The Arab Spring as a return to autocracy? Egypt and Tunisia in comparison

Term Paper, 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Autocracies

3. The military as a political actor during the revolution
3.1 Tunisia: End of the autocratic system in Tunisia
3.2 Tunisia: Institutionalization of democracy
3.3 Tunisia: Consolidating democracy
3.4 Egypt: End of the autocratic system in Egypt
3.5 Egypt: Attempts to consolidate and institutionalise democracy

4. Defective democracies

5. A comparison of Tunisia and Egypt

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Since the end of 2010, the Arab world has been undergoing political and social upheaval . The outbreak of the revolution in Tunisia began with the "Jasmin Revolution", in which thousands of people demonstrated against the authoritarian and corrupt system under President Ben Ali. Shortly after the fall of the president in Tunisia, protests also began in Egypt. They were directed against the Mubarak regime, which has ruled for decades, and the corrupt police apparatus. Although the protests were partly aimed at democratic values, after the first elections in both Tunisia and Egypt Islamist parties came to power which either demanded a stronger integration of the authoritarian aspects of Islam in the state or on the other hand did hardly anything against the increasing violence of radical Islamists against proponents of a secular state. Another important aspect is the fact that the army played an important role in the revolutions: either by actively intervening in the conflict or by not interfering in political discussions, but by ensuring public security. This raises the question of the extent to which these two factors (the intervention of the military and radical Islamist parties) have a negative impact on the transition process, i.e., have favoured the path back to an autocracy. This question will be dealt with in this text. Since the Arab Spring has many different factors, the text will focus primarily on the behaviour of the military during the revolutions and on the question of why parties with Islamic-autocratic features were elected after the fall of the autocratic regimes. First, chapter two explains the term autocracy according to Wolfgang Merkel's definition and shows which different types of autocracy exist. In the third chapter, the behaviour of the military in Tunisia and Egypt is presented in order to analyse and compare it in more detail in chapter five. This is followed by a definition of a defective democracy and a declaration of two of its important subgroups. In the comparison of Tunisia and Egypt, the results of the actor-theoretical analysis of the military are compared in order to find commonalities and differences. In the comparison the Islamic culture is included and analysed, which effects this had for the development of the states Tunisia and Egypt after the revolution. In conclusion, the results are summarized again and the extent to which our research question after the return of autocracy could be answered is explained.

2. Autocracies

In order to have a basis for the analysis, this chapter explains the autocracy in its variants. In his textbook "Systemtransformation" (2010) Wolfgang Merkel describes a typology of autocratic systems as well as ten basic types of the different forms of autocratic rule. The current definition of the political scientist Juan J. Linz is based on six criteria which must be used to determine whether an autocratic system exists: legitimation of power, access to power, monopoly of power, structure of power, claim to power and mode of power (Merkel 2010: 40f). The definitions of the characteristics of an authoritarian system in Linz are criticized as ideal types (Merkel 2010: 42). In Merkel's definition, only the ideological claim of legitimation of power is used as the primary criterion. Thus, the author defines ten different basic types of authoritarian rule (Merkel 2010: 43):

1. Communist-authoritarian party regimes 6. Authoritarian modernization regimes
2. Fascist-authoritarian regimes 7. Theocratic-authoritarian regimes
3. Military regime 8. Dynastic-authoritarian regimes
4. Corporatist authoritarian regimes 9. Sultanistic-authoritarian regimes
5. Racist-authoritarian regimes 10. Authoritarian pension regimes

For the consideration of the Arab spring in Egypt and Tunisia, military regimes and theocratic-authoritarian regimes in particular need to be defined more precisely. Military regimes generally address national values and the traditional mentality of a people as legitimation for power (Merkel 2010: 44). The military legitimizes itself by pretending to secure the values of patriotism, national security, peace and public order (Merkel 2010: 44). This is usually done by military force. As soon as the goals on which the military's legitimation of power is based have been achieved, they pretend to retreat to the barracks again, since there is no longer any legitimation for military force (Merkel 2010: 44). In his textbook Merkel distinguishes between three different forms of a military regime: bureaucratic-military regimes, military leader regimes, military gangster regimes and warlords. The bureaucratic-military regime is led by a group of non-charismatic, high-ranking military leaders who set national security, modernization and public order as the goals of state leadership. The military leadership regime is mostly led by a single charismatic military leader. After taking power, the latter breaks away from its direct ties to the military and builds up its "own" power base (Merkel 2010: 45). Military gangster regimes and warlords are regimes that govern repressively and without targeted values. Personal enrichment interests are often the goal (Merkel 2010: 45). The second form of autocracy that needs to be explained here is the theocratic-authoritarian regime. In its legitimation of power, the state leadership refers to provisions of religious sources that apply to all areas of life (Merkel 2010: 46). According to Merkel, however, bureaucratic organisational structures are usually lacking in order to establish a theocratic-authoritarian regime (Merkel 2010: 46).

3. The military as a political actor during the revolution

This chapter deals with the question of what role the military played during the revolution. The aim is to examine what influence it had on the transformation process in Tunisia and Egypt. The investigation of the events takes place in the three phases defined by Wolfgang Merkel as ideal-typical for a system change: End of the autocratic system, institutionalisation of democracy and consolidation of democracy (Merkel 2010: 94f).

3.1 Tunisia: End of the autocratic system in Tunisia

Crisis & instability of the autocratic system

The end of the autocratic system in Tunisia resulted on the one hand from a legitimacy crisis due to economic inefficiency and on the other hand from a legitimacy crisis due to key political events (Merkel 2010: 98f). The legitimacy crisis of economic inefficiency was based on the poor social situation of the Tunisian population. Unemployment, political incapacitation, social stagnation (Nordhausen/Schmid 2012: 11) as well as rising food prices and an ever-widening income gap between European and Arab countries (Dietrich 2011: 39f) led to social dissatisfaction among the population. A key political event in the "end(s) of the autocratic system in Tunisia" phase was the attempt by fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi to burn himself on 17 December 2010. Only one day later the people demonstrated against the corruption within the police and against the governor of the city (Dietrich 2011: 51). These protests spread from local to nationwide demonstrations. The military responded publicly for the first time on January 9, 2011, when it tried to prevent further riots by standing between police units and the population, as live ammunition had already been fired at the demonstrators. In addition, the hospital in Kasserine was occupied by the military, in which many seriously injured were treated (Dietrich 2011: 62f).


Merkel's concept of transition also includes the phase towards a possible liberalization of the autocratic system (Merkel 2010: 95). In the case of the revolts in Tunisia, one cannot speak of a sufficient liberalization of the autocratic regime, although the government under Ben Ali also tried in part to meet the demands of the demonstrators. On 12 January 2011, Ben Ali announced the dismissal of the then Minister of the Interior, Rafik Hadj Kacem, who held political responsibility for the police units that had used violence against the demonstrators. He also ordered the release of all arrested demonstrators (Dietrich 2011: 67). One day later President Ali's order to shoot was revoked by the police units, but the police continued to fire live ammunition at the demonstrators (Dietrich 2011: 71). On 14 January, Ben Ali dismissed the government and announced new elections in six months' time.

Division of power and collapse

The division of power and the collapse of the Ben Ali regime began in part parallel to the crisis phase. The first sign that the state monopoly on the use of force was shifting, or that the army tolerated the demands of the demonstrators and thus allowed criticism of the regime, was when the government ordered the army to the capital, but the chief of general staff of the state armed forces refused to pass the firing order on to the soldiers and was then dismissed. The final collapse took place on 14 January 2010 after demonstrators in many places publicly fraternised with soldiers and demonstrators arrived in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis. After a brief withdrawal of the army, the latter again stood between the protesters and the Ministry of the Interior, but without actively intervening (Dietrich 2011: 72). Only after the announcement of the dissolution of the government and the formation of a government communiqué did the military actively intervene for the first time and close the airspace over Tunisia. Possibly this was done to make the escape of Ben Ali possible (Dietrich 2011: 73). In the evening, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that Ben Ali had left the country and that he himself would assume the post of interim president. The Constitutional Council, on the other hand, decided to declare Foult Mebazaâ, President of the Chamber of Deputies, interim president in accordance with the Constitution. Ghannouchi thus regained his old position as prime minister. In parallel, the military took out the presidential guard and militia loyal to the regime who had continued to shoot at the demonstrators (Schmid 2011: 22).

3.2 Tunisia: Institutionalization of democracy

The phase of institutionalizing a democratic system in Tunisia began after the collapse of the Ben Ali regime. Ghannouchi formed a new government cabinet in which the majority of the members consisted of members of the State Party RCD, to which Ben Ali also belonged. For the first time, however, a few opposition members (UGTT party) also sat in the government cabinet (Schmid 2011: 23). The Tunisian army influenced the institutionalization of democracy by not participating in political decisions and instead ensuring public order. The decisive factor for this was that the military had no direct connection either with politics or with the economy (Mattes 2013a: 4). This was also made clear by General Chief of Staff Rachid Amman when he demanded that the new constitution should retain the political neutrality of the military as an institution (Mattes 2013a: 5). After further protests against Mohammed Ghannouchi and his government cabinet, the entire government resigned at the end of February 2011 and Béji Caid Essebsi became the new prime minister. Immediately after taking office, the latter announced that he would form a purely transitional government to enable elections to the constituent assembly. However, as the interim president was only allowed to govern until 15 March 2011 according to the constitution and the time span for new elections was too short, the constitution was suspended (Schmid 2011: 29f). At the end of the institutionalization of a democratic system in Tunisia, author Thomas Schmid describes progress as follows: "In no other country of the Maghreb or the Middle East is the Arab revolution as far advanced as in Tunisia, where it began. There is freedom and a constitutional state is under construction. But the results of the jasmine revolution are not yet certain" (Schmid 2011: 35)1. On the one hand, Schmid thus expresses the missing results, such as economic improvements, on the other hand, this state also represents Tunisia's unstable state monopoly on the use of force due to the lack of a constitution. Thus, all transformation processes have an influence on a state's monopoly on the use of force (Mattes 2013b: 7). Since the army was only concerned with public order and security, the process in Tunisia was kept alive by the political neutrality of the military on the one hand and by the resignation of the Ghannouchi government as a reaction to the continuing protests of the population on the other. The first free elections to the Constituent Assembly were held on 23 October 2011 and the results were finalised on 27 October. The moderate Islamist "Ennahda" party, with 41.47% of the seats, became the strongest force in parliament under chairman Rachid Ghannouchi, who had long lived in exile as an opposition figure during the Ben Ali regime. The largest secular party CPR reached 13.82%, the centre-left party Ettakatol received 9.68% of the votes (Naji 2013: 37; BBC 2011). Hamadi Jebali, the Secretary General of the Ennahda Party became Prime Minister, Moncef al-Marzouki, Chairman of the al-Muatamar (CPR) and human rights activist, was elected interim President (Naji 2013: 37). The turnout at the election to the constituent assembly was 48.91%. On 21 October, there were renewed protests from supporters of the fourth people's list, a group of opposition candidates that had been declared invalid shortly before the election. The military used tear gas to drive the demonstrators apart.

3.3 Tunisia: Consolidating democracy

In 2012, there were repeated demonstrations against the government. The demonstrators accused the moderate Islamic Ennahda Party of not consistently taking action against conservative Salafists within politics who demanded a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Tunisia (SPON 2012). There were repeated clashes between police and demonstrators. At the beginning of February 2013, the well-known opposition figure Chokri Belaïds was shot dead by unknown persons. For the demonstrators, the Islamist-style government was partly to blame for Belaïd's death because it had not taken sufficient action against the attacks of radical Islamists on secular-oriented Tunisians (Putz 2013). Prime Minister Jebali now wanted to create an expert cabinet, but the radical Islamist wing of the Ennahda Party refused him the necessary approval. In response to the failed cabinet reshuffle, Jebali resigned on 19 February 2013. The critical situation did not change despite the new Prime Minister Ali Larayedh. After prolonged protests in January 2014, he also resigned with his cabinet and announced new elections. On 27 January, the National Assembly adopted a new constitution that formed a consensus of Islamic and secular values. Thus, it was determined that Islam is the official religion in Tunisia, but that the state is at the same time called a "civil state". UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called the constitution "a historic milestone" (ZEIT ONLINE 2014a). The date for new parliamentary elections has been set for October 2014.

3.4 Egypt: End of the autocratic system in Egypt

Crisis & instability of the autocratic system

Similar to Tunisia, the crisis of the system in Egypt was based on a legitimacy crisis of economic inefficiency and key political events (Merkel 2010: 98f). Since the revolution in Tunisia had already taken place, in the case of Egypt one can also speak of an external cause of the domino effect (Merkel 2010: 100). The economic inefficiency was particularly reflected in the social problems of the young Egyptians, who often found no work despite graduating from university (Nordhausen 2011: 39). The revolution in Tunisia showed the Egyptian people that rebellion against the rulers was possible and thus led to a domino effect. In Egypt, the deadly attack by two police officers on 25-year-old blogger Khaled Said became a key political event that drove many people onto the streets. Since 2004, there have been repeated minor strikes and protests against corruption and the country's social and economic situation (Stetter 2009: 301). On 25 January 2011, a large demonstration with around 20,000 people took place in Cairo. In Egypt there was a special "insurrection police" which immediately disbanded the demonstrations by force. However, the citizens returned the next day and resisted police violence. On the following Friday after the Friday prayer the "Day of Wrath" should take place with an even bigger demonstration. Police once again used force against the demonstrators on Tahrir Square. During these conflicts the military intervened for the first time in the conflict and ordered the policemen to return to the barracks (Nordhausen 2011: 42). However, the army made no direct attempts to prevent the escalation of violence (Nordhausen 2011: 42). On 30 January 2011, Defence Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who was also a member of the army, visited the demonstrators on Tahrir Square and promised that the military would not oppose the population. Thus, one of the largest power-political actors took the side of the demonstrators. As a result, the conflict between rulers and the population changed and now also became a conflict within the ruling elites (Nordhausen 2011: 47).


There was hardly any phase of liberalisation in Egypt. Similar to Tunisia, these were only personnel changes at government level. Mubarak announced that he would only rule until the end of his term and dissolved the cabinet, which consisted mainly of his son's business friends. Omar Suleiman, a close confidante and former head of secret service, became interim vice president (Nordhausen 2011: 43).

Power sharing and collapse

On February 2, Mubarak militias attacked the demonstrators' tent camp on Tahrir Square. When the demonstrators began to defend themselves with stones, the military stood in between with tanks, but again did not intervene actively (Nordhausen 2011: 51). On February 11, the opposition had called for the "Day of Decision", the crowds demonstratively marched to the presidential palace. Previously, the military had reassured the demonstrators that it would not use force against them. The day before, a Major General had called out to the crowd on Tahrir Square "All your wishes will come true" (Nordhausen 2011: 55). Mubarak and his family fled by helicopter from the presidential palace and the highest body of the army, the High Council of the Armed Forces, took power (Nordhausen 2011: 56). The Council was chaired by Defence Minister Hussein Tantawi.

3.5 Egypt: Attempts to consolidate and institutionalise democracy

The High Council of the Armed Forces promised that it would secure a transition to free and democratic elections (Nordhausen 2011: 57). A constitutional amendment was made so that a new parliament could be elected in September 2011. Although the military was perceived as an ally by the demonstrators, the revolutionaries continued to distrust the army, which had previously always been strongly intertwined with the Mubarak regime (Nordhausen 2011: 60). The opposition criticized the leadership of the military council as a "Mubarak system without Mubarak" (Mattes 2013a: 5). Although the transformation process was ideally undergoing consolidation, the military council tried to preserve its political and economic privileges from the time of the Mubarak government and influence the constituent assembly (Büchs 2012: 2). The elections to the constituent assembly took place in three rounds. After the Military Council took power, it relaxed the law on the formation of new parties. As a result, more than 40 parties took part in the 2011/12 parliamentary elections (Büchs 2012: 2). The Muslim Brotherhood with its FJP party received the most votes in parliament with 235 seats out of a total of 498 seats. The second strongest force was the al-Nur party with 123 seats (Büchs 2012: 4). The military council, which had publicly promised to hold free and democratic elections, continued to try to exert massive influence over the constituent assembly and the candidates for the subsequent presidential election. The aim was still to preserve the military's advantage rights from the Mubarak period. For example, the two strongest candidates who were in competition with "pro-military" candidates were excluded from the election by legal means (Iskander/Ranko: 5). On 14 June 2012, when the Egyptian Constitutional Court declared the election law of the parliamentary elections unconstitutional, the Military Council announced that the parliament would soon be dissolved. As a result, the Military Council published a new constitution on 17 June that guaranteed the army leadership far-reaching political powers (Iskander/Ranko: 6). On 24 June 2012 Mohammed Mursi, the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, was declared Egypt's first freely elected president after the fall of Mubarak after a runoff election (Iskander/Ranko 2012: 1). One of his first steps was the restoration of the parliament, which had been dissolved by the military council in advance. Demonstrators gathered again in Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the constitutional decree of the Military Council. After Muri's style of government became increasingly authoritarian and Islamist, the people again demonstrated against their president and demanded his resignation. The obvious reason for this is that in the run-off election, from which Mursi emerged as the winner, there was only 51.85% turnout and Mursi won the election himself with only 51.7% of the votes (Iskander/Ranko 2012: 3). There were heavy arguments between supporters and opponents of Mursi. On 3 July 2013, President Mohammed Mursi was overthrown by the Military Council led by Army Chief al-Sisi. He set up a transitional government of technocrats and the politician and professor Hakim al-Beblawi was appointed prime minister. Al-Sisi assumed the role of the first deputy of al-Beblawi in addition to his post as army chief, thus securing the military immense political influence (Putz 2013). The interim president was the head of the constitutional court Adli Mansur, who had already been active in Egypt's highest court under Mubarak. On 18 January 2014, the Constitution, including the additions of the Military Council, came into force after a referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned and ex-President Mursi accused of non-intervention during the riots between his supporters and opponents. The police and army repressed Mursi supporters (Backhaus 2013). In the announced parliamentary and presidential elections, the Minister of Defense and former army chief al-Sisi stood as presidential candidates. On June 3, 2014, he was elected official winner of the election with a turnout of 47.5 % and 96.9 % of the votes (ZEIT ONLINE 2014b).


1 Original quotation: „In keinem anderen Land des Maghreb oder des Nahen Ostens ist die arabische Revolution so weit fortgeschritten wie in Tunesien, wo sie begonnen hat. Es herrscht Freiheit, [sic!] und ein Rechtsstaat ist im Aufbau begriffen. Doch noch sind die Resultate der Jasmin-Revolution nicht gesichert“ (Schmid 2011: 35)

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The Arab Spring as a return to autocracy? Egypt and Tunisia in comparison
University of Hannover  (Institut für Politische Wissenschaft)
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arab spring, tunesia, egypt, autocracy
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Louis Schiemann (Author), 2014, The Arab Spring as a return to autocracy? Egypt and Tunisia in comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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