North Africa’s Difficult Transition

EUMEF's 17th Summer School brings Arab and European experts to discuss current political developments in the region

Every summer, the EU-Middle East Forum (EUMEF) invites 30 highly qualified students and post-graduates from Europe and the Arab world to take part in a two-week international summer school at the DGAP in Berlin.

Here the prospective scholars, politicians, journalists, and representatives of civil society meet together with well-known experts to engage in discussions devoted to the security and developmental challenges that face North Africa and the Middle East.

North Africa: Back to the Streets, Back to the Drawing Board? Highlights of the 17th DGAP International Summer School

What will become of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Is there still a genuine desire for change in North Africa’s streets, squares, and Internet forums? Will countries take the time they need to craft solid constitutions? Summer School participants from North Africa, Turkey, and Europe took a close look at specific political and economic developments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, and also discussed the geopolitical implications of current events in the region.

“They cannot intimidate us anymore”

Two and a half years after the revolutions that led to the ouster of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, initial euphoria and hopes for a rapid transformation to democracy have long subsided. In Egypt, violent confrontations between supporters of recently deposed President Mohamed Morsi and the military have cost hundreds of lives, and the old guard seems to be quickly gaining ground again. At the same time, society in Egyptian and Tunisia is more divided – and public opinion more polarized – than ever. The Moroccan monarchy, on the other hand, has contained public discontent by initiating a limited reform process from above.

During the 17th DGAP International Summer School, 30 participants from North Africa, Turkey, and Europe analyzed recent political and economic developments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, and also took a closer look at geopolitical implications of the current developments in the region. The diverse group of students and recent graduates engaged in intense discussions with international speakers from academia, think tanks, civil society and administrations. Their topics ranged from the political participation of youth in Morocco to current German and European policies toward North Africa and the regional implications of the civil war in Syria.

A theme that ran through many of the discussions was the recognition that democratic transformations are by no means linear processes. They follow very different paths in different countries and often face strong opposition from the forces of the old regimes. These are long-term struggles that require patience, persistence and, maybe most importantly, a positive vision for the future. “We already lost family members and friends, so we have nothing to lose – they cannot intimidate us anymore,” explained one Egyptian participant. “So we will be back to the streets, back to regaining power in our hands, and we have nothing but hope and optimism.”

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby describes the Muslim Brotherhood at a Crossroads

On Day Four of the 11-day program, Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, a prominent Egyptian researcher and public intellectual – and himself a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and editor of the Brotherhood’s English-language website – discussed how the organization’s history and evolution affected its performance in power in the past year. He went on to outline possible scenarios for the group’s future.

El-Houdaiby emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is far from homogeneous as an organization. Rather it encompasses at least four ideological currents: an early modernist or “reformist” school calling for a return to the Quran and Sunna as the original sources of Islam and for practicing “ijtihad (independent judgment); the “traditionalist” line, which keeps close to the al-Azhar tradition and whose adherents have been weakened since the 1960s; the Qutbi school, which follows the radical ideas of Sayyid al Qutb (1906–1966); and finally the Salafi current that emerged in the 1970s. These last two currents have dominated the organization in recent years. Keeping in mind the MB’s internal divisions – and the Egyptian regime’s history of putting pressure on it – El-Houdaiby analyzed the group’s strategies for maintaining unity. The first strategy is to rely on broad, albeit not well-defined, unifying principles. Such basic tenets include “Islam as an all-encompassing system,” the rejection of violence, and stressing its long history of opposition to foreign occupation. He argued that the MB has intentionally cultivated obedient cadres primed to participate in demonstrations and elections but not engage in intellectual debates or question the decisions of MB leadership. Finally, by redefining the Islamic principle of “dharoura” (necessity), the MB leadership was able to make the unity and survival of the organization an end in itself.

When the MB came to power after the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012, major deficits soon became apparent, El-Houdaiby argued. He attributed the MB’s foremost problem – a lack of political competence – to the strategy of “forming mediocre members.” The MB’s political platform, moreover, was underdeveloped, as it had avoided debate on political and socio-economic issues and instead focused on identity politics. A further deficit was the questionable choice of allies; these included senior bureaucrats from the former regime and the military as well as corrupt businessmen who had already been “cronies” of Mubarak’s regime. El-Houdaiby connected this to the MB’s failure to recognize the Egyptian population’s desire for real change, which had driven the mass protests of 2011 and brought about Mubarak’s ouster. He argued that while these three shortcomings were “curable,” there was a fourth, “incurable,” deficit: the internal contradiction between the MB’s claims of “authenticity,” especially its instrumentalization of sharia (to maintain its “Islamist legitimacy”), and the need to develop practical and modern solutions to current political, social, and economic problems.

The deficits outlined above inspired the mass protests against President Morsi of June 30, 2013 and his subsequent ouster by the military. El-Houdaiby described the MB as “currently nonexistent” due to mass arrests and the military’s brutal crackdown, which are hindering its central decision-making capabilities. The MB may be acting in a decentralized manner for the time being, but El-Houdaiby is convinced it will be able to reorganize; after all, being forcibly oppressed and acting in closed, powerful organizations is what the Muslim Brotherhood knows best.

In terms of how the current developments would affect Egypt in the long term, El-Houdaiby declared that the country needed “surgeons, not butchers.” He also predicted that three developments would take place: that support would grow for a “Turkish model,” in which Islam represents a value system rather than a sharia-based legal system; that, at the same time, more radical militant groups would emerge, provoked and pushed toward violence by state violence; and that, finally, there would be a strengthening of the Sufi movement, which he described as more sophisticated and more socially oriented than the Muslim Brotherhood.

New Constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia: What’s the Rush?

Another summer school highlight was a session with constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali and Tunisian democracy activist Amine Ghali. Comparing the constitution drafting processes currently underway in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, they also placed them in a broader international context. Zaid Al-Ali, a jurist based in the Cairo offices of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, opened by citing the South African example. Legal experts hail the country as “the Mecca of constitutional law” for the meticulous crafting that went into its document. The South African constitution took seven years to draft – and meticulous deliberation and consensus building. So why are Arab countries in such a rush?

More than setting term limits: The constitutional overhauls currently underway in North Africa and the Middle East have been largely marked by haste, Al-Ali said. But genuine constitutional reform takes time and involves more than simply setting term limits for legislators. Expectations of speedy consensus are unrealistic in any legislative process, let alone in a region that has seen little discussion of constitutional reform for decades. Al-Ali recounted that South African legal thinkers spent years quietly preparing for the constitutional overhaul that would come with the fall of apartheid. When the time came, they were able to draw on a deep constitutional tradition. The Arab world, in contrast, experienced its revolutions and partial-revolutions quite suddenly. It is hardly surprising that with little experience drafting legal texts, legislators were unprepared for the highly technical complexities of formulating new constitutional provisions.

Bring in the experts: The panelists agreed that expert help is virtually essential, especially when it comes to the complex legal wording of individual provisions. Responding to a question about the risk of non-elected “experts” playing too large a role in setting a country’s legal and political frameworks, both Ghali and Al-Ali concurred that they were not calling for “technocratic intervention” that would eclipse the democratic process but rather for solid legal expertise to support the complex process and avoid glaring mistakes.

The view from Tunis: Amine Ghali, program director at the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, offered insight into the current stalemate in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the body tasked with drafting a new constitution in 2011. Not only was the planned timeframe unreasonably short, he said, but two high-profile political assassinations this year left Tunisian politics badly shaken. While assassinations are deeply worrying, the lack of political consensus in the NCA is itself no cause for alarm, Ghali argued. The ongoing debates between Ennahdha, the dominant Islamist party, and more secular-leaning legislators within the NCA touch on fundamental – and controversial – questions, such as whether sharia should be enshrined in the constitution and whether full equality between the sexes should be spelled out. The deliberative process, Ghali noted, “is not linear or predictable.”

Ghali, like Al-Ali, drew several comparisons between Tunisia and its North African neighbors and stressed the presence of interregional dynamics. “Egypt is influencing Tunisia,” he said. While noting that Tunisia’s situation is unique within the Arab world (because of its fairly homogeneous Sunni demographic, its relatively long tradition of supporting women’s participation in politics, its comparatively weak military, etc.), he said the country is watching its neighbors with the closest possible attention and concern. “Are we failing?” he asked. “We fail the day violence becomes a component of political life.”

Controversy is inevitable. Violence is not: When it comes to getting a constitution right, internal dissent is not itself the most dangerous threat to the process. “Controversy is inevitable in a democratic transition process,” said Al-Ali. The problems, rather, are haste, unrealistic expectations, and sloppy legislation – and, of course, political violence.

The EU-Middle East Forum

The event was part of the DGAP’s EU-Middle East Forum (EUMEF). Each year it hosts the International Summer School in Berlin, which brings together 30 highly qualified students and post-graduates from North Africa, Turkey, and Europe with a range of policy experts, political scientists, legal scholars, economists, and media figures, among others. The two-week program is held in English and carried out in cooperation with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa), and the German Federal Foreign Office.

The program brochure for the DGAP's EUMEF 17th Summer School (2013) is available for download here.

19 - 29 August 2013
Event location

Rauchstr. 17
10787 Berlin

Invitation type
Invitation only
Think Tank Event
Core Expertise topic
Core Expertise region