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Tunisia's terrible twos

Today is the second anniversary of the flight of former Tunisian President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. But the new Tunisian republic's second birthday is not an especially happy one. A year ago, Tunisia was widely seen as the one Arab transitional country getting things right.  But today, there's much less optimism.  The economy continues to struggle, the constitution and elections remain unresolved, Islamist-secular polarization has intensified, and many complain about the over-reach of the ruling Ennahda party. Despair over Tunisia's fate has become as fashionable now as optimism was last year.   And as for Egypt... well, Egypt.  

How surprised should we really be with these travails, though? As I tried to persuade Nervana Mahmoud over Twitter this weekend, looking more broadly at other non-Arab cases might help.  Comparison only gets you part of the way, of course -- no, theory doesn't let you get away with not knowing your cases inside and out!  But at the least, a longer and wider comparative lens can help to show which parts of a country's political struggles are unique, demanding explanation in purely local terms, and which are common across many similar cases and therefore don't. 

Studying politics long enough usually somewhat lowers expectations about the virtues of democratic politics.  Democracy is usually ugly, messy, frustrating, and alienating -- even fully consolidated ones.  Politicians don't often set aside their self-interest for the greater good. Old elites generally don't just give up and walk away.  Opposition forces struggle for unity.  The media rarely avoids profitable sensationalism in the interest of rational public discourse. Intense competition with high stakes and uncertain results tends to drive mistrust, competition and fear.  Elections don't usually bring out the best in the political class.  Constitutional drafters disappoint. None of that means that democracy isn't worth pursuing -- quite the contrary! -- but a dose of realism can help innoculate against stampedes towards despair. 

And so yes, Egypt and Tunisia do look pretty bleak two years into their revolutions...  but that's pretty much what the comparative cases would predict.  Transitions from authoritarian rule are hard! Skepticism bordering on despair for democracy, polarization, fragmented oppositions, economic struggles, controverisal constitutions as democratic revolutions enter their second year.... well, let's just put it this way. There's a reason that "the terrible twos" are sort of a cliche. 

For example, here's a 1992 Journal of Democracy article entitled "Eastern Europe's Terrible Twos."  It begins:

"the birth of democracy in Eastern Europe two years ago was an occasion of unparalleled joy and hope... more recently, however, our glow has given way to gnashing of teeth.  The infant democracy has reached a stage that all parents recognized -- what the baby books call the 'terrible twos.' It is a time of testing limits. The Czechs and Slovaks are consumed with sibling rivalry... Bulgaria's democratic opposition, which lost to the communists in the 1990 election, decided to prepare for the 1991 election by splitting into five factions.  In Poland, the democratic movement Solidarity broke into more pieces than anyone has been able to count... in Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro the Communists were able to win early elections by virtue of their vast organizational advantages and mastery of dirty tricks, including intimidation, fraud, abuse of office, and monopoly control of the media... In each of the four countries where the communists have been beaten.. the break-up of the democratic front and the onset of postcommunist politics quickly ensued."

Sound familiar?  Later in 1992, two years in to the great early wave of democratic transitions in Africa, Rene Lemarchand fretted in the Journal of Democracy that

"the initial burst of popular enthusiasm ignited by the flame of democratization is giving way to a growing realization among Africans that, as one wag put it, 'at the end of the light is the tunnel.'"  Widespread evidence of political liberalization notwithstanding, there are compelling reasons to fear that the movement towards democracy may contain within itself the seeds of its own undoing... It is one thing for an urban mob, a guerrilla army, or a national conference to topple a dictator; the construction of a democratic polity is an altogether different and far more arduous undertaking...  One prominent concern centers on the inability of opposition forces to achieve internal unity."

And then there's the "colour revolutions" in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005), none of which were looking particularly hopeful two years after the dizzying excitement of successful popular uprisings for democracy.  In Georgia, Mikail Saakashivli won the post-revolutionary Presidential election effectively unopposed with 96% of the vote, and his party won 67% of the seats in the Parliamentary election with no other party breaking 8% (MB:  amateurs!).  But the mood soon soured, and by 2007 protestors were back in the streets complaining of corruption, police were cracking down violently, and the President declared a state of emergency.  Two years after Ukraine's Orange Revolution brought Viktor Yuschenko to power, it had become clear that democratic change had failed to overcome the country's deep, persistent and entrenched polarization.  Two years on it was hard to conclude that Kyrgyzstan had ever really had a chance.

There is no single, obvious lesson to be drawn from all of this beyond the fairly obvious point that two years on almost every transition from authoritarian rule has been deep in the doldrums. Some of those troubled transitional countries rallied and over time consolidated genuine democracies, others slouched back into semi-authoritarian or gangster regimes.   I don't mean to minimize the real challenges and possibility of failure in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Yemen -- the point is just that deep, profound disenchantment with the fruits of revolution two years on is not a very good predictor of which way they will ultimately go.  

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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