Soldiers in the Egyptian military remove barbed wire that was surrounding the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo ahead of planned demonstrations, Aug. 18, 2013. (Virginie Nguyen Hoang/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.

The contrast between the Egyptian and Tunisian transitions has been the foundation for a remarkable number of comparative analyses. The yawning divide in the outcomes makes such comparison inevitable: Egypt’s democratic experiment ended in a military takeover and extreme state violence; Tunisia’s produced a consensual constitution and a second peaceful transition of power. Although the consolidation of Tunisia’s democracy is by no means assured, its progress thus far raises the question: Why has Tunisia’s transition to democracy been more successful than Egypt’s?

Many of the most commonly cited explanations are clearly contradicted by available evidence. The usual argument for Tunisia’s exception emphasizes its small and homogenous population and absence of deep ideological divides. But, in fact, ideological polarization was just as severe in Tunisia as in Egypt. Tunisia’s transition, like Egypt’s, suffered from a debilitating Islamist-secularist divide, reflected in two political assassinations and months of political deadlock. Survey data from the Arab Barometer suggest that despite Tunisia’s alleged homogeneity, secularists in Tunisia were as distrustful of their ruling Islamist party as they were in Egypt:

Data from the Arab Barometer (Sharan Grewal)
Data from the Arab Barometer (Sharan Grewal)

Other analysts highlight socioeconomic differences, arguing that Tunisians are more educated, secular and wealthier than Egyptians, all common correlates of democratic attitudes. But again, the evidence suggests that disillusionment with democracy was just as deep in both countries. Arab Barometer data reveal that by 2013, majorities in both countries no longer thought that democracy was suitable for their country:

Data from the Arab Barometer (Sharan Grewal)
Data from the Arab Barometer (Sharan Grewal)

Other scholars claim that Tunisia benefited from a roughly equal demographic balance between secularists and Islamists, whereas Islamist candidates in Egypt swept 70 percent of the vote in the first elections. Egypt’s secularists, the argument goes, chose to thwart democracy out of fear that they would never win a future election. However, the Islamist domination of the Egyptian political scene was short-lived: Islamists had lost much of their initial appeal by the 2012 presidential elections, where voting was split 52 to 48 percent for the Islamist and secularist candidates. In the lead-up to the July 2013 coup, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi had only a 32 percent approval rating. His prospects for winning another election appeared dim. Secularists in both countries should therefore have had sufficient confidence that they could win future elections.

Finally, some contend that Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, was more moderate than the one in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, Ennahda governed more inclusively toward the secular revolutionaries and the remnants of the former ruling party. However, despite Ennahda’s more moderate behavior, the Tunisian opposition still called for Ennahda’s ouster just as the Egyptian one called for the Brotherhood’s. In both countries, disillusioned revolutionaries joined the supporters of the former regimes in calling on state institutions to undermine the Islamists, whether moderate or not.

What these explanations seem to overlook is that during the summer and fall of 2013, the Tunisian transition was on the verge of following Egypt’s path. Mimicking the June 30 protests in Egypt that led to the July 3 coup, the Tunisian opposition organized massive rallies demanding Ennahda’s ouster and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. The real answer to Egypt and Tunisia’s divergent trajectories may therefore lie in the responses of each country’s state institutions to the calls to thwart the democratic transition. In Egypt, the military and judiciary heeded and even welcomed these calls. The opposition in Egypt was able to appeal to the judiciary to dissolve the democratically elected parliament and to the military to oust the democratically elected president. In Tunisia, by contrast, the judiciary was unable and the military unwilling to perform these functions. Without state institutions to partner with, the Tunisian opposition ultimately had no choice but to come to the negotiating table with Ennahda, facilitating consensus.

Let’s begin with the judiciary. Just five months after Egypt completed its first free and fair elections, Egypt’s judiciary nullified those elections on a technicality, leading to the dissolution of the democratically elected parliament. The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) had exercised its power to nullify elections twice before (in 1987 and 1990), and appeared eager to perform this function again against the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s then-President Hosni Mubarak had successfully packed the judiciary in the 2000s with pro-regime and anti-Islamist judges. Tahani el-Gebali, for instance, vice-president of the SCC, reportedly urged the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to delay the parliamentary elections, fearing they “would bring a majority from the movements of political Islam.” Ahmed al-Zend, head of the Judge’s Association, went further, arguing that with the Brotherhood coming to power, “Egypt is falling. We won’t leave matters for those who can’t manage them, with the excuse that we’re not people of politics. No, we are people of politics.” The Egyptian judiciary was thus both willing and able to side with the anti-Islamist opposition to dissolve the democratically elected parliament.

Why did the Tunisian judiciary not follow suit and fulfill the opposition’s demands to dissolve the constituent assembly? The main reason is that there was no judicial body in Tunisia with the jurisdiction to nullify elections. Tunisia’s Constitutional Council had gained that power in 2002, but having been notoriously weak under the former regime, the Council was dissolved in March 2011. The highest judicial body in Tunisia during the transition was thus the Court of Cassation, which did not have the jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of electoral laws. Even if the Tunisian judiciary wanted to undermine Ennahda, it was unable to do so to the same extent as its Egyptian counterpart.

Ultimately, it was the military that delivered the final blow to Egypt’s democratic transition, ousting the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013. Why did the Tunisian military not emulate its Egyptian counterpart and oust the Ennahda-led government? The Tunisian military had a comparable opportunity to intervene: paralyzed political institutions, multiple assassinations and a massive number of people in the streets calling for Ennahda’s ouster. Yet, the Tunisian military had little motivation to oust Ennahda. The military in Tunisia has historically played a much less prominent role in politics than its Egyptian counterpart. Sidelined by former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali since 1991, the Tunisian military never developed the economic or institutional interests that would drive it into politics. While the Egyptian military could not afford to let the transition get out of hand and thus took an active role in managing it, the Tunisian military had little stake in how the transition unfolded, retreating to the barracks after Ben Ali’s fall. Under Ennahda’s rule, moreover, the military gained in importance and social status, giving it little grievance with Ennahda.

The Egyptian military, on the other hand, had plenty of reason to oust the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Brotherhood respected many of the military’s interests, continuing to defer to the military for key ministerial and governorship appointments and conceding on military trials of civilians, several issues remained. A difference in worldview between the military’s nationalism and the Brotherhood’s perceived pan-Islamism, the devaluing of the military’s economic holdings as a result of Morsi’s mismanagement of the economy, and the personal ambitions of then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi all played a role in his decision to intervene.

The Brotherhood’s biggest mistake, however, may have been to encroach on the military’s historic monopoly over national security decisions. The National Defense Council, composed overwhelmingly of military figures under the SCAF, became majority-civilian under Morsi (and tellingly reverted back to majority-military in the 2014 Constitution). In December 2012, the Brotherhood raised more red flags by allegedly backing a Qatari-Palestinian scheme to buy land in the Sinai. The military balked, claiming that “Sinai is a red line” and Sisi took the unprecedented step of issuing a decree (typically the president’s prerogative) limiting the sale of this land.Wael Haddara, an advisor to Morsi, told me about another incident in December 2012 when he and two other Morsi administration officials were sent to Washington to meet with the Department of Defense. Intentionally or not, the Egyptian embassy in D.C. failed to inform the defense attache of their meeting, contributing to fears that Morsi was sidelining the military.

The clincher came two weeks before the coup, when Morsi severed ties with the Syrian regime and announced his support for a no-fly zone. At the same time, Brotherhood leaders called on Egyptians to go on jihad in Syria, while a presidential aide insisted they would not be penalized upon their return to Egypt. The specter of experienced jihadists returning to Egypt, as well as the clash with Sisi’s more neutral stance on Syria, may have been the last straw of the military’s toleration of the Brotherhood.

With the military and judiciary willing and able to undermine the Islamists, the opposition in Egypt had little incentive to negotiate with the Brotherhood. There was no reason to compromise with Morsi when the opposition could instead kick him out with the help of state institutions. In Tunisia, by contrast, the opposition realized after months of protest that there would be no judiciary or military to come to its aid. Ultimately, it realized that it had to back down on its demand for the dissolution of the constituent assembly and instead negotiate with Ennahda on the way forward. The Tunisian “success story,” then, is not that all sides wanted democracy, but rather that all sides had no choice but to settle for democracy.

Sharanbir (Sharan) Grewal is a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University.