Tuesday, May 5, 2015

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Tunisia and Egypt: Who Watches Now?

Tunisia has scrapped its hated secret police, with Egypt following suit. Will the countries now settle in to a pattern of stable governance?
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It has been a chaotic two months since dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali was finally ousted from Tunisia. His overthrow was greeted by the majority of Middle Eastern and North African citizens as a long-overdue wake-up call against their own oppression and beacon of hope which sparked a series of rebellions across the region. Egypt was the next country to speak up against oppressive government, finally bringing down the loathed Hosni Mubarak last month. But the resemblance does not stop there: on March 14, Egypt successfully dissolved its tyrannical secret police, another move that mimicks Tunisia.

The highly-publicized end of Tunisia’s 31-year tyranny was amplified by the abolition last week of the state’s much-hated secret police, a move that constituted one of the primary demands of Tunisian protestors. From the inception of the conflict, Tunisians were determined that their transition to democracy would not be offset by any remnants of the old regime, and most certainly not by the secret police, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the country’s oppression.

Similarly, Egyptians had vowed to overthrow their own secret police force, a key driver in pushing Egyptians to rebellion. The ruthless organization had been Mubarak's key weapon throughout his rule, particularly in times of revolt. Some 300 opponents who could not otherwise be silenced were killed by Egyptian secret police in the 18 days leading to the president's fall, a move widely criticized by the Egyptian army, which deemed the protests "legitimate".

It is no exaggeration to say that state security functioned as a domestic spy agency in both countries; an Orwellian Big Brother for the regimes. In Tunisia,  former convicts have claimed citizens deemed disloyal to the authoritarian regime, in particular Islamic activists, were automatically susceptible to arrest and torture. Opposition politicians and journalists were among those predominantly prone to surveillance. Human Rights Watch estimates that the number of political prisoners during Ben Ali’s rule exceeds 1,000, some of whom remain imprisoned to date. In Egypt, the secret police has done better to cover its tracks by burning any evidence that could be used against it. Yet it is widely acknowledged that the group has been using torture for the past 30 years, with witnesses claiming the frequent use of electricution.

The outcome of the battle against Tunisian secret police was brought to light last week when the interior ministry of Tunisia announced online the termination of the State Security Department - under which the secret police operated - describing the move as a “definitive break with any form of organisation resembling the political police at the level of structure, mission or practice”. Justifiably, the abolition of the secret police signifies the ultimate victory against Ben Ali’s tyranny.

However, more importantly, the dissolution of the army is not merely a powerful symbol for Tunisia itself, but for all the troubled Middle Eastern nations that hope to follow in its footsteps. This has been underscored by the news that Egypt's despised State Security and Investigations Service is to be replaced by a national security agency which is to take over counter-terrorism work while - it is hoped - respecting international human rights. Both security services have been accused of similar crimes - hence for both states the success of security agency reform is of equal importance. 

But the question that must be addressed - particularly for Tunisia as it is now officially under the microscope as the leader of Middle Eastern reform - is what happens from now?

Last week, an interim government was announced in Tunisia which is to rule until July 24, when Tunisians are scheduled to elect a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The temporary government includes the 84-year-old Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi and 78-year-old President Fouad Mebazza; paradoxically, the revolution ignited by Tunisia’s youth has spawned a gerontocracy.

On the one hand, and to their credit, Tunisians have not celebrated their victory against Ben Ali’s government in the same way that Egyptians have reached a frenzy over their own “revolution”, indicating Tunisians’ awareness that “revolution” is only the means to an end yet to be achieved. But as Tunisians continue to rebel, with protests becoming anything but a rare phenomenon in the streets of Tunis, one wonders when enough will be enough for Tunisian expectations, or even worse, will it ever be enough? Overthrowing a corrupt leader is only the first step to political reform; full democracy and social justice is still a long way off. Unfortunately, the lack of armed forces, although a triumph, may just lead to the abuse of newly found freedom of speech and, as a result, to the calling for excessive demands that cannot and will not be met.

In Egypt, there is widespread controversy over the military government's plan to hold a referendum on constitutional changes on Saturday March 19, an alarmingly close date leaving little scope for public debate. Some fear that the abolition of the secret police was not much more than a mere re-naming of the group as part of the government's plan to mislead Egyptians into thinking that change really is on the way, and to therefore vote "yes" to Saturday's referendum.

On a more positive note, Tunisians seem to be realising that a country free of government cannot function properly. They appear now, therefore, to be calling for less "freedom" (in the liberal democratic conception) - their underlying concern being Tunisia’s wounded economy. As they are rightly beginning to realise, a successful economy cannot function without efficient governance.

In this sense, Tunisians are hitting the right track. But many are fearful of what the country’s next step will be. Analysts are sparking worries across the globe by posing the following obvious but important questions: are Tunisians really capable of successful democratic governing so soon after decades of totalitarian governing? Will their excessive expectations lead to never-ending unrest, disappointment and increasing rebellion? And more crucially, will the development of Tunisia’s political affairs have a “domino effect” on Egypt and the entire region?

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