Silvia Colombo, Political and Institutional Transition in North Africa: Egypt and Tunisia in Comparative Perspective (London and New York: Routledge, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Silvia Colombo (SC): This book is about two journeys. It deals with the transition processes unleashed by the uprisings that took place in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. The wave of unrest and popular mobilization is treated here as the point of departure of long and complex processes of change, manipulation, restructuring, and entrenchment of the institutional structures and logics that define politics. In spite of the magnitude and impact of these processes, no conceptually and empirically comprehensive volume that sheds light on the aftermath of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia by dwelling on the dynamics of change and continuity as well as the role of time has been forthcoming, yet. As such, this work contributes to exploring institutional changes and continuities in the two countries taken individually and comparatively, as a way of advancing our knowledge both on a specific region, the Arab world, and on a set of processes that represent a key theme in comparative political analysis, namely (democratic) transitions. Furthermore, my motivation for writing this book stems directly from my expertise in North African and Middle Eastern studies and interest in comparative politics. In this regard, this work provides an illustration of the possibility of combining and cross-fertilising area studies with theoretical insights developed through comparative political analysis. Last but not least, it is meant to pave the way for a more rigorous academic discussion of democratic transitions in North Africa and the Middle East among the flurry of (policy-oriented) articles and books that have appeared since 2011.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SC: The analysis of the institutional development processes set in motion by the popular uprisings represents the core of this book, with particular emphasis on processes of constitution making, electoral politics, the changing status and power of the judiciary, and the interplay between the civilian and the military apparatus in the two countries selected as case studies. The timeframe chosen (2011–beginning of 2014), characterised by the often uncertain development of institutional structures and logics, corresponds to a very early phase of the transitions, for which this work adopts an open-ended definition. While this term is one of the key concepts in the democratization literature, the way it is conceptualised in this work is different from its use in mainstream approaches. My understanding and appreciation of the Arab transitions underscores the open-endedness of these processes, which involve the (partial) destruction or revision of existing authoritarian power institutions without the necessarily linear attainment of a new democratic order. This open-ended conceptualization of transitions allows readers to grasp the role and importance of time, timing, and sequencing as key variables shaping these processes and their short-to-mid-term outcomes.
In carrying out the analysis, an attempt has been made to answer the following question: what are the most significant factors that have influenced the transition processes in the Arab countries? Investigating political transition processes lies at the very heart of the study of politics, which in Lasswell’s ground-breaking definition means analysing “who gets what, when, how.” This overarching and broad question can be broken down into four sub-questions. First, in what direction does institutional development proceed? Institutional development is a fundamental aspect in the life of any institution. Nevertheless, a number of neo-institutional scholars have shown that institutions tend to remain “sticky” even when the political and economic conditions in which they are placed have changed dramatically in response to both exogenous and endogenous factors. Debating change and continuity at the institutional level provides us with a tool for grasping the factors that lie at the core of transition processes. This question corresponds broadly to identifying the “what” in Lasswell’s terms. Linked to this, it is important to take into account the actors that shape institutional development, the “who” in the definition above. The actors’ preferences, strategies and actions play a key role in shaping transition processes (this amounts to the “how” as well). Against this backdrop, the second and the third sub-questions ask what role actors, and in particular old and new elites, play in transition processes and in what ways old institutions constrain or facilitate transition processes, respectively. One of the advantages of addressing the issue of institutional development is that political agency and political choice can be taken into consideration along with institutional constraints. Finally, this work also aims at comparing Tunisia and Egypt in terms of the short-to-mid-term outcomes of their transitions. This means moving away from the open-ended understanding of transition processes to a closed-ended one entailing the attainment of democracy and placing emphasis on some key attributes, namely legitimacy, accountability, and responsiveness. The last part of the book is devoted to answering the following question concerning the impact of temporal factors on political outcomes, the “when” in Lasswell’s definition of politics: what impact have the different configurations of institutional changes and continuities, defined in terms of timing and sequencing, had on the short-to-medium-term political development of Egypt and Tunisia? By thoroughly assessing the temporal dimension of political and institutional processes, this analysis of the Arab transitions underscores the extent to which specific patterns of timing and sequencing matter, in that even when starting out from similar conditions, a range of outcomes is possible, largely as a result of temporal factors.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SC: This book is significantly tied to my work as a policy-oriented researcher with an interest in academic debates working on the Middle East and North Africa. I was already working full time for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome before starting this book project. Therefore, I was lucky enough to have already accumulated a host of insights, information, and contacts through my work—including some fieldwork trips to both Egypt and Tunisia. However, working on this book has been a completely different experience as it has allowed me to delve deep into a number of subjects, reaching a level of detail that I do not necessarily always master when writing my policy-oriented analyses.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SC: At the moment, I am supervising and contributing to a couple of research projects on the Middle East and North Africa with a strong geopolitical dimension, including energy and infrastructures geopolitics and the role of regional and global state and non-state actors in the conflicts and humanitarian crises in the region. This is again in the spirit of cross-fertilisation and contamination.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SC: This book aims primarily at the academic market. Potential buyers include students, researchers, and lecturers with an interest in furthering their knowledge about the Arab transition processes in general, and institutional development and the role of time, timing, and sequencing in particular. In addition, this book is very well suited to inform policy-making in light of its nature at the crossroads between academia and policy-oriented research and of its tackling a contemporary issue that is of great relevance not only to the Middle Eastern and North African research and policy-making communities but also to the European and the American ones. I hope readers will realize how impactful the events of 2011 have been for the lives of so many people in the region, not only because of their immediate effect in dislodging some dictators and in revitalizing people’s participation in politics but also in view of their long-term political and institutional effects. This is something that can be easily grasped by looking at Egypt and Tunisia after more than seven years from those events.
J: What are the main strengths of your book?
SC: This book challenges some of the theoretical frameworks that have been used thus far to interpret political developments in the Arab world. I am referring here to the democratic transition theory, on the one hand, and the authoritarian resilience paradigm, on the other. Both have been partly challenged and partly reconfirmed by the transition processes unleashed by the Arab uprisings. While these theoretical frameworks have long been regarded as mutually exclusive or, at best, in competition, the research presented here arguably calls for combining some elements of both paradigms in order to account more effectively for the complex and dynamic processes of political development.
Excerpt from the Book:
Taken from Chapter 3:
The whole process of constitution making was influenced by the nature of the actors who shaped it and by the timing and sequencing of the steps taken. There was considerable debate in Egypt about the sequence of the institutional steps that would follow Mubarak’s departure. In particular, most of the attention was focused on whether writing a new constitution should come before holding elections. Finding the best sequence in abstract terms was not the problem; but in practical terms this turned out to be a very contested issue and something that would influence the course of the Egyptian transition from that moment onwards. The transition sequence was enshrined in the roadmap provided by the constitutional declaration engineered by the SCAF and approved in March 2011. The problem with that roadmap/sequence was that it was not the result of a broad agreement among all the elites on the rules of the transition but, rather, was passed by a majority vote reflecting the preference of one group over the others.
If one of the most difficult aspects of post-revolutionary transitions is to turn the demands, grievances, and expectations of the revolutionary moment into a new constitutional form of political order, it can be argued that the new Egyptian constitution was not the result of a competitive process. The whole constitution-making process did not unfold in a compromise-seeking atmosphere between conflicting political interests, rights, and responsibilities. This was mainly due to the fact that it was initiated and steered in a particular direction by an ‘alliance’ among established political forces, each of which had vested interests. I am referring here to the convergence of interests between the higher echelons of the military apparatus and the Muslim Brotherhood immediately after Mubarak’s fall. While according to some authors talking about an ‘alliance’ is an exaggeration in light of the temporary nature of the agreement, this does not change the most profound feature of the Egyptian constitutional revision process. It was driven by a number of different configurations of alliances among the actors depending on their relative power as a result of either electoral or street politics. The lowest common denominator of all these temporary alliances was the role played by the military, which acted as the swing force and was thus able to influence the pace and direction of the entire process.
The SCAF suspended the 1971 constitution two days after Mubarak’s fall from power on 11 February 2011, thereby creating a legal vacuum that was to be filled with some interim provisions that would set out the principles for drafting the new constitutional text. Upon assuming power, the SCAF appointed a committee of legal experts to draft amendments to the 1971 constitution. The result was not an open and participatory process. The SCAF excluded representation from all political parties and groups, save one member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The committee was headed by Tariq al-Bishri, a prominent jurist and public intellectual known for his outspoken criticism of the former regime. The constitutional reform committee unveiled a package of nine amendments to the 1971 constitution after 10 days of closed-door meetings. This took place as early as 26 February 2011, thus allowing only a brief time for public debate. A national referendum on the proposed amendments was held just three weeks later, on 19 March.
There was no participatory process at all, and the only role for the main political parties and the public was a simple yes or no vote on the package of amendments. In detail, the most significant amendments involved paving the way for a new constitution after elections and were therefore important in determining the sequencing of constitution making and elections; shortening the presidential term from six to four years and establishing a limit of two terms, which had been one of the opposition’s main demands to Mubarak since at least 2004; and restricting the ability to impose a lengthy state of emergency as well as limiting the duration of the emergency period to no more than six months, which could be extended only by approval in a referendum. As the population was summoned to the polls to approve the amendments that would build a new constitutional order, two opposing views manifested themselves, thus contributing to the emergence of fissures within the revolutionary groups that had participated in the popular mobilisation. On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood embraced the amendments, arguing that they were the best means of ensuring a quick transition process, which indirectly meant the withdrawal of the military from political life and the return to an elected parliament and president. Many people also took the referendum to be a vote on whether or not the provisions existing in the 1971 constitution that were in line with Islamic law would be preserved, and therefore voted ‘yes’ out of fear that they might be at risk if a completely new constitution were to be written. Furthermore, most people who voted in favour of what were presented to them as constitutional amendments expressed their willingness for the creation of a new, stable institutional order that would guarantee them against failing public security. On the other hand, a sizeable amount of the Egyptian population opposed the amendments on the grounds that they did not provide for a sufficiently clear-cut break with the past. Most civic forces rallied around the idea that a new constitution would have to be written first, which would set out the principles and rules for crafting new state institutions. With political institutions largely unchanged and the population called to the polls to cast their ballots for elected institutions, the civic forces worried that it would only be a matter of time before remnants of the old regime or some other illiberal political forces would assert control over the state. As much as they were equally worried that the strict timeline for new elections provided for by the constitutional amendments would not allow nascent political forces sufficient time to organise, the civic forces were unable to lay out a coherent, alternative plan for the transition, beyond calling for a broad and inclusive constitutional convention in advance of the elections. Among the groups and political forces that urged a ‘no’ vote in the referendum were a number of civil society groups, opposition parties, and youth groups, all of which had initiated and participated in the uprising alongside the Islamist opposition.
One of the most significant, long-term repercussions of the referendum over the constitutional amendments was the wake of mistrust and polarisation over the rules and procedures to be followed for a return to an elected government that it left among the population. The absence of an agreed-upon, basic roadmap haunted the whole institutional development process, particularly as far as the making of the new constitution was concerned. At the same time, the process started off with the complete break-up of the anti-Mubarak ‘alliance’ and the establishment of a new one between the Islamists and the military. The Muslim Brotherhood chose ‘the devil it knew’ and decided to work with the SCAF to advance its interests instead of trailing a more uncertain path and joining the civic opposition forces. As a result of this alliance, the military found itself acting as the uncontested arbiter of the transition and was able to leverage on its privileged position within the Egyptian post-Mubarak political system. Against this backdrop and in the absence of any checks and balances on its power as well as any constitutional framework whatsoever, the SCAF purposely altered the timeline and process that was to guide Egypt’s political transition several times to suit its own evolving interests. The extent to which the SCAF was actually controlling the transition was clear when the constitutional amendments, having been approved in the 19 March 2011 referendum by 77 percent, were not included in the old constitution. Instead, on 30 March 2011, only ten days after the referendum, drawing on its questionable ‘revolutionary legitimacy’, the military promulgated a new, temporary constitutional declaration consisting of 63 articles.
The March 2011 constitutional declaration issued by the SCAF was to serve as an interim constitution until a completely new text was drafted. In making this declaration, the military demonstrated the enormous amount of political control they had over defining the content, timing, and sequencing of the transition. The interim constitutional document did not match the wording of the recently passed amendments and was drafted by people whose identity was kept secret. The fact that the constitutional declaration was written in secrecy and outside of a participatory process was in line with the country’s past experience. As aptly recalled by Nathan Brown, ‘[p]ast constitutions have been drafted by committees working in private. The country has no tradition to draw on for a more protracted and inclusive process, such as an elected constituent assembly’. Furthermore, the declaration reopened the debate on how to sequence the writing of a constitution and the election of a president and parliament, a debate that once again aggravated political cleavages, with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups wanting to have elections first, claiming that only a representative parliament would be able to create a legitimate and representative constituent assembly, and non-Islamists pushing hard for a new constitution in advance of elections.