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Egypt, Tunisia Find Trouble With Transition to Democracy Despite High Hopes

July 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest unrest for Egypt and Tunisia and how both countries have faced major challenges in establishing inclusive, pluralistic democracies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret is here with me for more.

So, Margaret, first on Egypt. What — with the government calling and the generals, the military leadership calling on people to go out on the street, stand up to the Islamists, what are they trying to accomplish?

MARGARET WARNER: The government and military, Judy, say essentially they’re trying to say to the Brotherhood, look, it’s over, get with the program, join in this transition that the military’s laid out, several months to a new constitution and new elections.

Instead, what the Brotherhood has been doing almost every day is having demonstrations and rallies against Morsi’s ouster, and people have been killed in the last three weeks. I saw the Egyptian ambassador this morning, who said to me: We are trying to send a political message to the Brotherhood that their support has shrunk and they need to come into this process.

But to people in the Brotherhood and people on the outside, it looks like the military may be looking for a mandate to crack down violently on what they call violence and terrorism. I mean, and state media’s been calling the Brotherhood terrorists. So I think we will know frankly in the next few days or weeks which interpretation is right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Brotherhood not backing down at this point.

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MARGARET WARNER: Not — no sign of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, meanwhile, military leaders also, as you just reported, conducting a serious investigation into the former president, Mr. Morsi, looking at murder and conspiracy charges. What’s that all about?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, he’s been held incommunicado for three weeks. No one’s even known exactly where he was.

So now they come out with these charges. The case is very complicated. There was a big jailbreak three days after the uprising started. There were actually many prison breaks. And, in this particular one, Morsi, who was in as a political prisoner, was freed.

And now what’s serious about the charges is he’s accused of conspiring with a “foreign entity” — quote, unquote — namely Hamas, the radical group Hamas from Gaza and elsewhere, to pull this off, with guards killed. What it looks like to critics of the military government is this is the same-old/same-old that you saw from the Mubarak government, which is if they did level charges against political opponents, they were trumped-up charges.

And so far, no evidence has been offered that Morsi himself was involved in planning this raid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is supposed to be a new government with a new approach.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Tunisia, another part of North Africa, where there’s been unrest and now there’s this political assassination, what’s the situation there?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, Tunisia seemed much farther along in the path to actually building an inclusive democratic government.

Just like in Egypt, the Islamists won. This party called Ennahda won the elections, but they reached out and brought in some small secular parties to their government. In fact, the head of Ennahda was here maybe a year or so ago. I went to a small lunch for him, Rached Ghannouchi. And he said: We are going to demonstrate that Islamism and democracy are not incompatible.

Their problem has been — or they’re accused now of holding on to power too long, being in power longer than they were supposed to, and not cracking down, in fact, coddling the more extreme radical Islamists the Salafis, who’ve been marauding through universities, attacking women for not wearing the veil, preaching a sort of imposition of their views.

So this is a very — and these — and now, of course, accused of these assassinations, the radical Islamists. So this is a difficult point for Tunisia. The one — another big difference though with Egypt is that the military reportedly has absolutely no taste to intervene, so that the warring political factions do have to deal with one another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Tunisia is a place we have not been paying a great deal of attention to, until now, that is.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Margaret, just to pull it all together, to step back, two countries that were in the lead when the Arab spring began, and here we are in 2013, nothing seems resolved, all this violence. I mean, what do you — how do you — how should we see this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, I think there is a connecting thread here. As you said, these were two of the countries, the ones that actually — with the highest hopes that they could make this transition from dictatorship to democracy.

They both have a sense of nationhood. They have enough of an educated class and so on. Instead, in both countries, what we’re seeing is they have not resolved this fundamental conflict between — over the role of Islam in government. They have not also been able to resolve how do you bring different points of view into a government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why not?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, my theory is that, when you have had people live under oppression for decades and decades, where no rival political parties are, if allowed to exist, not flourish, or in the case of the Brotherhood and the Islamists, they’re in jail, in hiding, or in exile, and then suddenly the boot is taken off their neck, they have no experience in politics. They have no experience in governing.

And it’s not in their sort of social, cultural, political DNA to understand that democratic government actually involves give-and-take and trusting, that if your rival happens to be on top, he’s not going to use it, he’s not going to use the power to impose absolute power, because, after all, that’s what they have all experienced.

I talked to Marwan Muasher today, a former foreign minister of Jordan, a big thinker about moderation in the Arab world, and he said, what connects these two is that the commitment to pluralistic democracy is really skin-deep. Neither the seculars nor the Islamists really believe in inclusion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, I know a lot of us struggling to understand all this. This helps a lot. Thank you.