News / Middle East

Experts Outline Steps to Democracy in Egypt, Tunisia

New governments can look to procedures that worked for Latin America and Eastern Europe

Protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on Feb. 25, 2011.
Protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on Feb. 25, 2011.
Mohamed Elshinnawi

Popular uprisings have overthrown the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, but it’s still unclear whether either country will get the democratic government its people are demanding. Experts believe certain steps must be taken to make the transition from authoritarian regimes to democracy.  

When Latin America and Eastern Europe witnessed a wave of political changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, governments in the emerging democracies wanted to do something about the crimes and abuses of the regimes they replaced. The new governments adopted various procedures that, over time, have come to be known as "transitional justice."

Hanny Megally, vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice based in New York, has a list of procedures that were used in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Megally says they can also be used by the new governments in the Arab world.

These include: criminal justice and accountability for those who have been involved in perpetration of human rights violations, reparations for victims, processes of getting the truth about what actually happened during that period in the past, legal reforms and institutional reforms to ensure that the structures that may have actually helped the violations that were taking place are no longer the same.

However, these mechanisms of transitional justice often take years to implement. And, according to Megally, the governing groups in Egypt and Tunisia have not even begun to transform their security services from tools of repression to instruments of public service.

"If we look at experiences, whether it is in South Africa or other experiences in Latin America or Asia, these are incremental steps that will take a number of years to put in place," says Megally. "I think the lesson to be learned is that you can’t do it all within a period of six months or a year."

Whichever steps Egypt and Tunisia take first, Megally believes it is important that they bring the rest of the procedures of transitional justice into play over a period of time.  

Brian Grodsky, assistant professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland and author of a new book entitled "The Costs of Justice," believes emerging governments in Egypt and Tunisia need to be decisive - especially given the history of human rights abuses in both countries. But first, their new leaders have to address the peoples’ demands.

"Voters started the revolutions for a reason, most of this because they did not want the corruption and the non-transparency of these non-democratic regimes," says Grodsky. "They wanted to see economic reforms. They wanted to have personal security, general improvement in their standard of living. So once these things begin to occur, the new political elites can once again go back and start digging into the past and reopen these issues."

It is important, Grodsky says, for the new leaders in Cairo and Tunis to prove to their people that the rule of law will prevail and that measures are being taken to protect human rights.  According to Grodsky, that process may already be underway.

"If you look at Egypt, you see corruption charges against the ex-interior minister. It is not that they are going after him for torture. What is most salient to a lot of people tends to be the economic and social changes. In Tunisia, what we have seen up until now seems to be a couple of commissions they set up to do some investigations, but again, the investigation has been focused mostly on the most recent crackdown in December and also again on corruption of the former leader."

Experts in transitional justice agree that whether in Egypt or Tunisia, or elsewhere in the region, the challenge will always be for new governments to promote accountability for past abuses without risking a smooth transition to democracy.  

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