Tunisia – Egypt: who won?

By: Albrecht Hofheinz, University of Oslo.

On 27 January 2014, Tunisia signed into law its new constitution, crowning a tangled and prolonged post-revolutionary political process during which all the major parties involved committed to (at times painful) compromise for the sake of the country. It had taken two years instead of one to complete this work, and hope had been to have it in place by the anniversary of the ousting of president Ben Ali on 14 January 2014. Characteristically for the whole post-revolutionary process, however, parliament thought it more important to allow for proper debate and final consensual agreement on each and every of the constitution’s 146 articles than to rush through a draft that would run the danger of not being regarded as a constitution for all Tunisians.

Egypt was absent from the celebrations when on 7 February 2014, Tunis marked its achievement in the presence of high-ranking regional and world delegations. “Mish fāḍiyīn — we don’t have time for this,” a Foreign Ministry source said. “Don’t you see what mess our country is in?”

Symbolic indeed. Egypt couldn’t have done better to illustrate the gap between the first and the second country of the Arab Revolutions. Back in 2011, Egyptians took the spark from Tunis but vied with Tunisians to oust their president after only 18 days, not a full month. And before his fall, Mubarak had tried to reassure himself and his backers: “Egypt is not Tunisia”. Now, Tunisians were relieved: “Tunisia is not Egypt”.

It is telling to note that the passing of the Tunisian constitution was met with relative silence in the Egyptian public. The state tried to duck, but the Tunisian achievement was a non-event also on much of the rest of the political scene. It felt quite simply as if many in Egypt were a bit ashamed, but didn’t want to admit so, not even to themselves.

Surveying top tweets from Egypt about Tunis from the three weeks after the constitution was signed, we don’t find much except for links to two major media lead articles, and two brief original comments — both, respectively, from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The two articles linked to al-Jazīra (“The Brothers in Egypt and al-Nahḍa in Tunisia … two paths”) and al-Waṭan (“Who won, Egypt or Tunisia?”), both of which were in general agreement about a number of factors distinguishing the two countries: the much more prominent role of the army in Egypt, historically and today; the greater geo-strategic importance of Egypt, exposing it to more, and less dis-interested, foreign interference; and the greater willingness of the religious conservatives in Tunisia to cooperate and make compromises for the sake of the nation. Al-Waṭan was conspicuously silent, however, on the fourth factor pointed out by al-Jazīra: the greater willingness not only of the Brothers, but also of the civil, secular forces in Tunisia to cooperate and make compromises for the sake of the nation. Instead, al-Waṭan concluded with the rhetorical question: ‘But has Tunisia really won? By integrating the Brothers, isn’t Tunisia fostering a little cub that will grow to devour the rest of society? By contrast, Egypt’s story is much more bloody, but this is just like extracting a bad tooth without anaesthetics. Quite painful — “and I’m not sure how skilled those carrying out the operation really are” — but rendered necessary by the extremists themselves.’

So Egypt has won again after all, rescuing its pride. At least in the eyes of those for whom Egypt always comes first. “Egypt is not Tunisia, and won’t become Syria or Libya or Gaza […] Egypt has no desire but to remain Egypt”, our second top tweep defiantly wrote.

Indeed, it seems. Torture[1] and death in detention, virginity tests, censorship and harassment of journalists,[2] the authorities’ refusal to acknowledge human rights violations despite numerous testimonies (also regarding the horrendous accounts on human trafficking in Sinai), a desolate infrastructure, reports and rumours on real or imagined terrorist plots — social media headlines over the past week were concerned with just that desire by those steering Egypt to keep everything as it always has been. Meaning that those who aim for compromise and coexistence, or those who equally criticise the army and the Brothers, find it difficult to breathe. Former centrist presidential candidate ʿAbd al-Munʿim Abū ’l-Futūḥ has described the repression as “worse than under Mubarak.”

Summing up the situation three years after Mubarak’s removal from office, a tweep wrote: “On this day today, the owner of the house threw out the thief, then entrusted the house to the guard — only to find that the guard is stealing the house.” But while some prominent revolutionary voices threw in the towel, others maintained that #The_Revolution_Continues. Egypt has only seen its beginning. As Gamal Eid, one of the most distinguished human rights activists in Egypt, put it: “In Tunisia they celebrate 14 January, the day of Ben Ali’s departure, as Revolution Day. In Egypt, we celebrate 25 January, the day the revolution began, and continues. Remember!”


PS: The other side is putting out ‘remember’ slogans as well. Here’s how various Facebook pages sympathetic to the current regime prepared for 25 January 2014 : “25 January is Police Day! Don’t you forget that, you sheep [= Ikhwān]!”

25Jan=Police Day


(1) On torture, see also: Maḥmūd Bilāl on the youngsters arrested at al-Azbakiyya, Twitter, 9 Feb. 2014; several links to Yārā Ṣāliḥ, “Zawǧat Khālid al-Sayyid: al-muʿtaqalūn yatimm iǧbāruhum ʿalā al-nawm ʿarāyā fī siǧn Abū Zaʿbal“, Yanāyir, 9 Feb. 2014; Hoda Mahmoud: “Letter from the wife of a detainee: A visit to prison“, Daily News Egypt, 9 Feb. 2014; George Iṣḥāq: “Hunāka intihākāt ‘ghayr masbūqa’ li’l-muḥtaǧazīn dākhil al-suǧūn“, al-Maṣrī al-Yōm, 10 Feb. 2014; “al-Idhāʿa al-Almāniyya: ḥafalāt taʿdhīb dākhil al-suǧūn wa’l-aqsām fī Miṣr“, Ǧarīdat al-Dora al-Ikhbāriyya, 10 Feb. 2014.

(2) On harassment of journalists, see also Nirmīn Yusrī on the mistreatment of two female journalists, Twitter, 15 Feb. 2014.