MEI Director Dr. Michael C. Hudson moderated the event and MEI Visiting Research Professor Dr. Robert Bianchi acted as discussant.
Dr. Henry outlined the similarities between Tunisia and Egypt before their respective revolutions this past spring, and then discussed the divergent paths they have taken since, particularly the differences in the roles of their armies, Islamist parties, and political classes. For example, Dr. Henry pointed out that Tunisia’s transitional government steered the country fairly smoothly toward free and fair elections, whereas the Egyptian military now in charge “has not really performed in ways that have moved the country in a transparent way toward [such] elections.”
Dr. Parks spoke about Algeria’s position vis-à-vis the Arab Spring, noting that though economic protests occurred in the country’s poorer areas, they petered out and did not transform into a mass political uprising, as in Tunisia. Dr. Parks explored the reasons for this, explaining that Algeria is a hybrid regime with a multi-party system, ensuring more political “room,” and that the country also enjoys more freedom of the press and a more vibrant collection of civil society organizations than Tunisia did.
Dr. Bianchi raised a number of interesting questions, including why, despite the (relative) openness that Dr. Parks pointed to, would anyone be opposed to overthrowing the Algerian regime. “What draws people to this system?” he queried. Dr. Parks replied that because the entire system would have to be dismantled – i.e., the would-be revolution would not involve a focus on the overthrow of a Ben Ali or Mubarak-like dictator – people are unsure as to how to go about it.
Dr. Bianchi also asked what it would take to get Egyptian liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood to unite against the Egyptian military and whether multiple Western interests will help or hurt a pro-democratic coalition in Libya. Dr. Henry mentioned that Egyptian liberals may be fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood and as such will continue to accept military rule despite their unhappiness with it. Drs. Henry and Parks agreed that Western powers are working well together in Libya, trying to procure lucrative oil contracts. It remains to be seen how those relationships will play out.
Dr. Hudson also raised a number of salient points, suggesting that one model of the revolutions could be states with dense civil society networks, such as Tunisia and Egypt, whereas Libya, Yemen, and Syria would make up another model—one of protracted conflict that leads to civil war. “Algeria,” he said, “seems to be an ambiguous or hybrid case,” pointing out that the country, while not as tribal as Libya and Yemen and enjoying a fairly well-articulated civil society, has been afraid to repeat the horrors that followed its own,earlier Arab Spring in 1988. Dr. Hudson also suggested that the event’s discussion was a bit too optimistic, and that more extreme or radical elements could come to dominate unstable post-revolutionary states.