The chaos at the second anniversary of the Tahrir Square uprising is only the latest and most vivid illustration that Egypt’s revolution is going off the rails. It has revived talk about the failure of the Arab Spring and even some nostalgia for the old order. But Arab dictators such as Hosni Mubarak could not have held onto power without even greater troubles; look at Syria. Events in the Middle East the past two years underscore that constitutions are as vital as elections and that good leadership is crucial in these transitions.
Compare the differences between Egypt and Jordan. At the start of the Arab Spring, it appeared that Egypt had responded to the will of its people, had made a clean break with its tyrannical past and was ushering in a new birth of freedom. Jordan, by contrast, responded with a few personnel changes, some promises to study the situation and talk of reform.
But then Egypt started going down the wrong path, and Jordan made a set of wise choices.
Put simply, Egypt chose democratization before liberalization. Elections became the most important element of the new order, used in legitimizing the new government, electing a president and ratifying the new constitution. As a result, the best organized force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, swept into power, even though, on the first ballot, only 25 percent of voters chose its presidential nominee, Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood was also able to dominate the drafting of the constitution. The document had many defects, including its failure to explicitly protect women’s rights — only four of the constitutional assembly’s 85 members were women — and language that seems to enshrine the traditional “character” of the Egyptian family. It also weakens protections for religious minorities such as the Bahais, who already face persecution.
Some of its provisions ban blasphemy and insult and allow for media censorship in the name of national security. These are all ways to give the government unlimited powers, which the Muslim Brotherhood has used. More journalists have been persecuted for insulting Morsi in his six-month presidency than during the nearly 30-year reign of Mubarak. In November, Morsi declared that his presidential decrees were above judicial review.
In Jordan, by contrast, the king did not rush to hold elections (and was widely criticized for his deliberate pace). Instead, he appointed a council to propose changes to the constitution. The members consulted many people in Jordan and in the West to determine how to make the country’s political system more democratic and inclusive. A series of important changes were approved in September 2011. They transferred some of the king’s powers to parliament and established an independent commission to administer elections and a court to oversee the constitutionality of legislation.
The commission recently got its first use. The election was boycotted by Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood on the grounds that the changes were too small and that power still resided with the king. But 70 percent of eligible voters registered, and 56 percent turned out at the polls, the highest turnout in the region. Many critics of the king and government were elected; 12 percent of the winners were opposition Islamist candidates. Thanks to a quota the commission set, 12 percent of the new parliament’s members are female. King Abdullah II retains ultimate authority, but the new system is clearly a step in the transition to a constitutional monarchy.
Morocco has taken the same route as Jordan. It enacted constitutional reforms in 2011. In the elections that followed, Morocco’s Islamist Party won 107 of the 395 seats in parliament and formed a government. The head of this government, Abdelilah Benkirane, while a feisty critic of the West, has also spoken firmly about protecting the rights of minorities, explicitly including Jews, who he noted have lived in Morocco for centuries and are an integral part of the country.
The Arab world’s two largest experiments in democracy, Iraq and Egypt, have, unfortunately, poor choices in common. Both placed elections ahead of constitutions and popular participation ahead of individual rights. Both have had as their first elected leaders strongmen with Islamist backgrounds who have no real dedication to liberal democracy. The results have been the establishment of “illiberal democracy” in Iraq and the danger of a similar system in Egypt.
The best role models for the region might well be two small monarchies. Jordan and Morocco have gone the opposite route, making measured reforms and liberalizing their existing systems. The monarchies have chosen evolution over revolution. So far, it seems the better course.