Egypt, Tunisia Try To Turn Elections Into Democracy The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia took place in a matter of days, filling those countries with hope of a brighter future. Both countries have held elections, but creating a democracy will take time.
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Egypt, Tunisia Try To Turn Elections Into Democracy

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Egypt, Tunisia Try To Turn Elections Into Democracy

Egypt, Tunisia Try To Turn Elections Into Democracy

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It took less than three weeks for protestors to force out Hosni Mubarak, the long-time president of Egypt. But almost a year later, that story is not over.


If 2001 was the year of the so-called Arab Spring, then 2012 is likely to be a year of dealing with the consequences. In both Egypt and Tunisia, voters recently took part in what for many were the freest elections in their lifetimes, but people are finding that even free elections will not necessarily lead to democracy.

WERTHEIMER: All this week, we'll explore the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

INSKEEP: And we begin this morning with this report looking at Tunisia and Egypt. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Few Egyptians looked forward to what passed for elections when Hosni Mubarak was in power. Government-enlisted thugs bought or coerced votes from intimidated citizens in impoverished neighborhoods like Mina al-Basal in the northern port city of Alexandria. They made sure that just about no one other than candidates from Mubarak's ruling party won seats there.


NELSON: It's a far different scene these days in Mina al-Basal, where people who took part in the first election since Mubarak's ouster say they finally felt their votes mattered.

Cheerful campaign volunteers working for candidates from across the political spectrum wooed the throngs of voters with speeches and pamphlets before and even during the recent parliamentary polls there.


NELSON: Among those offering voting advice were men with long beards, volunteers for the ultra-conservative Salafist movement.

SAYED AHMED YOUSSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Manning their booth on one street corner was Sayed Ahmed Youssef. He says he's never felt this free to express himself politically. Youssef adds that transparent and fair elections are the only way to make sure Egypt becomes a democracy.

ALI KASSEM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But at a polling station across town in the upper-class neighborhood of Semouha, Ali Kassem expresses reservations about the polls after casting his vote. His nephew was 28-year-old businessman and sometime political activist Khaled Said, whose death in June 2010 helped provoke the uprising that ousted Mubarak. Said was killed by police officers, who dragged him away from an Internet cafe and slammed his head into nearby stone steps. The police claimed he was a drug peddler, charges his family and supporters rejected.

KASSEM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Said's uncle, who ran for parliament on a secular centrist ticket, says the kind of impunity Mubarak and his security forces enjoyed will end if there's a duly elected government.

KASSEM: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: But Kassem complains that voters are being manipulated by some candidates, including those of the Salafist party. He and others accuse the fundamentalist movement of illegal campaign tactics, coercion and backroom deals to garner votes.

Independent monitors acknowledge some irregularities at the polls. But overall, they've declared the staged elections that are still underway to be free and fair. What's making secular Egyptians like Kassim even more uncomfortable is that Islamists are emerging as the victors. The once-banned Muslim Brotherhood has collected well over 40 percent of the ballots so far, and the hardcore Salafists more than 20 percent.

Many Egyptian liberals fear an Islamist-dominated parliament will try and replace Egypt's nascent democracy with a religious state like Saudi Arabia. Some analysts add that the Islamists are winning because secular parties are viewed by many Egyptians as a holdover from the Mubarak era. Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo, explains what those voters are thinking.

KHALED FAHMY: It's mostly about our national identity, mostly religious identity has been robbed of us, and it's time to return back to our roots. And the message is not much more complex than that.

NELSON: The Brotherhood and Salafists have long been known for their charitable and social work. Fahmey adds that the Islamist movements are viewed as an honest broker that will bring badly needed relief to the country's mostly impoverished population.

FAHMY: It touches, however, very resonant chords with millions of Egyptians who feel disenfranchised, who feel oppressed, who feel that the country has been usurped by a Westernized, liberal, intellectual, artistic elite, and it's time to go back to the basics.

NELSON: Other analysts say the Islamists benefitted from the rush to elections by the military rulers who took over when Mubarak resigned. They say youth groups that were the backbone of the revolution didn't have enough time to form political parties. Plus, most of the candidates taking part in the multi-phased elections lacked political experience. Nabil Fahmy is a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States and now dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

NABIL FAHMY: You have to have feet on the ground. You have to have a presence in communities. You have to have a mechanics of a party. While the Brotherhood and the Salafis didn't exist in the legal sense, they had a social network. So they had a presence out there, and they could mobilize.

NELSON: But whether that mobilization will translate into political power isn't guaranteed, even for the Islamists. For one thing, the ruling military council insists it will retain ultimate authority, even after the new parliament is seated. And the role of the legislature is still undefined. Its chief task will be to draft a new constitution. How to replace the old version that placed most power in the hands of the president is a matter of considerable debate. Former ambassador Fahmy argues it would have made more sense if Egyptians had put off electing a parliament until after a new constitution was in place to define the role of government.

FAHMY: Well, you could have elected a committee to do it, the same way the Tunisians did.

NELSON: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was in Tunisia during the October elections for its constitutional assembly.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This Get Out the Vote video addressed how Tunisians, once cowed and miserable, are now filled with hope and pride. Turnout reached 90 percent in some areas, and just as in Egypt, the Islamists emerged the victors.

: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Many voters, like high school teacher Lemjad Jemli, cast their ballots for the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. He was voting for the first time. But not every Tunisian is happy about the Islamist victory. Liberals there fear the newly elected Islamists will try to draft a constitution that ends the secular traditions of this former French colony. There have already been protests and clashes over how big a role Islam should play in their society.

Fares Mabrouk is the founder of the Tunis-based Arab Policy Institute, a think tank that supports democratic change in the Middle East.

FARES MABROUK: I don't think we can say that Tunisia is, today, a democracy. Democracy is not only about free election, fair election. To have a democracy, it's also about having the right institutions, the right counter-powers, the right civil society. It's a learning process for all the actors inside our society, and it will take us few years before saying that, yes, we succeeded our transformation.

NELSON: That's a conclusion that many activists in Egypt have reached, as well, but they face another obstacle: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Activists and politicians here worry that the council will not honor its pledge to cede power to a civilian government once the cycle of elections is over. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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