Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Democratic Transition in North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
December 13, 2012

A man waves a Libyan national flag during a protest demanding federal governance and a branch of the National Oil Corporation to be set up in the country's second-largest city, in Benghazi on November 26, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters) A man waves a Libyan national flag during a protest demanding federal governance and a branch of the National Oil Corporation to be set up in the country's second-largest city, in Benghazi on November 26, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).


Egypt’s transition is turbulent, to say the least. The upcoming constitutional referendum is becoming more fraught by the day. Because most of the country’s judges are refusing to supervise the referendum, it is now scheduled to take place on two different dates: December 15 and December 22. Egypt’s main opposition coalition, after considerable indecision, has decided to participate in the referendum—trying to vote it down rather than boycotting it—but says it will not participate without sufficient oversight, monitoring, and security. All of this is taking place against a backdrop of increasing economic instability and uncertainty: this week, President Morsi announced tax increases stipulated by the IMF, only to rescind them hours later. Egypt also delayed its loan from the IMF in order to better explain required austerity measures to the population.

How are its North African neighbors, Tunisia and Libya, faring in their transitions?

In Tunisia, the current political and economic situation is decidedly mixed. The divide between Tunisia’s poor interior and more prosperous coastal areas remains a flash point, with the interior city of Siliana rocked by protests last week. The unemployment rate is a staggering 18 percent, and college graduates represent a third of those out of work; however, by World Bank estimates, the economy is expected to grow 2.2 percent this year, and if the situation in Tunisia stabilizes, around 4.6 percent by 2014. Tunisia has attracted some international funding, including a recently approved $500 million loan from the World Bank.

The constitution-writing process, which made headlines in August for a draft version that characterized women as complementary to men, is still ongoing. The assembly is gradually working through such fundamental constitutional issues as executive power; last month, it ratified an article that will create a board to oversee elections. The role of religion in public life remains a vital debate, though according to Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, the draft constitution won’t have sharia laws, maintaining the current status quo in Tunisia. It also won’t have laws against blasphemy (worth noting, given the recent reaction to art considered blasphemous). Ghannouchi has indicated that the constitution should be ready in advance of the June 2013 elections.

Libya, meanwhile, is currently without a constitutional assembly, a delay bound up in Libya’s struggle over federalism and regional representation. A major issue at stake is whether the General National Congress (GNC) will appoint the assembly or whether voters will directly elect it, something that people in the long-underrepresented eastern part of the country generally favor. In a likely nod to eastern demands for greater representation, a new proposal from the oil ministry divides governance of Libya’s oil industry between Benghazi in the oil-abundant east and Tripoli. Libya has worked impressively fast to resume its oil production post-revolution–an economic boon for the country given that oil makes up an overwhelming portion of its revenue.

Of course, Libya’s unofficial (and in some cases rogue) militias remain a problem. The reality that some of them still provide critical security functions only further complicates matters. Recent reporting about post-traumatic stress disorder in Misrata—where 2,000 people died during the revolution—is a stark reminder of the challenges that Libya, not long ago a war zone, faces in providing services to its most vulnerable citizens.

The experience of other countries that have gone through difficult transitions from authoritarianism to more representative systems indicates that taking time to build consensus pays off in the long run. (Remember, it took twelve years for the young United States of America to transition from the unwieldy Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution.) By that measure, Tunisia’s and Libya’s plodding processes seem less worrying than Morsi’s rush to push through the constitution in Egypt.

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