Safwan M. Masri | Workers and Soldiers: The role of institutions in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions

By Safwan M. Masri

Very little is understood about why Tunisia, the country that gave birth to the Arab Spring, has been the only democracy to emerge from it. “Why Tunisia?” is a question that has resonated among Arabs yearning for similar democratic outcomes and wondering why such freedoms remain out of their reach. Inspired by Tunisia’s example, Arab publics rose up in expectant defiance, first in solidarity with Tunisians but then for change in its own right at home, setting into motion a domino effect that became known as the “Arab Spring.” But that spring quickly turned into a dark and stormy winter, crushing all hopes for better lives and representative governments for those who had challenged the repressive status quo.

Egypt takes the prize when it comes to a revolution that dashed democratic hopes almost as quickly as it had created them. Twice, “democratic” methods were used to bring down democracy—first by the Muslim Brotherhood and then by the military. The nondemocratic conduct of the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, brought about their fall at the hands of the military, who seized power “in defense of democracy” and were subsequently “democratically” elected only to revert back to Mubarak-style military rule.

By contrast, the uprisings that took place in Tunisia during December 2010 and January 2011 and culminated in the toppling of autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali yielded a democracy that is unique in an Arab context. By 2015, less than four years after the Jasmine Revolution, the country had adopted a progressive constitution, held fair parliamentary elections, and ushered in the country’s first-ever democratically elected president. For the first time in an Arab country, an Islamist party, Ennahda, dropped its Islamist label and redefined itself, in May 2016, as a party of Muslim democrats—shifting its political focus to the country’s economy and banning party leadership from participating in religious and charitable organizations or preaching in mosques.

The singular Arab Spring success story of Tunisia has become an object of fascination for policy analysts, activists, political pundits, and journalists alike. Frustrated, disillusioned, but wanting to be inspired and hopeful, they have prophesied more positive political outcomes elsewhere based on a Tunisian model. Some have even bravely declared that Tunisia may have replaced Israel as the singular functional democracy in the region—Arab and otherwise. They describe Tunisia’s success in lofty prose, proclaiming that “the birth of this first fully fledged Arab democracy could offer a model of hope amid the feverish voices of despair and nihilism, and the backdrop of military dictators, corrupt theocrats, and militant anarchists.”[1]

Therein lies one of the most common and misguided propositions about Tunisia—namely, that its successful transition to democracy can serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world and that the factors that led to Tunisia’s democracy could be, if not easily, replicated. This theory is based on a set of assumptions, some explicit and others less so, that are flawed. The factors that led to Tunisia’s successful transition were either indigenous to Tunisia or many generations in the making.

Perhaps no ingredient has been as decisive as Tunisia’s remarkable culture of reform, which dates back to the nineteenth century and is rooted in a progressive and adaptive brand of Islam. Reformism has been critical to the nation’s evolution into a progressive and tolerant society. It made it possible for Tunisia to embrace a globalized version of the world, rather than retreat into the past in self-preservation, like so many Arab countries. Tunisian reformism is a way of thinking — evident in the way Tunisians interpret their history that facilitates a sense of social cohesion and national unity. Reformism and ‘tunisianité’ are inextricable, jointly embodying Tunisian specificity or exceptionalism. Tunisia’s history of reformism has led to a distinctly Tunisian sense of ‘modernity,’ which combines Western modernity with a unique national identity and a shared heritage with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Several other factors account for the qualified success of the Tunisian experience. In contrast to the many failed states of the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia has a small and relatively homogeneous population; sectarian tensions are nonexistent. There is a robust tradition of civil society engagement rooted in strong labor union movements that date back to the 1920s. Tunisia is also — with the exception of Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Morocco and Oman — the only nation in the Arab world whose boundaries have historical legitimacy predating the colonial era. Moreover, Tunisia has been largely spared from international interference, not having the geopolitical importance and consequential military build-up of a place like Egypt. This very “weakness”–absence from the scene of a strong, large, and political army–turned out to be one of Tunisia’s greatest strengths. Unlike in Egypt, Tunisia was spared the threat of military intervention or takeover on the heels of Ben Ali’s ouster.

French influence had instilled an apolitical attitude in the Tunisian army, which was reinforced by Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president following independence. The republican army, which Bourguiba had built with the assistance of former French colonial troops, was limited in size and budget. In 1985, the armed forces numbered a mere 35,000. Bourguiba instead had his own security apparatus, including a national guard under the ministry of the interior. Wary of the frequent military interventions in eastern Arab countries, he purposely kept the army separate from the political realm. Military expenditures rarely exceeded 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) even under Ben Ali, who did expand the army but not as fast as he did the police. Ben Ali continued to view military officers with suspicion and exclude them from the political arena.

During Tunisia’s revolution, the army often provided cover and was considered an ally while security forces under the auspices of the interior ministry attacked protesters. Demonstrators cheered soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets. Videos and images showed soldiers saluting protesters and being thanked and kissed by them. Members of the armed forces likely supported, or at least sympathized with, the demands of the revolution.

Whereas Tunisia boasts a small and relatively weak army, the opposite is true in Egypt, which shares a border with Israel and whose 1952 revolution was very much a military coup. Soon after the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and took control in July 2013, they quickly moved to reverse their marginalization under Morsi. The National Defense Council, which had become majority-civilian under Morsi, reverted back to being majority-military. Egyptians’ distrust of Islamists led to the judiciary dissolving the democratically elected parliament, following a precedent set by the Supreme Constitutional Court, first in 1987 and again in 1990. In Tunisia, no judicial body has the authority to nullify elections.

A strong military presence has been characteristic of Egypt’s polity since the reign of Muhammad Ali. Every Egyptian president since 1952, with the exception of Mohamed Morsi, has been a military officer. Eighteen generals led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—the interim government after Mubarak’s fall. The Tunisian military, on the other hand, had neither the power nor the political desire to intervene in matters of governance and politics.

What Egypt had in military strength that obstructed a democratic process, Tunisia had in the potency of its labor movement, which facilitated its democratic transition. To understand Tunisia, it is essential to understand its labor movement—unparalleled in the Arab world. The Stanford historian Joel Beinin asserts that the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) is “the single most important reason that Tunisia is a democracy today.”[2] UGTT has been intricately interwoven with, and largely shaped by, Tunisia’s intellectual reform movements, particularly those of the early twentieth century, and by notable intellectuals such as Tahar Haddad.

With three-quarters of a million dues-paying members, UGTT has been critically involved at every stage of the transition since the revolution. Because UGTT can mobilize thousands of members through its 150 offices across the country, it can bring the country to an economic standstill. The Sidi Bouzid branch was seen as the driving force behind the initial protests that erupted in Mohamed Bouazizi’s home governorate on the day of his self-immolation on December 17, 2010, the marker of the beginning of the revolution. It was the activism of UGTT’s local branches that forced the executive bureau to support anti–Ben Ali protests, and more local branches became involved across the country as the protests spread. The role of UGTT after the revolution should not be underestimated either. The union played a decisive political role—intervening when there were deadlocked political processes—on a number of occasions, including its anchoring of the Quartet du dialogue national in 2013.

The pluralistic nature of Tunisian politics during the transition, and the role played by UGTT, ensured that Ennahda could not extend its tenure the way the Muslim Brotherhood tried to do in Egypt. Supporters of the idea that there is proof in the Tunisian experience that Islam and democracy are compatible claim that Ennahda willingly gave up power to a non- Islamist party. But Ennahda did not have the political backing to stay in power in the first place; it was pushed out.

Rallies in 2013 demanding Ennahda’s removal from power—on the heels of political assassinations in which it was accused of playing a role—paralleled the protests that preceded the ousting of Egypt’s President Morsi. Secularists in Tunisia became as distrustful of Ennahda as Egyptians were of the Muslim Brotherhood. Survey data from the Arab Barometer revealed that the percentage of secularists in Tunisia who had “absolutely no trust” in Islamists had grown from 37.6 percent in 2011 to 64.9 percent in 2013, compared to 44.1 percent in 2011 and 76.4 percent in 2013 in Egypt. Ghannouchi had no trouble confirming that Ennahda was careful not to have a repeat in Tunisia of the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The presence of a strong army derailed Egypt’s prospects for democracy, just as the strength of Tunisia’s labor movement helped usher in its democracy. In sharp contrast to the situation in Egypt, UGTT mitigated political conflict and brought in other credible civil society actors to help move the process along. The accomplishments of the Quartet underscored a Tunisian scenario that offered more than just political parties and standard political processes.

In Egypt, where economic grievances and workers’ demands played an equally important role in its revolution as they did in Tunisia, the unions worked against the protesters, siding with Mubarak and his regime in 2011. Any planning and organization of protests that occurred during the revolution was led by Islamist organizations, not unions.

Leading up to the revolution, protests that were staged by workers between 2004 and 2010 occurred largely without the support of the leadership of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), the Egyptian equivalent — in name — to UGTT. In response to cumulative moves by Mubarak in 2004 to trim and privatize the public sector, labor unrest reached a level during that period that the country had not seen for decades. But ETUF, rendered politically impotent by the regime, supported only one strike during the entire reign of Mubarak.

Workers distrusted the federation, aware that its actions were often in the interest of the regime and at the expense of the worker. Faith in ETUF was so low among workers that the “Demands of the Workers in the Revolution” front demanded the dissolution of ETUF and described it as “one of the most important symbols of corruption under the defunct regime.”

Egyptian trade unions date back to 1919 and, as in the case of Tunisia, they played an important role in the independence movement. But Gamal Abdel Nasser brutally crushed unions and he created instead a national labor federation in 1957 in the form of ETUF — originally named the Egyptian Workers Federation — as an instrument of the state. The creation of the federation, which focused almost exclusively on the public sector, marked the end of organized labor. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, rank-and-file workers were given economic benefits, including job security, in exchange for their political quiescence; unions became tools for political control.

In contrast, while Bourguiba and Ben Ali had a checkered history with Tunisia’s UGTT, often trying to bring it under their control, they nonetheless gave the union some electoral autonomy, believing that it would provide an outlet for debate and dissent. Tunisia’s political structure was—for all practical purposes—a one-party system, but through the labor movement and UGTT, Tunisians sustained a vibrant culture of political activism and gained practical experience in procedural democracy.

After the revolution, UGTT was the one institution in Tunisia able to fill the power void left by Ben Ali in a way similar, albeit with a different approach, to the Egyptian military. The civil society that UGTT helped to create took hold of an orphaned revolution and turned it into a democratic transition.


[1] Soumaya Ghannoushi, “Tunisia Is Showing the Arab World How to Nurture Democracy,” Guardian, October 24, 2014,

[2] Joel Beinin, “Workers and Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia,” a lecture at Stan- ford University, January 21, 2015, YouTube, posted by Hesham Sallam, February 4, 2015,