Egypt and Tunisia's Unfinished Revolutions

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Peter Andrews / Reuters

Demonstrators shout slogans asking for the resignation of Egypt's prime minister outside a government building in Cairo March 3, 2011.

It's been just seven weeks since President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and just over three weeks since Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously dumped from the presidency by the Egyptian military — but both countries have already unseated their interim prime ministers. Egypt's Ahmed Shafiq on Wednesday followed last week's decision by Tunisia's Mohammed Ghannouchi to step down, heeding the will of those who had taken to the streets to oust the autocrats who had appointed them. The two countries have chosen different models for their transition to democracy: Tunisia has a civilian government supported by the military; in Egypt, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken charge and has suspended the constitution. But in both countries, the interim rulers face a crisis of legitimacy, with controversy surrounding some of the personalities now in charge and their transition plans contested by many of the same forces that took to the streets to demand political change. And at the same time, they must deal with the mountain of problems left behind by the dictators, from corruption and cronyism to collapsing state authority and anemic economic performance.

Other Arab countries who are planning on toppling their dictators soon should pay attention to four lessons Tunisians and Egyptians have learned:

1. Winning the Confidence of the Street is Key

It took six weeks for Tunisia's Ghannouchi to step down as interim premier in the face of mounting and increasingly violent street protests. It's hard to believe it took Tunisia's political class that long to understand that Ghannouchi's 23 years of service under Ben Ali — even as a mere "technocrat" — disqualified him, in the eyes of the newly empowered citizenry, from heading the transition. Crucial time has been squandered, as has confidence in the transitional government. Ghannouchi's reluctance to get rid of figures connected to the former ruling RCD party poisoned the atmosphere, and the resulting protests led to several deaths.

In Egypt, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq had been appointed only days before Mubarak was forced out. He enjoyed the reputation of a competent manager with respected military credentials, but the protestors' view was that anyone connected to Mubarak must go — and it had become public knowledge that Shafiq once described Mubarak as his "spiritual father". Many had been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there were enough skeptics to make his premiership untenable. Like Ghannouchi, his inability to inspire confidence and win over public opinion was his undoing.

2. The Media Matters

In Tunisia, and to a lesser extent Egypt, much of the media had been tightly controlled, and acted as an outlet for regime propaganda and disinformation. A great readjustment is now taking place, as previously banned viewpoints are aired, erstwhile regime hacks become paragons of the revolution and, and, with a real political debate taking place for the first time in years, the public becomes ever-hungrier for news. Egypt's Shafiq was hurt by his proximity to Mubarak, but what undid him was his defensive appearance on a live television show where, for the first time in Egyptian history, he was forced to debate in public with opposition figures. His resignation the next day was announced on the military's Facebook page, which has become its primary outlet after it was criticized for handing public relations through very abrupt martial communiqués. In these countries were leaders were long used to sycophantic television interviews, they now face combative interviewers out to make a reputation for themselves. It will be a while before the spin doctors come in and teach the politicians to stay on-message — in the meantime, they are walking the tightrope without a net.

3. The Islamists Gain, But So Do Others

Much Western attention has focused on Tunisia's Nahda movement and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist movements that will benefit substantially from a democratic environment that allows them to form legal political parties. But their gains should not be exaggerated: In both countries, the Islamists were latecomers to the revolution, and must now contend with internal dissent and shed their own tradition of authoritarianism. The Muslim Brothers' youth section, in fact, is now openly talking of forming its own party, led by reformist figures. Islamists will also be challenged by a renewed Left, long the most marginalized political force in these countries, particularly at a time when there is much demand for greater socio-economic justice. The most powerful political movement in Tunisia is not Islamist; it is the trade unions who have been behind most of the big pro-revolution protests. Egypt now also appears to be headed in the same direction, with a wave of strikes presenting the most serious challenge to the army yet.

4. There'll be a Trade-off Between Social Justice and Economic Recovery

Getting rid of the dictators was only the first step of a process in which ordinary people will fight for their rights, notably better wages and public services, and punish the fallen regime's cronies. But both Egypt and Tunisia require stability to attract tourists and investment, and to export their products. Economic revival will need working banking systems and stock markets. That means whoever leads in Egypt and Tunisia will have to balance the public's desire for a social dividend and to weed out the corrupt with the urgent need to reopen their countries for business — and the longer it takes, the less confidence the world will have in them. Finding that balance is tricky. There are already signs that unpopular figures are being scapegoated, and governments will be tempted to buy social peace by spending money they simply don't have.

The real challenge is one of political leadership, which takes us back to our first point: Who, in the absence of an Egyptian or Tunisian Nelson Mandela, has the credibility to inspire confidence and patience in a public hungry for change?

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based independent journalist and commentator. He blogs at