Since its independence from France in 1956 Tunisia was run by a secular political elite oriented towards modernization. The political elite invested in education, international cooperation and the consequent secularization of the public sphere. This helped develop a bourgeois urban middle class. Even under the autocratic rule and the clientelistic political and economic structures some independent actors existed. Networks like the Tunisian General Labour Union, the Tunisian Human Rights League as well as other smaller political parties would to some extent act autonomously and openly challenge the regime. Since 2000 Tunisia was pressured to follow the market liberalization policy as put forward by the economic institutions International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In return, this intensified the oligarchic structures in Tunisia’s economic system and made it more sensitive to foreign investors. Unemployment rose, especially among the youth. On 17th of December 2010 lack of prospects and hopelessness eventually led to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in reaction to strict bureaucratic regime, which sparked the protests.
Under the rule of Ben Ali Tunisia, the print and audio-visual media were directly controlled by the ruling party Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). Private media were often loyalist in nature, as they lay in the hands of relatives and family members of Ben Ali. The liberalization took place in the entertainment sector whereas joint ventures with foreign investors were allowed. While the training and education of journalists was centralized, it rarely followed ideological guidelines, rather was oriented towards formal and professional standards. The Internet was centrally regulated by a state service provider; so many contents were censored. Despite of this a vibrant online networks and blogosphere emerged in connection with the Tunisian diaspora. The transnational TV channels were also used to transmit certain political contents into the country.
Tunisia was chosen into the country sample of the MFT research project because it witnessed the spark of the uprisings of the youth, which later triggered regional uprisings and major political shifts in the region. Apart from being the cradle of the so-called Arab Spring Tunisia’s transition is interesting as it seems the most stable path of all Arab countries who witnessed massive uprisings.
Under Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981, the country had a continued autocratic rule with strong clientelistic features. The political scene was dominated by the National Democratic Party. Although officially a multi-party system existed, the parties were organizationally and financially weak, and posed no serious challenge to Mubarak’s rule. The neo-liberal policies of the 2000s aggravated the socio-economic conditions for the majority of the Egyptians. Socio-economic and political imbalances eventually led to the 25th of January, 2011 protests that forced Mubarak to resign from power.
Egypt has a history of a strong and rich network of civic society initiatives and oppositional movements. In the last decade of Mubarak’s rule, a broad coalition of opposition movements cooperated under Kifaya (Enough) as well as the National Assembly for Change network. The heterogeneous opposition movements contain diverse ideological and political backgrounds ranging from Islamist, social-democrat and Leftist camps. Religious and religious right-wing actors took a prominent role in shaping the political struggle under Mubarak and afterwards in the transformation phase, until it was interrupted by the military intervention in summer 2013.
The media landscape in Egypt can be divided into state-owned, party-owned and private media organizations. Increasing liberalization processes since the mid-1990s resulted in the establishment of new print media and TV channels that rivaled the state-owned media organizations which were lacking in credibility. The external pluralism and growing criticism of the regime extended the margins of freedom of expression. In addition, a vibrant blogosphere discursively shaped the public agenda by introducing new topics such as corruption, harassment, and human rights violations, among others.
As a pivotal state hosting approximately one third of the Arab population, Egypt is an important regional player that cannot be neglected when studying the transition processes in North Africa. The structural constellations lend comparability to Poland in the MFT research project sample.
Libya’s autocratic political system was built on the monolithic rule of Muammar Qadhafi who ran the country for forty years. His power rested on the personality cult, the repressive use of the intelligence services, and the exploitation of the clan structures. The media-documented execution of Qadhafi in 2011 is rich with symbolism similar to that of the death of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1989.
In comparison to the other North African countries, Libya has abundant oil and gas reserves, yet the years of the UN embargo since the 1990s till 2003 resulted in heavy losses so Qadhafi could not successfully satisfy the public demands and expectations. Repeated changes in economic policies made both investors and citizens insecure. Power imbalances shaped the political system. Political participation was formally institutionalized through the General People’s Congress and other committees, but influential positions were held solely by Qadhafi’s family members and revolution companions. Nepotism and ideological rhetoric were tools for asserting control and repression in the political public sphere.
The regime change was not a result of a broad civil movement or an organized opposition, but rather through violent clashes. In the post-Qadhafi phase the ethnic, social and political conflicts were not channeled through transitional negotiation processes, instead a civil war erupted between rivalling tribes and organizations. This adds political uncertainty to Libya as the events unfold.
Under Qadhafi the Libyan media system was characterized by stagnation resulting from the forced embargo. In terms of quality, media was behind other countries in the region and served rather as a propaganda tool. In the mid-2000s, a brief phase of cautious liberalization was initiated by the ruler’s son Seif al-Islam Qadhafi by launching new print and audio-visual media. Soon the short-lived experiment ended as the media either succumbed to state control or ceased their activity altogether. In the post-Qadhafi phase the media are used as political tools by the numerous militias competing for power and resources.
While Libya’s political fate is still uncertain, its violent transition cannot be neglected. Its developments have regional implications for both its neighbours to the East and West, Egypt and Tunisia. In the same time alarming influence of the terror organization Islamic State in Syria and Iraq bears of anti-democratic radicalization processes.