The contrast this week between political decisions by the governments in Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt capture vividly the two available pathways for Arab national development. For the first time ever in modern Arab history, Arab citizens across the region can witness how life, politics, and citizenship operate in two alternative systems based, respectively, on the rule of law and democratic pluralism, in the case of Tunisia, and on top-heavy, family-based, security-managed governance systems in most other Arab states, with Bahrain and Egypt offering the most recent unfortunate examples.
The Tunisian Prime Minister, Habib Essid, did two noteworthy things in recent weeks that capture the benefits of a pluralistic democracy. A few weeks ago he presented a government that only included two parties, but his desire to keep power in the hands of a narrow elite was rejected by the newly elected parliament. So two days ago he presented another government that includes five parties, with one cabinet post — employment minister — for the Ennahda Islamist party. What a refreshing thrill to see a prime minister in an Arab country retract a restricted cabinet proposal due to parliamentary opposition that reflects the will of the citizenry, and instead offer a more inclusive government that better reflects the consent of the governed.
In contrast, in Bahrain and Egypt — two other Arab states that experienced popular uprisings four years ago that sought to temper their long-standing autocratic systems in favor of more democratic and pluralistic governance — the citizenry experienced two demeaning blows this week. Bahrain revoked the citizenship of 72 of its nationals, accusing them of actions that threatened national security, and Egypt continued to use its legal system to make a mockery of itself, its citizens, and the rule of law.
After a mass trial, an Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 183 men to death for the killing of 13 police in August 2013, while imprisoned Egyptian and foreign journalists had to resort to acceding to the dubious new regulations instituted by President Abdel Fattah Sisi in order to gain their freedom. Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, an Australian citizen, was allowed to leave the country after 400 days in prison on the most outlandish and totally unsubstantiated charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and fomenting trouble; his colleague Mohammad Fahey is expected to give up his Egyptian citizenship, but retain his Canadian one, in order to leave jail and leave the country. Their colleague Baher Mohammad does not have any of these options, because he is only an Egyptian citizen, with few rights.
There are two big problems with the behavior of the Bahraini and Egyptian governments. The first is that the substance of their actions is egregiously against any credible standards of human rights, and judicial credibility and integrity, especially in denying citizenship to their own nationals. Citizenship is not a bonus that people get for good behavior; it is a fundamental and essential human right that people are entitled to at birth in any country. Egypt and Bahrain are behaving more like country clubs than countries, in making citizenship like a membership that one obtains or maintains for good behavior. They mock every human rights and citizen rights convention known to humankind.
The second and bigger problem perhaps is that the Egyptian and Bahraini governments take these actions within the permissible parameters of their own laws. This has been a continuous problem in Arab countries since the 1960s or so, when officers and autocratic families started taking control of virtually all Arab governments, and manipulated the political and legal systems to suit their primary aim of eliminating any opposition and staying in power forever. The consequence of that process includes the painful national wrecks we see most dramatically today in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, and lesser internal fragmentation in half a dozen other Arab states.
The common problem is that such military-based governments carry out the most demeaning policies — torture, long-term and mass imprisonment, closing media outlets, shooting their own citizens, and outlawing political and civil society groups — on the basis that their laws permit such behavior. They create laws that perpetuate lawlessness, and ultimately lead to violence and chaos. We have watched this happen in Bahrain in the last four years, and we now witness aspects of this process of national decay in parts of Egypt.
The importance of the Tunisian constitutional and democratic transition continuing and succeeding cannot be over-emphasized, because Tunisia offers the first home-grown Arab alternative to the kind of shameful state conduct in the Arab region that we witnessed this week in Egypt and Bahrain. The modern legacy of brutal, military-based governance sanctioned by dubious laws and non-credible legal systems remains the scourge of the modern Arab world.
Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt show us the options we face. I honor and choose Tunisia, as I suspect do most of the 360 million Arabs who can speak freely, if they are not in jail and have not had their citizenship revoked.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.