In Tunisia, progress toward democracy is taking place remarkably uneventfully. The Islamist Party, Ennahda, won the elections, but the secular CPR party also did well, and the government has said it will not impost strict Islamic law on the country. Indeed, they have invited European bikini-clad sun-worshippers to return to Tunisia’s beaches, as the lack of tourists is one of the country’s biggest problems.
Egypt also is missing many of its tourists, but would be lucky if that were its biggest problem. Egypt is in the throes of a full unfolding of revolution, with major power struggles among elites and recurrent violence. It is fairly typical in revolutions for the military to stand aside or help the opposition at first, as they share in the the antipathy toward the pre-revolutionary regime. However, the army (or a part of it) also typically seeks to implement a counter-revolution once they perceive a threat from more radical winners in the revolutionary coalition. This is exactly what has happened in Egypt, where the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood are locked in a struggle for control of the country.
The Brotherhood, which won the elections for Parliament, promised not to run a candidate for President nor to dominate the constitution-writing process, planning instead to share those powers with other groups. Yet they have gone back on those promises in response to the military seeking to keep control of events and exempt themselves from parliamentary oversight. Indeed, the army lately overturned the constitution-writing process, in which a Parliament-appointed body dominated by Brotherhood members would write the draft, in order to secure a Constitution-drafting body that is more diverse. The Army also launched their own surprise candidate for president, none other than Omar Suleiman, former chief of intelligence and 2nd in command to Mubarak who briefly took over the government after Mubarak’s resignation. It is hard to imagine a more unpopular choice, or someone who more clearly symbolizes the Mubarak regime, yet the army is so myopic as to think Suleiman could challenge the Brotherhood for popular support!
A new, almost high-comedy element was added to Egyptian politics last week when the Supreme court disqualified 10 declared candidates for the presidency — including the major Brotherhood and Salafi candidates, as well as Suleiman! This appears to be a genuine triumph of rule of law, as Suleiman was disqualified for irregularities in how he met the requirements for filing, while the Brotherhood and Salalfi candidates, both of whom did long spells in prison under Mubarak, were disqualified because Egyptian law prohibits convicted criminals from running for President.
With these crazy turns, it is now rumored that the Army has decided to postpone the presidential election (as many secularists had hoped) until after the constitution-drafting committee has done its work and the constitutional role of the president is laid out. That may also give time for the Brotherhood and Salafi candidates to appeal to have their convictions (which were for acts of opposition to the Mubarak regime) overturned, making them eligible to run.
Sadly, Bahrain risks new violence this weekend as the F1 international car race roars into town. (I just checked after writing this and riots began a few hours ago). No progress has been made on the issues that prompted the mass uprising against the Sunni regime.
Yemen is simmering — but it’s long term prospects look to be the worst in the region. It is running out of oil and water, has 24 million people, and displays one of the highest rates of population growth in the entire world. Something has to give in this nation; we just do not know when.
Finally, Syria dominates the headlines and has the worst violence. The Syrian revolution continues but at a lower level as the Assad regime tries hard to keep the lid on. This week, UN monitors arrived. While they do not appear likely to be any more successful in stifling violence than the earlier emissaries from the Arab League, at least they have the backing of UN security council, with China and Russia going along. When their mission fails, there will be much stronger pressures on China and Russia to back another UN regional peace measure, which this time may have real teeth to tear at Assad’s grip on power. Give Kofi Annan credit — he may have known his missions would fail, but the process he has created has brought China and Russia on board. Once there, they will find it harder to wriggle out of UN requests to aid Syria’s people against their own government.