By Ibrahim Natil

This paper studies the different concepts, notions and visions of the Civil State in the post Arab spring countries of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.


It is essential to discuss several factors and shifts that challenged the civil state, as follows:

1- State Structure of the Former Regime

After the revolution, the Tunisian leadership represented by the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party won the majority of the elections in the National Constituent Assembly and Congress, as the Republic Party, headed by Moncef Marzouki, exercised political maturity in cooperation and power sharing.

The Ennahda Party led the interim government and Marzouki was appointed as the interim President. They have different ideologies, interests and agendas, but they shared common interests and values to achieve the demands, reforms and goals raised by the revolution.

The new leaders of Tunisia realized that no single party could govern alone and solve the enormous challenges presented by the transitional period. The new leaders of Tunisia exercised a high level of tolerance and political maturity when they retained the laws of the former President, Habib Bourguiba, regarding women’s rights and public freedom.

These rights are core issues and an essential component of secular or civil state today. The new leaders did not make drastic changes to the fundamental bureaucracy, the state’s security and juridical systems of the former regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In the meantime, the security agency also behaved in a professional manner and did not engage in the public debate of political differences with civil society groups. This also assisted preserving the nature of the civil state of Tunisia.

More importantly, the National Constituent Assembly’s interim body that governed the country did not issue any legislation regarding political isolation which would have prevented veteran statesmen of the former regime from political life (as occurred in Egypt, Iraq and Libya).

The Ennahd party avoided this political adventure that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) of Egypt and Libya encouraged and promoted. Ennahda’s leaders reconciled and tolerated the state’s security agencies that suppressed and oppressed them for many years under Bin Ali’s regime, as Rached Ghannouchi confirms.

Ghannouchi advocates that all Tunisians are now equal under the constitution and has also admitted that his party learnt from the failed experiences of the political isolation process in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Iraq.

Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi is the spiritual leader of the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party who advocated this new model of partnership with the liberal forces. He was the mastermind of cooperation between his Islamist party and liberalist groups in delivering a very unique model of cooperation between the two different ideologies.

This model succeeded in ratifying a consensual constitution of a civil state for all Tunisians during the transitional period. It is very rare that liberalist and Islamist groups work and cooperate together in the Arab world, as people have had no experience of exercising political participation in a transparent electoral process.

Nonetheless, the crisis of Muslim Brotherhood governance and the setbacks of the Arab revolutions also influenced the political landscape of Tunisia.

2. Violent Jihadist

The violent Salafist Jihadist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda also imposed another threat for the new civil state in Tunisia. Jihadist groups rejected the participation of Islamic parties such as Ennahd in a civil and political participation process.

Violent Jihadists seek to build the Islamic state and destroy the civil state as they believe it has stemmed from western values. The Tunisian government used an ‘iron fist’ policy with regard to those groups.

Ennahd did not tolerate or sympathize publically with these actions in Tunisia. The MB in Egypt, however, was more tolerant with the violent groups and encouraged the Egyptian Salfist Jihadist to fight in Syria against the Al Asad regime. Former Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, called for Jihad in Syria before his supporters in June 2013.

In February 2013, Tunisia entered a very critical point in its political history when the leftist wing activist, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated. This act of terrorism deepened the mistrust and conflict between the Islamist led government and the opposition.

The government failed, however, to provide a viable alternative to ease the tension when the left-wing Member of Parliament, Mohamed Brahimi was murdered on July 24, 2013.

This severe political crisis paved the way once again for the Tunisian General Labour Union, UGTT, to mediate in-an arduous negotiation between the government and opposition, and to draw a political road map to save the country from violence and terrorism.

Since 2012, violent groups have caused the deaths of 66 security personnel. The candidates for the first presidential election since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali pledged to restore Tunisians’ “security and order”

A number of extremists, however, benefited from the amnesty given to political prisoners after the January 2011 revolution. Tunisians also believed that about 3,000 of their young countrymen joined Islamist groups in Syria and northern Iraq.

3- Empowered Civil Society

The Tunisians are active in civil society organisations such as syndicates, unions and political parties. The civil society of Tunisia is very strong with its liberalism and modernism, for example, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is the biggest civil society organization.

It has always played an essential and historical role in the political and social life of Tunisia. UGTT has taken a leading position in Tunisian life, from fighting for independence to the transitional period post 2011 revolution.

Civil society organisations like UGTT led the national dialogue quartet – that contributed strongly to the ratification of the first constitution on January 26, 2014.

The national dialogue quartet, including the powerful central union forces, i.e. the UGTT; the Tunisian Union of Industry; Commerce and Handicrafts; the Bar Association, and the Tunisian Human Rights League conducted very hard and tense negotiations with the different political factions, in order to agree on a consensual constitution.

UGTT led also the dialogue for replacing the Islamist led government by a new government, in order to prepare the country for a new election. UGTT succeeded in performing this complicated role as there was a balance between all of the Tunisian social and political spectrums.

The national dialogue succeeded as various parties were fully committed to saving the country from terrorism and avoiding the Egyptian scenario.

In October 2014, the Tunisian people changed their priorities and did not elect the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party again as the main party, as they did in the transitional period.

They changed their priorities after having tried Ennahda as the party of government. Ennahda accepted its political weight as a second party in the first parliament after the revolution. Ennahda also sought to cooperate with the “Tunisia Call” party, the main party in the parliament led by Beji Caid Sebsi, the former veteran statesman of 50 years.

He was 88 years old when elected president in free and transparent elections in December 2014. The Tunisian politicians, therefore, succeeded in saving civil state of Tunisia under a new constitution.

I think that all Tunisian political parties and civil society groups from different spectrums, showed a high level of political maturity in rebuilding a new civil state for all citizens under their consensual constitution.

They introduced their experience, education and orientation in producing a special school of politics that learned from other scenarios in the Middle East to save their countries from violence and terrorism.

Liberalism v Islamism

Egypt also inspired the world when the various political factions, students and civil society groups stayed side-by-side in the Egyptian squares, and Tahrir Square in 6particular, to demand the fall of the old and long-term regime of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. The revolution, however, had witnessed a number of setbacks due to a conflict of interests and a lack of sincere cooperation between the various political groups from the liberals to the Islamists.

They agreed to oust the regime, but they failed to agree on the future of the state’s identity and power sharing. The conflict had also arrived a different stage when the Military Council, veterans of Mubarak’s regime, led the country in a transitional period to prepare for presidential and parliamentarian elections.

During the transitional period, the military council also allowed groups with religious backgrounds and agendas, such as MB, to establish political parties for the first time in modern Egypt.

The shifting the political landscape imposed a number of challenges to the character of the civil state in Egypt. It is, therefore, essential to discuss the following:

1. Political Isolation Act

During the transitional period governed by the Military Council, the High Court of Egypt dissolved and liquidated the National Party headed by Hosni Mubarak that had monopolised political life for more than 30 years.

The court also isolated all of its leaders and key figures from political participation. This isolation imposed a real challenge for the progress of the revolution, as an important segment of society was prevented from practising and becoming engaged in the new political process.

This segment had a strong influence over a number of constituencies in various parts of Egypt. It had also witnessed a number of protests, and economic and political crises amongst the Military Council, liberal and MB groups who had imposed a number of challenges to the revolution and the progress of Dawla Madaniyya (civil state).

A number of liberal political factions, however, including the Al Wafd “delegation” party, made an electoral alliance with MB. Al Wafd is the oldest political party in Egypt and was established when Egypt was under British rule.

Al Wafd made an electoral alliance with MB, but it was dissolved before the elections took place owing to technical and political differences.

Turkey’s former Prime Minister, however, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an Islamist leader, advised MB to maintain a secular constitution. He clearly supported the political transformation in Egypt during his highly popular visit there and hoped that the new regime would be secular.

MB rejected his advice to consider a secular constitution at that stage at least. Liberal forces felt that MB and political Islam groups had hijacked the revolution and that MB had coordinated secretly with the Military Council without engaging the revolution forces.

MB put candidates forward for both parliamentarian and presidential elections despite the fact that had declared they would not participate in the presidential elections. MB’s candidates won the majority of the parliamentary elections and the presidency in 2012. MB won the elections easily because the liberal and civil parties were fragmented and divided.

The nature of the electoral system also assisted MB, as a religious and well-prepared group, to advocate for the majority of rural and poor 7people. During this short period of MB’s governance, Egypt witnessed a number of economic, political, juridical and security crises.

Most political parties, civil society groups and leaders who had participated side-by-side with MB in the revolution of 2011, left them alone. MB also entered into various conflicts with the state’s main pillars and bureaucracies of security, jurisdiction and media.

These bureaucracies have been rooted in Egyptian culture, social, and political life for more than 70 years. MB’s government also imposed a number of policies to Islamise society including drafting, developing and ratifying the constitution without consensus.

This process created a very tense relationship between the different segments of society and MB during the year of governance. MB did not learn from or follow its sister group in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party that shared power with other groups whose different ideological agendas helped to manage the different crises of governance, post revolution.

MB refused calls from the army and civil society groups to hold a national dialogue. Ennahda, however, accepted and participated in the efforts of the national dialogue quartet and mediations of civil society organisations such as the Labour Union – UGTT.

UGTT played a very significant and key role in mediating the conflict between Islamists and the opposition. The Ennahda party relinquished power and left the government for the sake of Tunisia after MB’s crisis in Egypt.

The experience of MB in governance assisted the Tunisia Islamist sister Ennahda in learning the lesson. MB also failed to control all of the state’s main powers in Egypt within a very short period. It failed to provide a different and a common ground model of governance for management of the crises after the revolution.

Egypt experienced a severe political crisis when violence and terrorism erupted, and witnessed a high level of casualties when different civil society groups and political parties including “Al Azhar” and Church cooperated with the army.

They succeeded in ousting the president and his government in a popular protest on July 3, 2013. The country then entered into

another transitional period as the level of violence and terrorism escalated.

2. Violence and Zero Tolerance History

The conflict about power has cost Egypt hundreds of lives during the last four years. Egypt has suffered from waves of violence and terrorism since the revolutions of both 2011 and 2013.

Egyptian revolutions have revived the old conflicts between Muslim

Brotherhood Society, MB and the Army in Egypt which started with the Free Officer Revolution in 1952. Free Officers led by Jamal Abed Nasser were assisted by members of MB to oust King Farouk of Egypt, transforming the state into a Republic.

Abed Nasser, who later became president, appointed free officers to key positions at all levels, in order to reform the political and economic system. This became a tradition in the public life of Egypt continuing until the present .

The Free Officers’ regime and MB, however, were engaged in a conflict after the revolution. Abed Nasser’s regime accused the members of MB of plotting the failed assassination attempt of President Abed Nasser in Alexandria on 26 October 1954, resulting in the movement being banned, with 18,000 of its members being arrested.

The Egyptian army has been an important key player in the economic and political life of Egypt for more than 70 years. They manage business, public and private companies, governorates and key vital civil institutions.

They are well represented and exist in the social and political life of Egypt. It is impossible to remove their influence and army’s engagement in civil life very quickly.

It seems that this conflict between two sides was an ideological rift over the nature and the function of the state and authority. MB viewed secular Egyptian culture as immoral, decadent, and atheistic, maintaining that “Islam hooah al-hal” (Islam is the solution to all Egyptian and mankind’s ills).

This conflict extended to the regimes of Al Sadat and Mubarak who inherited the regime of Abed Nasser. Mubarak’s regime allowed MB to run their social, health, religious and economic activities, as long as they did not engage in politics. Mistrust and conflict between MB and the army has historical roots.


Dr Ibrahim Natil is currently a lecturer at Centre for Talented Youth Ireland, and a fellow at Institute of International Conflict Resolution, Dublin City University.


Source: The Arab Spring, Civil Society, and Innovative Activism (Author: Ibrahim Natil) affiliated with School of Politics and International Relations University College Dublin Ireland


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