Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, and within a few weeks it had spread to neighboring Egypt. Today, 2 1/2 years later, Tunisia is close to ratifying a democratic constitution with well over two-thirds’ support in the constituent assembly. Egypt, as the world knows, is in the throes of a military coup that removed the democratically elected president. The obvious -- and crucial -- question is: What’s the difference? Why has democratic constitutionalism worked relatively well in one North African Arab country while it has crashed and burned in another? And what will the answer tell us about the future of democracy in the Arabic-speaking world, from Libya to Syria and beyond?

You might think the answer has something to do with Islam. But remarkably enough, it doesn’t. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the first democratic elections produced significant pluralities favoring Islamic democratic parties. Ennahda, the Islamist movement whose political party won in Tunisia, is ideologically similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a kind of associate of the Brotherhood’s loosely affiliated internationale. Both parties believe in combining Islamic values with democratic practice. Both accept a political role for women and equal citizenship for non-Muslims, even if in practice they are both socially conservative and seek the gradual, voluntary Islamization of society.

Contrasting Styles

The contrasting personalities and styles of their leaders, however, have pushed Ennahda and the Brotherhood to behave differently when negotiating religion with secularists in their respective countries. Rachid Ghannouchi, the spiritual leader of the Tunisian Islamists, has emerged as the closest thing to an Islamic Nelson Mandela. During his decades in exile, Ghannouchi wrote extensively about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and developed a relatively liberal vision of how Islam and the state should interact.

Skeptics then claimed that Ghannouchi’s views were a cover for a more radical agenda; and some Tunisian secularists still think so. But the evidence thus far is sharply to the contrary. When Islamists called for inserting a reference to Shariah into the Tunisian constitution -- usually the sine qua non for any Islamic political party -- Ghannouchi took seriously the opposition from secularists. In a dramatic showdown with members of his own party’s leadership, he reportedly threatened to resign unless they dropped the measure.

This may have been the turning point in Tunisia’s constitutional process. Ghannouchi’s position is straightforward: He wants Tunisians to adopt Islamic values, but piety means nothing if imposed by coercion. Islam, he believes, will succeed in persuading people to adopt its truths more effectively if they don’t have its teachings shoved down their throats.

Ghannouchi’s diehard critics would say that omitting Shariah from the constitutional draft was only a tactical retreat, not an ideological one. But if they are right, that is yet another reason why Tunisia’s constitutional process is working: Leaders have displayed willingness to compromise in the face of ideological opposition.

By contrast, when Mohamed Mursi was president, he proved disastrously unwilling to negotiate during Egypt’s truncated constitutional drafting process. The Brotherhood could have shown its good faith by moderating the various Islamic provisions it sought to incorporate. It wouldn’t even have had to omit Shariah, a reference to which was already included in Egypt’s pre-revolutionary constitution. Instead, the Brotherhood went further, giving constitutional authority to the clerics of al-Azhar. Compromise alone wouldn’t have forestalled the protests that led to Mursi’s overthrow. But it would have signaled a willingness to govern on behalf of the whole populace, not just those who voted for the Brotherhood.

Sharing Responsibility

The willingness to share governing responsibility is probably the single-most-salient factor separating Tunisia’s relative success from Egypt’s disaster. Ennahda has governed as part of a coalition with secularist parties, whose members filled the positions of president and speaker of the Assembly alongside Ennahda’s prime minister.

This so-called troika of parties has often been dysfunctional and has failed to take decisive action on the economy, which is the most important national issue and the impetus to the Arab Spring in the first place. But the symbolic power of the coalition has helped ensure that frustration about the slow pace of economic change hasn’t focused solely on Ennahda, but on the government more generally. In contrast, Mursi failed to appoint a coalition Cabinet with any meaningful breadth. Anger at shortages and a failing economy then fell squarely on him and his party.

This isn’t a new problem. Autocratic government has been the curse of Arab states since decolonization. The Arabic-speaking public lacks a political culture experienced in democratic power sharing.

The tradition of unchecked presidential power explains both how Mursi could have tried to govern without compromise, and how the protesters could have come to see him as a dictator worthy of being deposed, even though he was elected democratically. Both sides somehow imagined that an elected president would be a bit like an unelected one: all-powerful, all-responsible, and the sole focus of positive and negative political energy.

But democracy doesn’t work that way, at least in societies that feature fierce political divisions and disagreement. Democracy requires parties to learn to work together and take account of one another’s interests. Those out of power must believe they will eventually be re-elected, and those in power must know they, too, will cycle out. That alone creates incentives to treat the opposition with political consideration and moral respect.

After ratifying its new constitution, Tunisia will have to elect a president. Unfortunately, the draft gives that post more power than would be ideal -- a weaker president would have to rely more on partners, and a purely parliamentary system would be better still. But one can only hope that the lessons of coalition won’t be forgotten. As for Egypt, democracy will become sustainable only if power can be shared -- under a future constitution that puts civilians ahead of the military and bestows authority not on a single man or woman, but on the full range of the people’s representatives.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @NoahRFeldman.)

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman at noah_feldman@harvard.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net