Conflicts over Socioeconomic Reforms in Egypt and Tunisia

Irene Weipert-Fenner edits themed section in the journal Mediterranean Politics

Many people protest in the streets while carrying signs and Tunisian flags.

Anti coup protest, Tunis, 10 october 2021 (image: Dodos photography, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Much of the re­search on the Arab Spring has focus­ed on the socio­eco­nomic caus­es that led to the pro­tests, up­ri­sings, and re­vo­lu­tions. Look­ing at the pe­ri­od af­ter the fall of the dic­ta­tors, most re­search has fo­cused on the po­li­ti­cal trans­for­ma­tion. And al­though griev­ances such as high un­em­ploy­ment and ri­sing prices per­sis­ted, and pro­tests also re­curred, we have known little about the po­li­ti­cal econ­omy during pe­ri­ods of po­li­ti­cal trans­for­ma­tion. To fill this gap, the pro­ject “Struggles over Socioeconomic Reforms: Political Conflict and Social Contention in Egypt and Tunisia post 2011 in Interregional Comparison” con­duc­ted de­tailed case studies on Egypt and Tu­ni­sia. A themed sec­tion in the jour­nal Mediterranean Politics, edited by pro­ject leader Dr Irene Weipert-Fenner, now sum­mar­izes the pro­ject’s find­ings.

For both coun­tries, which had si­mi­lar po­li­ti­cal-econ­omic con­di­tions but very dif­ferent po­li­ti­cal develop­ments until 2021, case studies on fis­cal policy, labor law, and de­central­ization pro­vid­ed im­por­tant in­sights into the con­so­li­da­tion of demo­cracy (Tunisia) and auto­cracy (Egypt). Spe­ci­fi­cal­ly, the study of con­flicts a­round socio­econ­omic re­forms helped identify the re­le­vant actors, such as econ­omic elites and unions, and their re­la­tive power in re­lation to the po­li­ti­cal elite at a given point in time. The anal­ysis also showed how for­mal and in­for­mal in­sti­tu­tions were used and whether the new in­sti­tu­tion­al frame­work allowed for effective con­flict manage­ment.

The find­ings are par­ti­cularly im­por­tant for the ques­tion of how Tunisia’s cur­rent re-auto­crat­ization could have come about. But the find­ings are also im­por­tant for Egypt. Con­trary to the myth of auto­cracies as ef­fi­cient, as­ser­tive re­gime types, they show in­stead that even ex­treme­ly re­pres­sive re­gimes must se­cure the in­ter­ests of im­por­tant sup­port groups, and that diver­gent in­terests here can lead to con­flicts and severe­ly limit the ca­pac­ity for re­form. In general, then, a mixed pic­ture emerges re­gar­ding the ca­pac­ity to im­ple­ment re­forms, which can­not be ex­plained sole­ly by re­gime type or state per­for­mance. In­stead, the ex­pla­na­tory power lies in a dy­nam­ic, re­la­tion­al, action-oriented approach to anal­yzing state and so­ci­etal actors in issue-specific socio­econ­omic re­form con­flicts.

The pro­ject was carried out in col­la­bor­at­ion with Dr Amr El Shobaki and Dr Nadine Abdalla from the Arab Forum for Al­ter­na­tives in Egypt, and with Dr Bassem Karray, Dr Hamza Meddeb, and Rabeb Laabidi from the Uni­ver­sity of Sfax in Tunisia. The Volks­wagen Foun­da­tion funded the pro­ject for four years.

The themed sec­tion papers have been pub­lished on­line first and are avail­able on the Taylor & Francis Online web­site. To the introduction by Irene Weipert-Fenner