Academic journal article International Journal on World Peace

Overcoming Transition Mode: An Examination of Egypt and Tunisia

Academic journal article International Journal on World Peace

Overcoming Transition Mode: An Examination of Egypt and Tunisia

Article excerpt

Much of the democratic transitions literature argues that transitions that preserve stability during times of change are most likely to succeed. Thus conversion and cooperative transitions, in which the previous regime either leads or plays an important cooperative role in the shift to a new political order, are often considered to be more promising than collapse transitions, in which the new order represents a complete replacement of the previous order. Preservation of elements of the existing government is expected to increase stability. Events of the past three years in Egypt and Tunisia challenge these conclusions. Egypt's conversion transition suffered from a reversal, while Tunisia's collapse transition led to an initially successful democratic transition of power. These cases highlight exceptions to the expected advantages and disadvantages of their respective modes.

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) served as the caretaker government after Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011, leading to continuity between the previous government and the transitional government. Until elections were held and a new constitution created, elements of the existing political order managed the Egyptian state and oversaw the changes to Egypt's institutional order. As a conversion transition, Egypt could thus be expected to have stability. The collapse that took place in Tunisia with the resignation of ministers affiliated with the Ben Ali regime and the creation of the Revolutionary Council to manage the election of a constituent assembly would be expected to lack stability. Instead, Tunisia was able to complete a constitution and successfully hold elections in 2014, while the Egyptian military removed its first post-Mubarak president after only one year of rule. Egypt remains in the grip of unrest and political polarization as it recovers from three major elections in three years.

Why did Egypt's transition end in reversal while Tunisia's initial transition produced political development amid relative stability, when the mode of transition predicted the opposite outcomes? Choices of institutional design and sequencing as well as commitments among key actors to cooperate prior to and during the transition explain Tunisian and Egyptian deviation from expectations for their mode of transition. Choices that increase the confidence among major actors that their fundamental interests will be respected by the new order can help a collapse transition overcome its expected strife, while choices that decrease such confidence can lead a transformation transition to forfeit its expected advantages.1


Students of political change have classified transitions from non-democratic to democratic government into four broad modes. Conversion transitions describe a transition managed by all or part of the existing regime. Collapse transformations occur when the opposition drives a transition, resulting in the overthrow of the regime through force or its collapse. Cooperative transitions describe a shift that is negotiated between the existing regime and members of the opposition. Finally, intervention transitions describe a change that is imposed by an outside power. 2

Classifying transitions is an imprecise art-Chile, for example, has been considered both a conversion and a cooperative transition.3 Why should the Egyptian and Tunisian cases be classified as conversion and collapse transitions respectively? Conventional wisdom might classify Egypt as a collapse, because the regime's leader resigned after popular protest4 or as a cooperative transition because "the hegemonic party was dissolved but it was still possible for its members to run for elections; while the military still continues to play a political role."5 However, continuity in Egypt should be understood as a conversion transition. Juan Linz notes that in a rupture, the break is not only with the regime's leader but with its institutional architecture. …

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