North Africa again in the grip of political ferment

7 October 2019
Egyptian anti-government protesters gathered in Cairo. REUTERS. Egyptian anti-government protesters gathered in Cairo. REUTERS.
Tunisians delivered a stinging rebuke to the political establishment in the first round of presidential elections last month and parliamentary elections over the weekend, Egyptians recently staged their country's largest protests in years, and Algerians continue their quest for a new political system after ousting longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. As Eurasia Group expert Zachary Burk explains, these developments are largely driven by some of the same dynamics that set off the Arab Spring movement of 2011: corruption and the failure of the political class to address the economic woes of the population.


The most successful democratic experiment to emerge from the Arab Spring is facing fresh challenges this electoral season as voter frustrations mount. The consensus-based governing framework that has been in place since 2011 has proved less efficient and still suffers from many of the ills of the old regime: corruption, red-tape, cronyism, and influence of vested interests over policymaking. These shortcomings have caused much disappointment among the citizenry, which had expected the Tunisian revolution to usher in political change but also address social concerns such as inequality, unemployment, poverty in many interior regions, and low incomes generally. Economic failings are starting to undermine Tunisians' belief in the new political freedoms being worth the cost.

Preliminary results for yesterday's parliamentary election results are not expected to be available until Wednesday, but voters are broadly expected to have favored a number of new populist formations at the expense of the parties that have been at the helm of the political system since 2011. A high degree of fragmentation will likely lead to difficulties in forming a new government. Another issue looming over Tunisian politics is the continued imprisonment of presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, a media mogul who has positioned himself as a champion of the poor through his charity work. Though detained on charges of tax fraud and money laundering, he was one of the top performers in the first round of the presidential vote last month, alongside Kais Said, a political outsider constitutional lawyer who embodies the “anti-system” vote. The results of the second round of presidential elections, now confirmed for 13 October, will almost certainly be contested by Karoui's camp, which will delay the nomination of Tunisia's next president and could further complicate government formation.


President Abdelfattah el Sisi, a former military officer, has leveraged full force of the state's security apparatus in recent weeks to contain the country's largest protests in years, likely sapping momentum from the surprise surge in activism. Still, the potential for continued small scale protests remains and will continue to be an annoyance for authorities. The protests were originally set off by allegations of corruption in the military and government waste by exiled businessman Mohamed Ali. Sisi now has to adapt, and will do so with a bit of political opening and economic stabilization efforts for poorer classes, though the magnitude of the challenge is immense: more than 30% of Egypt's population of nearly 100 million people is classified as poor* according to government statistics, though the proportion of vulnerable citizens is likely much higher.

Sisi has ruled since 2014, when the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president in a brief but tumultuous experiment with democracy ushered in by the Arab Spring. Seeking to restore political and economic stability, Sisi has ruled with an iron fist. But the government has been unable to stimulate investment and encourage job creation, and economic conditions have continued to deteriorate. An IMF bailout came with the requirement to enact tough reforms needed to put government finances on a more sustainable trajectory. But these reforms have created more short-term pain, especially for the poorer classes that have grown increasingly desperate, setting the stage for the most recent protests. People are not asking for full systemic political change really; they just want the economy to do better.


The country was largely bypassed by the Arab Spring movement for change eight years ago. Though protests also broke out across Algeria in 2011, the Bouteflika regime was able to pacify the restive population with an increase in public-sector wages and other handouts. It benefited from high energy prices at the time that had bolstered public sector accounts. But then the economic situation deteriorated, heightening discontent with Bouteflika, who hasn't been seen in public for several years after suffering a debilitating stroke. His reelection campaign for a fifth term in office early this year proved to be the last straw, triggering a mass protest movement demanding an end to the regime that won the backing of the country's powerful military. Bouteflika was eventually forced from office, and the vote was postponed.**

Ensuing events have been influenced by those in Egypt, where an effective counterrevolution was mounted and the same system largely remains in place. Algerian protesters know that the military has secretly been pulling the strings the whole time in Algeria (as in Egypt) and are not content with a change in faces. They do not want a repeat of the Egyptian experience and are asking for systemic change, which is adamantly opposed by the military and other vested interests. At the same time, opposition forces in Algeria are wary of the chaos that has been unleashed by political openings in countries such as Syria (and to a lesser extent in Egypt), giving the military a strong bargaining position over the shape of the political transition. The current military-backed government is likely to push through elections by the end of the year, but they are likely to be marred by low turnout.

*A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the size of Egypt's population and poverty rate. The error has been corrected.
**This article previously misstated the circumstances leading up to Bouteflika's departure from office. The error has been corrected.
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