Democracy’s Dawn in Tunisia and Egypt?

CAIRO – With protests fading in Tunis and seeming to have peaked in Cairo, it is time to ask whether Tunisia and Egypt will complete democratic transitions. I have been visiting both countries, where many democratic activists have been comparing their situation with the more than 20 successful and failed democratic-transition attempts throughout the world that I have observed and analyzed.

One fear should be dismissed immediately: despite worries about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, more than 500 million Muslims now live in Muslim-majority countries that are commonly classified as democracies – Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Senegal, Mali, and Albania. But, for almost 40 years, not a single Arab-majority country has been classified as a democracy, so a democratic transition in either Tunisia or Egypt (or elsewhere in the region) would be of immense importance for the entire Arab world.

Tunisia’s chances of becoming a democracy before the year ends are, I believe, surprisingly good. A key factor here is that the military is not complicating the transition to democracy. Tunisia has a small military (only about 36,000 soldiers), and, since independence in 1956, it had been led by two party-based non-democratic leaders who strove to keep the military out of politics.

Moreover, the current civilian-led interim government engages in at least some negotiations about the new democratic rules of the game with virtually all of the major political actors who generated the revolution and who will contest the elections.