Major transition

The Middle East/North Africa region (MENA) is ostensibly going through a process of regeneration, with its procession of hardships, deterioration, re-equilibration or breakdown, installation of new governments and implementation of new policies. These are times of fear and courage, anxiety and hope, reform and change. For some countries, like Tunisia and Egypt, it is already an epic story the happy end of which can only be the disappearance of the authoritarian regime. Yet, as we watch similar social mobilisation and protests in neighbouring countries (Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Iran…) there is a feeling that the trend of protests is unlikely to be momentous. People are encouraged to take to the streets by the success of similar tactics in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen, Libya, Algeria … we hear the same slogans that have been shouted in the Tunisian and Egyptian cities. Obviously, the mobilisation across the region is not declining, and the echo-phenomenon has an unexpected impact… It is strengthening the Tunisian and Egyptian movements saying: There is no possible way back.

The MENA region with its peculiar culture, its old traditions and its authoritarian regimes revealed to be quite open to the likeliness of democratic transition without being forced to from outside. This cannot be overemphasised because of the role of the youth in these events. According to “Population Reference Bureau,” MENA experienced the highest rate of population growth of any region in the world over the past century. One third of MENA population is under age 15. Over the next 15 years, these children and adolescents will reach their childbearing years and enter the job market. Authoritarian regimes cannot face the challenges of this generation and the next one with repression. Some will introduce changes from the above (to re-equilibrate); some will disappear. Democracy is the only viable way to development, sustainable growth and stability.

There is empiric evidence that democracies consistently outperform autocracies in the developing world. Democratic leaders have incentives to respond to the needs of their fellow-citizens. Otherwise, they find themselves out of office. Democracies do a better job of fixing mistakes: as power is not monopolised, the scope of disastrous consequences following ill-conceived economic policies is reduced. Democracies are open for investigation: corruption is less important. Democracies are flexible: the political stability is enhanced by clear mechanisms of control and succession.

Although the current trend of protests demanding democratic transition is new to the Middle East, it has been a significant trend in Mediterranean Europe and Latin America during the seventies and eighties, and literature has accumulated since, with comparative analyses of the dynamics of these democratisation processes.

Any transition is a complicated process with setbacks, obstructionism (antidemocratic forces) and a certain amount of ambiguity as to the timetable of the transition and the new rules. The anxiety such a process creates is normal considering past experiences where the failure to address the agenda of transition in full has resulted in weak consolidations and incomplete democratisations. Yet, past experiences also reveal a good record of successes. In all cases, obstructionists have to be neutralised so that the logic of transition prevails. This logic, as it has been observed several times, does not necessitate the simple and pure “liquidation” of antidemocratic forces, only that their violence be ceased. It is also worth noting that several governments may come to power between the collapse of a regime and the crystallisation of a different one.

Democratic transition may come from above like the Spanish transition (1973-77), which is a successful example showing how despite forty years of dictatorship, the Spanish people was ready for democracy. It is also unique in that it showed a mechanism of transition based on the monarchy with low level of violence and a second role for the military.

Most other cases show a common scenario of military retreat: (Argentina: 1980-83), (Brazil: 1974, 1985), (Uruguay: 1980-85), etc. In Portugal (1973-76), the transition process led by “the movement of the captains” resembled a revolution because they tried to use mass mobilisation.

Some people may be inclined to draw a parallel between these processes and those taking place currently in the MENA region, but although it is still normal and useful to think of past experiences, we cannot refer to a unique pattern of successful transition to democracy ready to be applied anywhere, any-time. People have always to find their own way based on their needs, their culture, and secondarily on successful experiences of other countries.

Yet, whatever the country, some features may be associated to similar events and processes.

Because the repressive capacity of any regime is not inexhaustible, the deterioration process and the losses it involves will reach a point at which they become unsustainable, thus necessitating the intervention of the military. That’s what just happened in Egypt, while in Tunisia the military were not absent but less involved.

However, in both cases and in others as well, the determinants of the extrication are identifiable, some of which are endogenous to the military, some exogenous:

1- The first factor is related to the military perceptions of the situation and particularly to the military’s impression of the strength and commitment of the opposition.
2- A second is related to the choices available to the military and the actual costs and benefits of these alternatives.
3- A third is the balance between pro-democratic and anti-democratic forces within the military. It should be stated nonetheless that the roles of transition’s actors change at different stages of this transition.
4- A fourth is related to the pattern of societal cleavages and to which extent they are represented by different political forces.
5- A fifth concerns the substantive programmes of the opposition and their feasibility.
6- A sixth factor would focus on the presence of an actor considered hostile or dangerous by the military.

These six factors represent a causal background to any decision on the part of the military to remove a government (as in Egypt) or stay in the background while it is removed (Tunisia).

The rest is a matter of negotiations between the actors of the transition.

A commitment to an electoral timetable, campaigning and voting safety, an effective restoration of the rule of law including a political amnesty, and several of such measures of appeasement will reassure the democratic forces and prove that the old regime is in the process of being dismantled.