After decades of apparent stability, recent popular uprisings in the Arab world have changed the regional landscape dramatically. From Egypt, where optimism runs high about the prospects for a democratic transition, to Libya, where fears of state collapse and brutal violence are widespread, the region seems to face dramatic and varied political change and challenge. Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, shared her perspective on the changes sweeping the region. Carnegie's Marwan Muasher moderated.

Three different protest movements

Observers of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been quick to cite their common themes –spontaneity, economically frustrated youth, and aging authoritarian leadership—but Anderson noted several important distinctions among the three countries. Understanding the unique characteristics of the movements, Anderson said, is essential to predicting the outcome of the political transitions currently underway.

Tunisia: Rural-based rejection of corruption

In contrast to the urban-based movement in Egypt, Tunisia’s uprising began in rural areas, where citizens had grown increasingly disgusted with the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s flagrantly corrupt family.
  • Rural-based protests: According to Anderson, protests in Tunisia originated in rural areas that had been most neglected by the central government, and gradually radiated inward toward urban centers where wealth and power was most concentrated.
  • A façade of prosperity: Ben Ali’s government had successfully created the illusion of a modern, middle-income country, Anderson said. However, this façade masked extreme disparities in the distribution of wealth and resources.
  • Official corruption: Ben Ali and his family “made dishonesty an art form,” Anderson said, by systematically skimming vast profits off of domestic commercial transactions.
  • The importance of labor unions: Strong labor unions were integral to the success of Tunisia’s popular uprising, Anderson said, and will likely play an important role in the emerging democratic system. She predicted that labor unions may eventually assume the function of a loyal opposition, a role that would enable them to critique public policy without being denigrated as traitors.
  • Strong bureaucratic infrastructure: Anderson said that Tunisia’s legacy of well-developed institutions with technocratic expertise bodes well for the success of its democratic transition. Unlike Libya, which will be faced with the challenge of building an institutional infrastructure from scratch, Tunisia already has a strong bureaucratic apparatus with a large cohort of competent, mid-level bureaucrats who are well equipped to administer the post-Ben Ali system.

Egypt: A young and highly disciplined protest movement

Whereas Tunisia’s uprising originated in rural areas, Egypt’s protest movement was a distinctly urban phenomenon. The sophisticated and tech-savvy activists who organized and sustained mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square were surprised by their own success, Anderson said.

  • Unexpected success: Based on the precedent of past protests that had failed to achieve their political objectives, many Egyptian activists were stunned when a movement originating on Facebook and Twitter eventually culminated in regime change.
  • A leaderless movement: The organizers of the January 25 uprising deliberately maintained a low profile to preserve the egalitarian and grassroots character of the movement. This strategy helped them evade repression by the authorities during the protests, but may not serve them as well in the post-revolutionary political realm. According to Anderson, the activists who exceled at mobilizing crowds in Tahrir Square are ill-equipped to compete effectively in a formal political process based on institutionalized parties.
  • Peaceful uprising: Youth activists recognized that a peaceful uprising was more likely to succeed than a violent one, and they repeatedly resisted efforts by Egyptian security forces and state-sponsored thugs to instigate violence in Tahrir Square.
  • Authoritarian negligence: While Tunisia’s brand of authoritarianism was highly predatory, former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was characterized by its neglect of citizens’ basic needs and grievances, Anderson said. Egyptians eventually lost patience with a government that was indifferent to the deterioration of public services and declining standards of living.
  • Endemic corruption: One of the greatest challenges facing Egypt’s next government, Anderson said, is an entrenched culture of corruption that permeates all levels of society. Due to the fact that public-sector salaries have not kept pace with rising inflation, virtually all government employees supplement their modest incomes by engaging in small-scale corruption and bribery. According to Anderson, pervasive corruption will persist until public employees are adequately compensated.
  • Optimistic prognosis: Although Egypt will face formidable economic and political challenges in the months ahead, Anderson was confident that the country will experience “a choppy, complicated, not easy, but ultimately successful transition.”

Libya: Violence continues

Despite the UN Security Council’s authorization of air strikes against the embattled regime of Moammar Qaddafi, Anderson expressed her fear that intervention will not prevent catastrophic violence against civilians.

  • A fragmented opposition: Resurgent tribalism and restrictions on the flow of information have prevented Libyan rebels from coalescing into a unified movement, Anderson said. Even if anti-government protesters survive the regime’s brutal crackdown, their internal disorganization will hinder the creation of a viable political alternative to Qaddafi’s regime.
  • Starting from scratch: For decades, Qaddafi deliberately prevented the growth of institutions, professional associations, a strong civil society, and a professional middle class that he feared might challenge the authoritarian status quo. In the absence of these elements, Anderson explained, Libyan reformers face the challenge of constructing an entirely new political system from the ground up.
  • An inevitable bloodbath: Qaddafi is determined to die a martyr of the revolution, and his rebel adversaries are just as unwilling to surrender, Anderson said. Neither side will relent, knowing that surrender means certain death, and Anderson doubted that foreign intervention will be able to prevent a protracted and highly destructive civil war.

Promoting positive outcomes

While Anderson was pessimistic about the prospects for a successful transition in Libya, she said that Egypt and Tunisia will be able to build upon existing institutional infrastructures and long traditions of civic engagement.

  • U.S. role in supporting transitions: Citizens in Tunisia and Egypt are genuinely “hungry” for information that would help them organize post-authoritarian political systems. Egyptians are looking to comparative case studies from Latin America and Eastern Europe as potential models for the post-Mubarak era, and the United States can provide valuable technical assistance and expertise over the course of the coming transitional process.
  • The role of education: Anderson said that the American University in Cairo and other academic institutions are essential to the process of producing informed and politically engaged citizens in the Arab world. The critical thinking skills that come with a liberal arts education will prepare young people to participate fully in democratizing political systems, she added.