A tale of two Octobers: Egypt’s Maspero and Tunisia’s Nobel prize
One day, two events – one tragic, one buoyant – and together they show the Arab revolutionary story of the early 21st century
On Oct. 9, the Norwegian Nobel committee awarded the 2015 peace prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. That same day, Egyptians marked the fourth anniversary of the Maspero killings in Cairo, where dozens of Egyptian civilians were killed during a protest by state forces. One day, two events – one tragic, one buoyant – and together they show the Arab revolutionary story of the early 21st century.
On Oct. 9, 2011, according to eyewitnesses, Egyptian military forces ran over and killed dozens of mainly Coptic Christians. If that was not heartrending enough, the calamity has been exponentially amplified by the lack of accountability for that event, four years on.
A military court sentenced three soldiers to between two and three years imprisonment on charges of involuntary manslaughter – that is it. That is less than the sentence peaceful protesters may serve if they dare defy the infamous protest law of 2013. The irony would be amusing if it was not emblematic of the sad state of affairs that Egypt finds itself in.
Maspero was neither the first nor the last instance of Egyptian civilians being killed due to excessive use of force by the state. In the 18 days of uprising in early 2011, hundreds of civilians died.
Following the Maspero killings, there were many more instances – the largest being the forced dispersal of sit-ins in 2013. Accountability for more than a dozen mass killings, according to a conglomerate of Egyptian and international human rights organizations, remains unattained.
Alternative to strife
Accountability in Tunisia is not something one can count on either, but Tunisians are off to a good start. The Nobel Peace Prize was given to the quartet for its critical contribution at a crucial point in Tunisia’s transition.
When the transitional process – which is ongoing – was at risk of being derailed completely due to tensions between the then-government and the opposition, the quartet stepped in to establish an alternative to deepening internal strife. The Nobel committee said in its decision that this alternative happened when Tunisia was “on the brink of civil war.”
At the end of that particular phase in the process, Tunisia managed to establish a constitutional system of government that guaranteed fundamental rights – a prize that the Arab world in general remains desperately in need of. Tunisia, the spark of the revolutionary uprisings, might have delivered a gift to the entire Arab world through that constitution, although it is up to the latter to accept the gift.
One day, two events – one tragic, one buoyant – and together they show the Arab revolutionary story of the early 21st centuryH.A. Hellyer
That achievement of the quartet is not to be underestimated, because we see all too clearly what can happen when such a political process fails to materialize. Only weeks before that Tunisian crisis, Egypt went through a deeply polarizing time, where a huge proportion of the population sought early presidential elections.
Then-President Mohammed Mursi rejected that, pressure built up, and the military suspended the political process altogether, overthrowing and detaining him. There was no Egyptian Quartet to broker a political settlement, at least none that the relevant parties were willing to listen to.
The political route was suspended, even if very popularly. In the weeks and months that followed, Egypt’s failure to find a political solution to the tensions enabled far more civil strife than had happened before – a fate that Tunisia was saved from. That strife manifested itself, eventually, in blood.
Perhaps Tunisia learned from Egypt, and saw the importance of a political solution. Another Arab country today can learn from the lessons of both Tunisia and Egypt: the country that lies in between them. Libya has suffered internecine conflict for far too long. It is too early to tell whether or not the national unity government plan that was proposed last week will succeed, but certainly Libya and its people have a choice.
They can choose to walk the path of Tunisia and find a way to combine consensus with accountability – with that, they may find a way out of the quagmire they find themselves in. Or they can choose the route that Egypt chose in 2013: zero-sum games, and all the pain and destruction that comes with it.
The story of the Arab revolutionary uprisings of this generation continues, and will do so for some time to come. The pain of it we have seen time and again – Oct. 9 reminds us of that, with Maspero. However, that same day, with the awarding of the Nobel prize to the Tunisian Quartet, will also remind us, in years to come, that there are other paths to take, and that constructive pathway remains as real as any other. Congratulations Tunisia.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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