CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – The news that Tunisia’s competing political factions have broken months of logjam and appointed a technocrat as interim prime minister sets the stage for a yearend review of the events that have followed the Arab Spring.
Keeping up the seasonal metaphor, one could say Tunisia offers a hint of Indian summer in what is otherwise a chilly autumn. The Tunisian economy is shaky, the public is frustrated, and two prominent leftists have been assassinated by Salafists. Yet democracy is still functioning, and a multiparty deal facilitating completion of a new constitution is within reach.
While Tunisia has followed a slow, unsteady constitutional process, Libya hasn’t really gotten started. It’s in a holding pattern. A site for constitutional talks has been chosen, but no delegates elected; ethnic minorities threatening a boycott.
Egypt, meanwhile has been the focus of altogether too much action. The third new constitution in three years has just been drafted, this time by military authorities who seem to have sidelined democracy for good. Depressing as this is, the situation in Syria — full-blown civil war with no end in sight — is worse.
The first lesson is that no two countries are alike. Even the three contiguous North African states that saw dictators fall amid popular dissent over several months in 2011 have followed strikingly different trajectories. The forces that brought down Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi were similar. But when it came to rebuilding, differences were more salient.
Islamists won elections in all three places, yet they have been distinct from one another. Tunisia’s Ennahda Party has compromised with secularists and incorporated them into a governing coalition. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did neither and fell in a military coup. Libya’s elected leaders are Islamist in orientation but so far lack a cohesive party organization, rendering the government largely inert. In Syria, democratic Islamists are both allied with and opposed to radical jihadis, which is what happens when the field of play is war rather than politics.
The second lesson is that deal-making is the single most important skill for a political class seeking democratic stability. Tunisia’s new leaders had relatively little experience running anything, but the political culture of consensus in Tunisia meant that all sides aspire to agreement. Actually reaching a deal can be agonizing, but at least the haggling is intended to get to yes.
In Gadhafi’s Libya, decisions were simply imposed from above, so no one today feels much pressure to struggle for consensus. In Egypt, where political Islamism was born, the regime had always treated the Muslim Brothers as an existential threat. So for secularists, it was natural to think there could be no compromise with the Islamists even after they were elected. This led many secularists to support their ouster even when it so obviously meant a return to military dictatorship.
The Alawite minority that has long ruled Syria always considered the idea of compromise with the Sunni majority tantamount to suicide. These days, Sunnis tend not to argue the point. As a result, prospects for a negotiated solution seem vanishingly small.
Neither side can even produce a credible picture of what a negotiated solution would look like. Outsiders talk about an imposed peace with cantons for different communities that would make Lebanon look like a model of coexistence.
A final lesson is that external states can make a difference, for better or worse. France has encouraged democracy in Tunisia for the most part by declining to put a thumb on the scales in favor of either secularists or Islamists. With no one from the outside telling the Islamists they couldn’t draft an Islamic constitution, internal protests were heard more clearly, and the Islamists dropped Shariah from their constitutional wish list.
Luckily for Tunisia, the U.S., with almost no interest in the country, has played essentially no role in its political debates. Not so for Egypt. There, the U.S. tried to remain neutral, but its efforts backfired. First secularists accused the U.S. of favoring the Muslim Brotherhood for taking no active steps to prevent its election triumphs. Once Islamist Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the U.S. rather ineffectually encouraged him to build bridges to the opposition. When Morsi’s popularity declined, the U.S. implicitly signaled the military that it would not object to a coup. The result: The Brotherhood now believes, with some reason, that the U.S. opposed its rule from the start.
It would have been far better had the U.S. stood strongly for the principle of democracy from the very beginning, before the elections. This would have meant offering to whomever was elected incentives to govern democratically and disincentives for deviations. Communicated clearly and loudly, such a policy could have nudged Egypt’s parties in constructive directions. Instead, the U.S. contradictions fueled Egypt’s meltdowns.
The ambivalence of democratic states toward the disaster in Syria has been even more destructive. Unable to decide which is worse, an Iranian backed regime or a potentially Salafist one, the world’s democracies have essentially embraced war without end. The main lesson of the last year is that bringing down regimes is much easier than building new, democratic ones.
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @Noah Feldman. Email: email@example.com.