Polarization, Democratization, and the Arab Spring Podcast #39

Arab Spring

Elizabeth (Liz) Nugent discusses how polarization affects the process of democratization through her experience in Tunisia and Egypt. Her recent book After Repression: How Polarization Derails Democratic Transition. Her work considers how legacies of repression create the conditions for polarization. 

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The focus on the individual people involved in this moment and their preexisting relationships for me is a new way of thinking about democratic transitions. Because I think we see how much these personal relationships and personal histories matter for whether or not they can make these really big, important decisions at a moment of very high stress, very little information.

Elizabeth Nugent

Podcast Transcript

On December 17th, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest the seizure of his fruit cart by a Tunisian municipal officer. As his body burned, he screamed, “How do you expect me to make a living?” His reaction was not some response to a singular event. No. It was a response to persistent harassment, humiliation, and repression. Images of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread throughout the Arab world and set off a chain of events known as the Arab Spring.

Over the next two years protests and uprisings brought new hope to the region as repressive governments fell. Democracies emerged in Tunisia and Egypt, while Civil Wars erupted in others. For a time it felt as though the third wave of democratization had come to the Middle East. 

So far Tunisia has continued to meet the challenge of democratic governance, while Egypt has not. In Egypt, democratic elections brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. But after just one year, protests erupted demanding the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi to resign so they could hold new elections. The military stepped in and brought Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. 

So why has democracy worked in Tunisia, but not in Egypt? Elizabeth Nugent believes political polarization derailed Egyptian democratization, while the lack of severe polarization has allowed Tunisian democracy to survive. But what makes her work remarkable is she argues Egyptian polarization was the outcome of targeted repression under authoritarian rule. At the same time, Tunisia avoided polarization because repression was more widespread. Stop and think about this for a moment. Tunisian democracy succeeds today because of a legacy of widespread, indiscriminate repression. It affected everyone so opposition groups learned to work together and even sympathized with one another. 

This is a truly counterintuitive insight. But it makes so much sense at the same time. Liz Nugent’s new book is After Repression: How Polarization Derails Democratic Transition. She is an assistant professor at Yale University with a focus on Middle Eastern politics. Her book uses the cases of Egypt and Tunisia to explain her ideas, but her thoughts on polarization will make waves as they are used in other contexts. 

Our conversation discusses Tunisia and Egypt. We also talk about how polarization affects democratization. But I find it most interesting how Liz emphasizes the political process requires real relationships with real people. She reminds us a very human element is necessary for democracy and democratization. 

But before we begin I want to highlight one of the podcasts I am excited about, Democracy in Danger. Their episode “Tempting Hate” discusses some of the causes that produce political extremism. It’s a great followup after this exploration of polarization. Speaking of which here is my conversation with Liz Nugent…


Liz Nugent welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thank you for having me.


So Liz polarization is in many ways about political identities. At least that’s what I found. And I find your work absolutely remarkable, because it seems to go beyond where a lot of other work on polarization has, to not just discuss polarization, but to explain how these identities are shaped. So why don’t we start with the big question? How does repression shape political identities?


Thanks. That’s a great question. So my work explores how these identities are formed under repressive conditions, but it does draw quite a bit on these basic cognitive and social psychology processes that Jamie Druckman and Shanto Iyengar in the American context have explored in more detail. The way that I argue repression shapes identities is through this three-pronged mechanism. The most important is the information that it reveals. Kind of the psychological mechanism through which it tells groups or reveals to groups who are being treated either similarly to other groups or not in terms of repression. And then there are these two other components that I explore in the book. There’s a socializing component. Literally, who are you in prison with? Who are you being repressed with? Is it members of your in group or other groups?

And then an organizational mechanism wherein a group under threat may become more defensive. There’s some kind of feedback loop there between the social, psychological, and organizational mechanisms where they’re all kind of working together in this two-step process. Repression, through these three mechanisms, creates either a bridging or a very unique identity, and through processes of  group differentiation you end up with higher or lower levels of polarization based on the nature of those identities resulting from repression.


Now, when we talk about polarization, there’s also different types of polarization.  As an American, I experience a very – well, we both experienced – a very specific type of polarization within the United States. Can you explain how the polarization in your cases of Tunisia and Egypt might’ve differed from, the United States?


In my cases, Egypt and Tunisia, I look at both what’s called affective polarization, and then preference polarization. And this was a project I started almost 10 years ago. At first, you know, I had a bit of an amorphous concept of polarization and then tried to narrow in on basically the extent to which people dislike each other and the extent to which they disagree with each other. And in the book, I look at both of these things. And in my cases, they tend to go together. With these groups, they end up both disliking each other and disagreeing with each other. And I’m not really able to disentangle the extent to which one of these things happens first and kind of drags the other along with it.

But there is evidence in the United States that the extent to which you dislike someone, the extent to which you don’t agree with them or don’t identify with them all of these things are kind of lumped together. Again, pointing to the work done by Shanto Iyengar and coauthors have started to get at whether or not affect polarization happens before or after preference polarization. And I think the social psychology and even some of the cognitive psychology literature would suggest these things are so intertwined when you differentiate your group, your family group, your home group, your in-group. It’s so important that there’s going to be multiple levels on which you’re trying to distinguish yourself from an out-group and the more in competition you are, the further and deeper that divide is going to be.

It’s frankly been really interesting writing a book on polarization in another country over the last four years.  Not that the polarization hasn’t been there. But I think the affective side of it,  I mean, even in my personal life, members of my family who have different political views than me, it’s gotten very vitriolic. And it’s, I think, very telling how important these two components are, but it’s hard to disentangle which thing is happening first and which thing is doing the work of polarization, because if you dislike somebody, but you agree with them, you might not be able to find common ground. Is it because I disagree with you or I dislike you that I’m not able to work with you? There are some neat experiments that we could think of to try and disentangle which aspect of that.

But I think in the real world, they tend to go together. And so it’s hard to figure out what’s doing the work there?


Your examples and your field research are based in Tunisia and Egypt. How do groups in Tunisia behave with one another that’s different than groups in Egypt?


So, Egypt is a case that I knew much better starting the research off. Tunisia was a case that I had visited once before, under Ben Ali and maybe 2007 or 2008, but I had lived in Egypt for awhile. Started as a study abroad student way back in 2005, then spent time there after college working at an NGO. And something that I picked up on even then there was kind of this narrative that the brotherhood was moderating. That polarization in Egypt wasn’t that bad. But in reality, Brotherhood families don’t marry non-Brotherhood families. They live in similar places. You kind of know the Brotherhood neighborhoods, and in terms of the politics it was very clear. You were either a Brotherhood NGO or you weren’t. So for me, that narrative never really made sense.

And when the democratization or democratic transition started in Egypt, there was a moment of people coming together. It was magical. It was beautiful. People really felt like this was a moment of unity. But even looking at Tucker square, there were Brotherhood sections and non-Brotherhood sections. And very quickly after the transition, these things started to reemerge.

I was in Cairo, the summer of 2013 when the coup happened. And I had been planning to spend a lot of time in Egypt. It’s a country I love to be in, but also, I think a lot of my research questions come from developments on the ground there. And it was no longer safe. My university actually evacuated me after the coup and it wasn’t possible for me to go back to do research. And when I started doing research in Tunisia, it was so apparent how differently these groups got along. Not to say that Tunisia has been a total success story, it’s still politics. So, you still get mean and personal attacks.

But they all had each other’s phone numbers. All of the different groups, Islamists and secularists. When I started doing my research, they would be like, ‘Oh, let me just call him and tell him that I had a great conversation with you.’ Happy to put you in touch. And the rhetoric was very different, particularly when I started picking up on the fact that repression had been a really important experience. The way that they would talk about the sacrifices that other men from different groups. And for the most part, we’re talking about men here, unfortunately. The rhetoric, I think, was the first thing that I noticed where it was much more sympathetic, much more empathetic, much more understanding.

And then kind of teasing out the preference polarization so, that first part might’ve been more of the affect. It became clear that that was really important for them getting a constitution together, being able to find some common ground on these really big, important issues that they were dealing with.


So, the Ennahda party in Tunisia is widely considered to have moderated, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood during, at least during its period in power, did not. Do you feel like that period of moderation happened during the period of repression or do you feel like it happened during the period of democratization?


I think it happened prior to the transition. So, probably prior to 2011, , there were two major initiatives that I talk about in the book. Two major agreements in 2003 and 2005 that were signed by both Islamist and secularist opposition. And in my interviews, people would constantly point back to that and say, ‘This was a moment where we found common ground and we kind of had a roadmap for if democratization were to happen, we kind of knew what the state might look like.’ And again, it still took them three years. They had a one-year mandate to pass that constitution post-transition.

But I think the moderation of the group happened in the two-thousands. At the individual level, some of the stories that I heard from people were that it happened for them much earlier. So, Rached Ghannouchi, one of the leaders of Ennahda spent most of his time between the late eighties and the revolution in London in exile. And for him, there was a moment that he spent in jail prior to that was important. He was jailed with members of the secular opposition. That was important.  Ali Laarayedh, who was prime minister for a bit during the transition period, for him he points to a story in 2004, 2005 after he gets out of prison, having secular opposition members coming to visit him. So the group moderates over time. Individuals, I think, are moderating as they’re having these experiences and making connections with their outgroup.


So, you tie the cause of this polarization within Egypt to the way authoritarian governments repressed opposition groups. And you describe it as selective repression in the case of Egypt, whereas they have widespread repression in the case of Tunisia. Why did the authoritarian leaders, why did these dictators choose different methods of repression and what are the benefits to one over the other?


The existing literature, I think, overwhelmingly points to this idea that a leader comes to power, a new regime comes to power, they look around, they construct a coercive apparatus that reflects the threats that they see and the threats that they perceive. What I try to do in chapter three of the book is go back and see if that is a fair assumption. So what I did was look at patterns of repression over time and it was pretty clear to me that in Tunisia, you had widespread repression since at least 1956 at the independence of the country. But even going back further it became very clear to me, reading some of the historiography, that the repression that Bourguiba did after the French left was very similar to the repression that the French did to the Tunisians prior to independence of the country.

And the same thing in Egypt, even though Nasr and Sadat had changed the target of their repression. Nasr was similar to Mubarak in that he repressed the Brotherhood. Particularly after that moment of consolidation of the state after 1952 where there was a lot of repression. But I do think there’s something different about the moment of independence, getting everybody in line, and then kind of regular repression if you will. So, Sadat was also able to change the target. He targeted leftists for the most part and co-opted the Brotherhood. So, it was the same pattern, if you took the proper names out. And going back to the British, it was clear that the British did the same thing, too. This was kind of their MO in the region, co-opting certain groups into helping them govern.

So what I do in the book, and I’m hoping to continue this research, because I think it’s really an important question of why do regimes repress the way that they do. And is it something that changes or is it something that’s kind of baked into the system? And what I find is there’s really a continuity of institutions that make it difficult for a regime to really choose how they’re repressing. So, they inherit institutions, capabilities that then determine whether they’re able to use widespread repression or targeted repression.

And it has to do with the quality of intelligence. Are they able to distinguish whether or not groups are actually threatening like in the case of Egypt and then go after that group? Or in the case of Tunisia, it inherits this very French bureaucratic overlapping system in which you have a lot of intelligence, but you don’t have the ability to distinguish what’s good intelligence and so what’s actually a threat versus a group that’s just kind of there.


The current ruler in Egypt el-Sisi is repressing just about everybody right now which is a change within how you describe Egyptian repression to have been. Is that because the short period of democratization may have reset the game in Egypt or is it because his rule is still not consolidated so he’s having to repress everybody because maybe his rule is weaker than  Nasser and some of the others in the past?


That’s a great question. And it’s one that I’ve had to grapple with as I’m making this long institutional argument where leaders are so constrained, they’re not able to change. So I think there’s, two things going on in Egypt right now. American political scientists got a lot of flak for not anticipating the uprisings, but I think the Egyptian security state was even more surprised. They were shocked that this was what it was. They were horrified that the Brotherhood won election. So, I do think this is a regime that still feels very much under existential threat. And so, this consolidation period is really a moment. And as I mentioned under Nasr, you go after anyone who might be a threat to kind of get back to that stability, that status quo.

I also think what’s interesting is that the Sisi regime has had some pretty terrible economic policies. And one thing they’ve been doing is spending a lot of money on their coercive apparatus. So they’ve built, I think, up to 30 new prisons. They’ve expanded their force and all of that it’s possible to redesign or kind of reconfigure your security apparatus, but it’s expensive both politically and economically. So, there is a question of whether or not this is sustainable beyond whatever this consolidation period might be.

But since 2013 when the coup happened, they first went after the Brotherhood. They arrested up to maybe 60,000 members of the Brotherhood or sympathizers. Those who aren’t in jail are in exile. But they’ve now turned, as you mentioned, to journalists. I think at some point they even arrested a puppet on television for saying something bad about the president. So, they’re weaponizing the concept of national security to go after anyone who’s kind of different from the norm.


Now the targeted repression was an attempt to not just target a threat, but also co-opt part of the opposition in Egypt. When they were doing that, was the co-opted portion of the opposition, did that make them antithetical to democracy itself or were they just opposed to the type of democracy that the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to bring about?


That’s a great question. So, I think there’s probably a division within the co-opted opposition. And I talk about it as, I think, tolerated and co-opted. So, you have, especially in Egypt, you have co-opted opposition who they might have the trappings of democratic opposition and they’re talking about democratization, but ultimately, they’re tied to the regime. Their careers are tied to the regime. Their ability to do what they’re doing is tied to regime stability and its survival. An example from Tunisia had this very clearly loyal opposition. It was a splinter from the ruling party. A number of those men were on a payroll from the state. So, that’s a literal transaction, where keeping the regime in power and maybe pushing around the edges, not to say they didn’t have any influence, but they’re not calling for pure democratization, full democratization.

In Egypt, you also had what I call tolerated opposition where they are permitted to exist. They’re not really contesting elections. So there is kind of this middle ground too and that in Egypt tended to be some of those communists, kind of radical leftists, who are calling for much more revolutionary change, but I think they’re small. It was a small group. They didn’t have a lot of electoral power. But the coopted group, the proper opposition that’s in parliament during these moments are very much tamed by their participation in the regime.


It reminds me a lot of the piece from Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski called “Authoritarians Institutions.” I don’t remember what year it was from, but you’ve got a couple of quotes I want to read back to you that that kind of bring out this idea. You wrote, “Constitutions are central institutions for the survival of regimes in non-democratic contexts.” And later on, on the same page, you go on to say, “Elections serve a drastically different function in authoritarian contexts.” Those very short quotes have so much to unpack within them. For an American who talks a lot about the constitution and the importance of elections, it just spins your head around so many different ways because within the authoritarian context, these same concepts that are considered the foundations to a democracy are used in incredibly different ways.

They’re used as a tool to consolidate authoritarianism rather than to act as a bulwark of democracy. So how do authoritarian regimes use institutions like elections and constitutions to consolidate their power?


Yeah, that’s so funny. I just got an email. I’m teaching my undergraduate ‘Introduction to Middle Eastern Politics’ course. And the way that our curriculum is set up, these students have taken Intro to American Politics, Intro to Comparative Politics, and I’ve had a couple of students be like, ‘What do you mean?’ You know, like it’s just eye opening to think that, especially if you’re an American and this is the first time that you’re learning about the way that these things work in other countries. I think it’s interesting to have this conversation after talking to an 18-year-old about the same question.


It blew my mind when I realized that China had a constitution of its own.




The USSR had a constitution.  A constitution doesn’t mean that you’ve got a truly republican, democratic form of government or even that the government follows the constitution.


Right. So, in terms of elections, elections helped to stabilize the regime in a number of different ways. So, in a place like Egypt, elections prior to 2011 were helpful for distributing increasingly smaller state coffers towards people that were supportive of the regime, both elites who were running for office and neighborhoods and districts that were willing to support the regime in high numbers, both in turnout and actually voting for the NDP and Mubarak. These elections can also give regimes the ability to figure out where there’s opposition. So even if we think that the final results might be doctored in some way, if there are high rates of low turnout or abstention or spoiling a ballot, that does tell a regime something about what they’re doing, that there’s opposition within the population.

In terms of courts, that’s a little bit outside of my area of expertise, but the scholar that I always look to is Tamar Mustapha. He has done quite a bit of interesting work on the Egyptian judiciary, which for a long time, or at least in the late two thousands was held up as being an independent judiciary in an authoritarian system because they were around the edges pushing back on the regime. They did things like install judicial oversight over some of the elections that were happening. But what you’ve seen since, and I think this was a rare moment, maybe like 2005 to 2008, the judiciary was able to push back on the regime a little bit because they were liberalizing in different ways.

But you see the judiciary for the most part using the laws that the state has pushed through parliaments in ways that are supposed to be sustaining to the regime. . And you end up with judicial rulings where they’re following the law that’s already been created by the regime. So, it’s a bit of like a feedback loop there.

I had an international human rights lawyer come and speak to my class this week. And he was saying that one thing that they do in the realm of human rights violations is focused on international law. And it’s because these domestic laws are often so corrupted, even if a judge is ruling legally, correctly in the Egyptian courts, that law is so corrupt that you really need kind of an overarching framework where human rights violations, even if there is a national security issue, is not appropriate. So, I thought that was interesting. Especially from somebody who’s a practitioner in this setting.


So, the case of Egypt before the Arab spring feels like, if you were going to be an impartial observer, you would say that it sounds like Egypt was a bit more liberalized, had made more progress towards democracy than a country like Tunisia. And not only that, but it even had stronger state capacity. So, you would imagine that Egypt would be an easier transition because it was farther down the road. But what makes your research remarkable is it sounds like you’re saying that a government that is more repressive and more extreme may actually make it more likely to bring about democratization than a government that eases up in some ways or allows some forms of institutions that resembled democracy . Am I reading your work Right? Because it feels like it’s such a surprising conclusion to come to.


Yeah, you are reading, I think, the implications of what my argument would have to say about democratic transitions correctly. And I think, there’s a couple of things I would probably add. So, in Libya, you have a very repressive system. And Libya is a unique case for so many different reasons. It has vast oil wealth. It also had an international intervention to get Gaddafi out of power. So, it’s not the same kind of transition that we’re talking about in Egypt and Tunisia where the president’s resigned, but looking at the history of repression in Libya.

Gaddafi was very repressive. He inherited a state from the Italians that was not particularly functional. I feel like I could say that because I’m Italian descent so I can insult them for their state building capacity. But you end up in Libya with widespread repression in the way that I would code it, but it’s so severe that you don’t actually have the institutions that you end up with in Tunisia. I mean, in Tunisia, it was very repressive, but there was some ability for people to be mobilizing, to have parties, to have NGOs. That kind of infrastructure was not permitted to function or to develop in Libya and in a place like Saudi Arabia that’s very, very repressive.

You also don’t have, even if it is a widespread repressive regime, there’s not this electoral authoritarianism where you could have space to mobilize in some way. The widespread repression nature is important, but I think the combination of widespread repression with some kind of contestation so it’s not completely repressive. It’s kind of the sweet spot of where widespread repression might be helpful for democratic transition. And I should note too. My coding is a little bit different than the way that other scholars have thought about this, but in general regimes tend to try and conserve their resources.

And so, if I had to wager a guess, and I don’t have the empirics on this, most places are employing some kind of targeted repression. Going after either the groups that are threats or the ones that they perceive to be threats. Widespread repression is costly in so many different ways. So, I think for the most part when we get to a democratic transition, we end up with a more polarized system than we would have in a place like Tunisia.


Are you familiar with the piece from Eva Bellin “The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective?” It’s from like 2004 in Comparative Politics.


Yeah and then there’s the updated one in 2012 where she’s like, ‘I was right.’


That’s great. She’s got a line there that, “Effective bureaucracies, police and judiciaries that can deliver predictable rule of law and order. Are essential for democracy to flourish to a large degree. Order comes prior to democracy. Democracy cannot thrive in chaos.” So that comes back to your point about Tunisia having not just a situation where there’s widespread repression that brings the opposition together, but just enough institutions, just enough state capacity to be able to make democracy possible.


Absolutely. And also for my undergraduate class, I’ve been spending a lot of time revisiting a book by Jason Brownley, Tarek Massoud, and Andrew Reynolds. I think it’s a 2015 book looking at the entire population of cases that experienced uprisings in the Middle East and then had transitions after the Arab spring. And one thing that they emphasize is this importance of state capacity and also institutional capacity among the actors who are going to be charged with navigating a transition. Look, democratization and democracy is very difficult. In Libya and Yemen in particular, you just didn’t have that,  I don’t know, centralized state capacity. When you take the lid of the ruler off the boiling pot, a lot of things spill out.

In Libya and Yemen, you have also tribal divisions, international intervention. There’s a lot of stuff going on. But it’s facilitated by the fact that you have this very disorganized opposition that was highly repressed, doesn’t have its institutions together. All the stuff that we would want to see for even a chance at democratic transition


And to go along with state capacity, part of that capacity is in the security apparatus, and I found it very interesting how you differentiate between the security apparatus found in the police versus the military. And that it’s actually, policing that’s often used for more significant repression. Can you talk a little bit about why policing is more important for repression than the military? Because normally we think of the military as being involved in coups and in terms of getting support with the dictator, but it sounds like the military is less important than other institutions.


Yeah. So this was a frustration of mine reading the literature on democratization in the Middle East. The military is obviously an important consideration and particularly in Egypt, it’s a huge political player, but the military only goes out on the streets when there’s moments of extraordinary mobilization. They’re not doing the day-to-day repressing.  In Egypt, it’s an organization called the Al-Amn al-Markazī, so like the central security forces. They’re obviously linked in some ways, but fundamentally different organizations. And I think in the last year we’ve had examples of this in the United States too. There is regular police that do the regular day to day work of the state and the military and armed guards that get called in when there’s a perceived threat at a different level. So, obviously it’s hard to study both of these institutions.

We often have to look at what they’re doing and make sense of it without the ability to interview these people or see documents or really know the structure. But just looking at the facts on the ground, the military is not doing the day-to-day repressing. They’re important during moments of revolution. Speaking again to Professor Bellin’s argument whether or not the military decides not to shoot on protestors is extremely important for why you get, even for moments of democratic transition in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Where they were willing to defend the regime and shoot on protesters you don’t even get that opportunity.

But if you look back over the 30 years before these transitions, the military was only in the street three or four times. In most of these countries, most of the time it is this kind of Central Security Agency, Ministry of the Interior, doing the regular policing on a day-to-day basis.


There was a piece from Risa Brooks called “Abandoned at the Palace: Why the Tunisian Military Defected from the Ben Ali Regime in January, 2011.” You didn’t mention this in the book, but when I think about how Tunisia’s widespread repression depended on the police and depended on institutions other than the military. It makes sense how they could both have widespread repression and the way Brooks describes a disconnect between the military and the Ben Ali regime that the military didn’t feel that their fate was tied to the dictator in the same way that it might’ve in some other authoritarian regimes. I felt like your argument brought that together for me because at first you think if they have widespread repression, that means the dictator must have a strong connection with the military, but in reality, Ben Ali did not.


Absolutely. I mean, Ben Ali took a pretty decentralized and fragmented system that he inherited from the Bourguiba regime, which inherited it from the French, and further decentralized it. So, he actually had an intelligence background. He was of the more policing intelligence part of the security sector and he also came to power through a bloodless coup. And so, I think the combination of the institutions that he inherited and his own individual proclivities. He was afraid of the military doing what he had done to his predecessor. If we were to think of his in-group, it was the intelligence guys. He also did things like establish policing, organizations that reported directly to him. So, they weren’t even going through the Ministry of the Interior. He had a strong relationship with the police.

But the military, he really did not have the kind of, as you mentioned, the relationship we would expect. It’s interesting though, because even in a place like Egypt where Hosni Mubarak was in the air force, he’s very much, you know, like a military president in a lot of different ways. Maybe not as much as Sisi, but he very much that’s his group of people. That’s his heritage. It’s interesting because I think at the time there was a sense the Egyptian military is doing what we think professional military should be doing. They’re not firing on protesters. They’re abandoning this dictator and I think with hindsight at this point almost 10 or 8 years depending on what moment we’re talking about.

The military was really defending itself. I mean, they have one of their own back in power. I’ve referred to this before as they almost decapitated the regime to save themselves. Get rid of Mubarak. But right after Mubarak is gone, you have the Supreme council of the armed forces take power for a year. You actually do have a revolutionary government. The Brotherhood, which is civilian and democratically elected, is in power for a year. But for the most part, the Egyptian military has done quite well having abandoned Mubarak. Even though we think 2011, that was a moment where they were doing what they were supposed to, in terms of the democratic theory of militaries and revolutions.

But one thing that was always really interesting to me was in 2013, the coup happens in July, but over the course of the six months before that there was a protest movement that was very much against the Brotherhood, but also was against military rule. They wanted early elections. It’s called Tamarod in Arabic. They wanted President Morsi to start governing in a much more democratic way. They wanted early elections and they did not want military rule. And I think at the time people were like, ‘Oh, this is great.’ They had these huge protests on June 30th. Huge. Up to perhaps 17 million people protesting in different cities in Egypt.

And then, with more passage of time, the military ends up taking advantage of these protests. Two, three or four days later performed the coup, remove Morsi from office, because it’s a public demonstration. The people are on our side. And I think it’s actually a Buzzfeed article, an investigative journalists, you know, I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it was a great article, found that Tamarod had basically been on like a military payroll. So, thinking at the time, ‘Oh, what an organic movement.’ Coming up to demand again, a change of government. It’s really exciting.

And in hindsight, it was co-opted by the military. You know, it’s, I dunno, there’s the experience of it. And I was in Egypt at the time, those protests were very inspiring. There were families out on the street and then to see kind of what was actually going on behind the scenes is super interesting with the passage of time.


So, Morsi and the Muslim brotherhood, they come to power through democratic elections.




Do you believe they governed democratically and maybe never.




So maybe, maybe more so to the point, what did they do wrong?


Yeah. So, I mean, I think they did a number of things wrong. Part of my argument is that the level of polarization and particularly in the identities, the Brotherhood feeling like they had spent 80 years, even before the Mubarak regime, they had spent 80 years in prison. And so it was their turn to govern. Really soured the relationship, but it was already a pretty bad relationship between the Brotherhood and the secular opposition. I think probably the most egregious example of what they did was the constitutional proceedings. So, in Tunisia you had a system for the constitution that was very much proportional to how parties had done in elections. So, every subcommittee dealing with different aspects of the constitution reflected the broader vote.

In Egypt, you end up with a very Islamist dominated, not just Brotherhood, but other Islamists and conservative allies essentially drafting a constitution by themselves. And when that becomes untenable, the secular opposition walk out in the hopes that that will kind of stop the proceedings. It doesn’t. The Brotherhood dominated group puts forward a constitution that’s pretty conservative. Maybe even less important than the content though, it was just that it didn’t have participation and support from all these different groups. And it gets pushed through in a referendum. So, that’s about six to eight months before the coup happens. And that seemed to be one of the final straws that, the Brotherhood was clearly going to go ahead with its idea of what post-Mubarak Egypt was supposed to look like.


Fascinating, because it gets at ideas of democratic theory too. That democracy is a lot more than just majority rule.


Absolutely. And I think the focus on the individual people involved in this moment and their preexisting relationships for me is a new way of thinking about democratic transitions. Because I think we see how much these personal relationships and personal histories matter for whether or not they can make these really big, important decisions at a moment of very high stress, very little information.


So, can societies overcome a period of severe polarization? Like, all right. So, Egypt, by the time that democracy becomes a possibility, is it already too late for the Muslim Brotherhood, for Morsi, to make adjustments, to make changes, to consolidate democracy, to make sure that it survives and thrives, or were their choices that leaders made that exacerbated the problems?


That’s a great question. Sadly, I think a lot of the damage had already been done. At that moment, as I mentioned, it’s high stress, low information of immense consequence. The relationship between people is obviously predicated on 30 years of interacting with each other and being treated differently by the state. That’s hard to undo overnight. I do think that had elections been permitted to go forward in Egypt, people were not happy with the Brotherhood, they probably would have voted them out. And, it’s a question of whether or not the Brotherhood would have listened to those election results. I think they probably would have had that been allowed to run its course. You might have seen some of this polarization going away or getting down to like a normal level.

But one thing that I’ve thought about for the book. And I talk about this in the case of Tunisia. Tunisia had a really exceptional transitional justice campaign. And part of that was possible because it wasn’t a politicized issue. So, one person I interviewed from the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia talked about how almost every family in Tunisia had a personal experience of repression under the Ben Ali regime. So that that’s saying something, right? In talking about the history of repression in Tunisia, it wasn’t a political issue per se, especially the way that the transitional justice campaign dealt with it. And also, the way that Islamists talked about it, they did talk about this idea that they were repressed quite harshly and suffered quite immensely, but they were part of a bigger piece of suffering and repression under the Ben Ali regime.

I often wonder if a very structured and complex transitional justice campaign might have been helpful in a place like Egypt. But I don’t know if it would have been possible because that might become a political issue. It might be too politicized, too polarized, to even talk about it. But is there some way that a transitional justice campaign could have been designed and initiated very early to maybe heal some of these wounds, to maybe acknowledge who got it worse, to maybe promote a unified identity? It’s possible. It’s again a bit outside of my area of expertise, but I often think that those important national projects could be impactful in shifting some of this stuff. But it’s a big undertaking and I think it would have to be very carefully done.


Of course, it’s also possible that from a much longer historical perspective that maybe democracy needed to fail today in Egypt so that it could succeed in the future. Sheri Berman had a very remarkable book back in 2019 called Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe. And one of her big theses was democracy in Europe was not an overnight success. There were periods of starts and failures. We look at France. Multiple successes, and then immediate failure. Period of success and then failure. A glass half full angle of Egypt is maybe they learned a lot through their experience of democratization. That once they have another opportunity, hopefully it runs a little bit better.


I hope that’s true. Since Sisi has come to power, there’s a huge diaspora, an exiled population. And this is kind of the conversation that people are having now. Even the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ones that are not in jail, who are outside of the country. They’re doing a lot of reflecting on what did we do wrong and what might we need to do better next time. So, I think there’s some truth to that. I very much hope that that’s true that the next chance that Egyptians or even other places that are continuing kind of the second wave of the Arab spring. Places like Lebanon and Iraq, they’re continuing protests, even in Sudan.

So, Sudan had a later uprising that sometimes gets tied into the Arab spring. And they learned a lot from the importance of not having full transition to civilian rule in Egypt. They were citing those examples. So I do think there is a learning process going on, and I hope that that is the case in a place like Egypt. There’s also been, you know, I don’t know that this will destabilize or remove the Sisi regime, but the Biden administration and the UN over the last couple of weeks have been very critical of the way in which the government is repressing people. So perhaps something is going to give at some point.


So Liz, we talked a little bit about Egypt and some of their outlook, or at least our hope for the future. Tunisia has a lot of challenges too. It’s tough to run a democracy. They’ve got a lot of economic challenges. They have some political challenges. What’s your read on the outlook for democracy in Tunisia going forward?


Yeah, I think that’s an important thing to remember. And I haven’t read the Berman book that you mentioned, but I just wrote it down, because I think that’s something that often gets lost. Tunisians in particular get very frustrated when people say that they are the success of the Arab spring. There’s still a lot of issues. There’s still a lot of economic issues, a lot of gender issues, even issues in terms of representation at, you know, just like a basic democratic level. And it is a much more stable state than some in the region, but it has had some major security issues over the last 10 years.

So yeah, I mean, I think what’s exciting about Tunisia is that they continue to have elections that continue to be free and fair. People might not be happy with the whole process, but you know, in 2018 they had municipal elections, which is a very local level process in Tunisia. That’s pretty amazing that they pulled that off. They pulled off early presidential elections when the former president passed away early. They’re doing the hard work of democracy. And as you mentioned, it’s hard. It’s really hard. There’s also been protests recently about different corruption issues and there have been some harsh responses by the police to those protests, but there’s a media that’s covering it. There’s potential legal implications of how people who have been injured in these protests can go about petitioning the state for compensation and holding people accountable.

It might be very difficult in the day to day, but those are all really positive developments and the fact that there are protests, continued protests, that citizens feel like they have a government that should be responsible to them. I think that’s really hard to take away. It’s hard to take away in Egypt too. In September, in 2019, there were protests in Egypt despite how repressive this current government is. And in some ways, that’s insane. In other ways, it’s really inspiring to think that maybe something about 2011 changed the way people think.

A scholar named Youssef el Chazli. He has some really interesting work about how the uprisings in 2011, despite the fact that there wasn’t meaningful democratization at a broad scale, at least institutionally, changed people. So, people think very differently about themselves. Now they think differently about their government. Some of his examples are fathers who now essentially run like feminist households, you know, where they prioritize both the boys’ and the girls’ education equally. They are pushing them to do things that they themselves wouldn’t have done in terms of studying abroad or seeking out an English degree instead of engineering or whatever. And I think these little changes are things that can’t be undone and it might take a while for them to fully manifest, but they’re there.


Well, Liz, thanks for talking to me today. Your book After Repression is absolutely remarkable.


Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. It’s a weird year to have a book come out, so it’s nice to talk to you about it.


It’s an amazing book. I can’t believe it’s your first book, so I’m really looking forward to see what you come out with in the future.  It’s something that I think will change how people,  beyond just the study of the Middle East, but in other regions, I think are going to have to consider how democratization comes about. What’s the recipe for successful democratization? And I think your book is just one more piece to the puzzle to help us understand that. It’s really an amazing piece of scholarship that you put in so much time and effort into. Very impressive.


Thank you so much, Justin . This has been a great conversation.


Key Links

Elizabeth Nugent’s Home Page

After Repression: How Polarization Derails Democratic Transition

Yale MacMillan Center Council on Middle East Studies

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