The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, and within a few weeks it had spread to neighboring Egypt. Today, 2 1/2 years later, Tunisia is close to ratifying a democratic constitution with well over two-thirds’ support in the constituent assembly. Egypt, as the world knows, is in the throes of a military coup that removed the democratically elected president. The obvious — and crucial — question is: What’s the difference? Why has democratic constitutionalism worked relatively well in one North African Arab country while it has crashed and burned in another? And what will the answer tell us about the future of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world, from Libya to Syria and beyond?
You might think the answer has something to do with Islam. But remarkably enough, it doesn’t. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the first democratic elections produced significant pluralities favoring Islamic democratic parties. Ennahda, the Islamist movement whose political party won in Tunisia, is ideologically similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a kind of associate of the Brotherhood’s loosely affiliated internationale. Both parties believe in combining Islamic values with democratic practice. Both accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims, even if in practice they are both socially conservative and seek the gradual, voluntary Islamization of society.
The contrasting personalities and styles of their leaders, however, have pushed Ennahda and the Brotherhood to behave differently when negotiating religion with secularists in their respective countries. Rachid Ghannouchi, the spiritual leader of the Tunisian Islamists, has emerged as the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela. During his decades in exile, Ghannouchi wrote extensively about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and developed a relatively liberal vision of how Islam and the state should interact.
Skeptics then claimed that Ghannouchi’s views were a cover for a more radical agenda, and some Tunisian secularists still think so. But the evidence thus far is sharply to the contrary. When Islamists called for inserting a reference to Sharia into the Tunisian constitution — usually the sine qua non for any Islamic political party — Ghannouchi took seriously the opposition from secularists. In a dramatic showdown with members of his own party’s leadership, he reportedly threatened to resign unless they dropped the measure.
This may have been the turning point in Tunisia’s constitutional process. Ghannouchi’s position is straightforward: He wants Tunisians to adopt Islamic values, but piety means nothing if imposed by coercion. Islam, he believes, will succeed in persuading people to adopt its truths more effectively if they don’t have its teachings shoved down their throats.
Ghannouchi’s diehard critics would say that omitting Sharia from the constitutional draft was only a tactical retreat, not an ideological one. But if they are right, that is yet another reason why Tunisia’s constitutional process is working: Leaders have displayed willingness to compromise in the face of ideological opposition.
By contrast, when Mohamed Morsi was president, he proved disastrously unwilling to negotiate during Egypt’s truncated constitutional drafting process. The Brotherhood could have shown its good faith by moderating the various Islamic provisions it sought to incorporate. It wouldn’t even have had to omit Sharia, a reference to which was already included in Egypt’s pre-revolutionary constitution. Instead, the Brotherhood went further, giving constitutional authority to the clerics of al-Azhar. Compromise alone wouldn’t have forestalled the protests that led to Morsi’s overthrow. But it would have signaled a willingness to govern on behalf of the whole populace, not just those who voted for the Brotherhood.