There have been dramatic political upheavals in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and the Carter Center — the nonprofit foundation I head that seeks to promote human rights, democracy and alleviation of suffering worldwide — has been invited to witness the transition process from authoritarianism to democracy in all of them. We still see citizens struggling to improve their lives and shape their own destiny, with sharply different prospects.
Egypt has been least adaptable to change, and is undergoing a reversion to de facto military rule — perhaps even more restrictive than under former President Hosni Mubarak and previous regimes. The Carter Center witnessed reasonably good elections for parliament and president in 2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Freedom and Justice Party and its presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, emerged victorious. But Egypt’s high court nullified the parliamentary choices, and instead of requiring a new election when Morsi proved unable to govern under these circumstances, there was a military takeover with the apparent approval of a public whose first priority was stability.
Dissent was severely restricted for citizens and journalists during last month’s approval of the new constitution, which limits the scope of Islamic law and provides for more gender equality and personal freedom, but gives the military ultimate authority. Seemingly immune from constitutional restrictions, the generals of Egypt’s armed forces control their own budget, select the defense minister and retain the right to conduct trials of civilians in military tribunals. The Interior Ministry and judiciary are also granted extraordinary privileges.
Our role in Libya has been to observe the post-Kaddafi election in July 2012 and prospectively to witness the election this month of delegates who will draft a new constitution. The interim government, expected to function until the end of this year, is weak and unable to administer all regions of the country, especially areas in the east and the southern desert that are controlled by militia factions. This threatens national stability and the oil revenues that fund the state. The delegates will be divided among the country’s three regions, giving exceptional weight to the underpopulated and historically alienated regions — equivalent to advantages that America’s founders gave smaller states in the U.S. Senate and Electoral College, which we have learned to accommodate.
We also observed the orderly post-revolution 2011 election in Tunisia, and our team has monitored closely the constitution-making process, providing input when requested into the anticipated language of the constitution and the new electoral law. We are optimistic about the future of Tunisia, where foreign interference has been minimal and where there is a sharp contrast with Egypt and Libya. The military has remained aloof from the political process, and there has been broad participation of political and religious groups and good progress in engineering a fragile but promising transition. Despite two prominent assassinations last year that triggered political crises — the death of opposition figures Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi — peace has been maintained, and the Tunisian people seem determined to secure stability and prosperity. Success here could provide a strong model for constitutional reform across the region, most immediately in neighboring Libya. The situation in Egypt seems to be resistant to change, with a large portion of the electorate excluded from the political process.
The United Nations and regional organizations can assist all three nations, but the sovereignty of each must be respected as the people struggle to find an appropriate balance between order and justice, secular and religious influences, freedom and fairness, inclusiveness and restraint. Financial and technical assistance for proper elections in Libya and Tunisia can also help ensure that the democratic principles enshrined in the new constitutions are respected.
We know from repeated experience in these and many other countries that the role of impartial observers can be essential, and their welcome is a good indication of a commitment to freedom and democracy. For citizens who are committed to the same principles, these outsiders, if invited and nonintrusive, are always appreciated.
The immediate goal in these three countries is to prevent further bloodshed, with a long-range objective of achieving legitimate national consensus that provides for sustainable democratic development and respect for core international human rights. All citizens who are willing to abide by the rule of law — including women, youth and minority religious sects — should be treated equally. The need is for strong institutions, not strong men, as demonstrated in other countries where democracy prevails. Egypt seems incapable of meeting these minimal democratic standards at the moment, while Tunisia is on track and the jury is still out in Libya.