The Spanish Transition and the Arab Spring

12 March 2012 | Paper | English



Between the 1970s and 1990s the political changes that had taken place in Latin America and Southern Europe – and those underway in Eastern Europe – contributed to the proliferation of studies on transitions from authoritarian regimes or dictatorships to democratic systems. Establishing models of transition to democracy is academically advantageous. They help to differentiate the essential components of change, to compare, avoid errors, and even predict. Such processes form part of the past of certain countries and can be useful to others in a similar situation.

However, for the peoples immersed in a process of political transition, contemporary events are more important, as they generate a difficult to measure contagion effect that, nevertheless, will be limited by the non-transferable characteristics of each process. An example of simultaneous political transitions can be found in some Southern European Mediterranean countries in the mid-1970s: Portugal, April 1974; Greece, June 1974; and Spain, November 1975. However, beyond the common elements, there were enormous differences between the three processes. In Portugal, the change began with a bloodless coup against the dictatorship led by an army (the Armed Forces Movement, MFA) affected by the colonial wars in which hundreds of young Portuguese were dying. Two years followed of MFA political predominance with the support of the Portuguese Communist Party. In Greece, the end of the Dictatorship of the Colonels (1967- 1974) came when the regime attempted a coup in Cyprus to unite the island with Greece (enosis). Its failure and the international repercussions (Turkey invaded the eastern part of the island) forced the military out of power and the call for elections. In contrast, the coup in Chile of September 1973 showed that the path to democracy could be reversible if it directly clashed with the oligarchy, the military and the US government.

Thus, although the Spanish transition to democracy is often cited as a model for other later processes, it must be kept in mind that it is a reference but not a model to be followed because no transition process is comparable to another, as the historical circumstances and the political and social forces are always different. Moreover, each country has its own historical, cultural and political traditions, which take on a determinant role in the transition process.

The Spanish Transition

The political change in Spain cannot be understood without taking into account a previous process, which Edward Malefakis calls proto-democratisation, from the 1959 Stabilisation Plan to the dictator’s death in 1975. During those years, the economic, demographic and social changes allowed the development of new forms of opposition to the regime that had little to do with the party political and trade union system of the Second Republic or with the discourse maintained by the Republican exile.

The Spanish transition to democracy took place after a dictatorship that for four decades had controlled the country through repression and with the memory of the experience of the Civil War (1936-1939) which, under no circumstances, was to be repeated. In contrast with Portugal, in Spain the army was not expected to rise up against the dictator. However, from the mid-1960s, the Spanish opposition had significant outside support from European parties and governments that had committed to put pressure on the dictatorship using all available means and not to admit Spain into the Common Market until there was true democracy. At the same time, the changes in Portugal and Greece began a cycle of transitions in the European Mediterranean countries in which the Spanish transition was the final link. In this respect, the contagion effect of the Arab uprisings has some similarities with what happened in the three European Mediterranean countries in the mid-1970s. Moreover, in the case of Algeria, and as happened in Spain, the fear of repeating the experience of a civil war like that of the 1990s holds back any attempt at change.

The transition began after the dictator’s death in November 1975, although the economic, social and political changes had already started. In the 1960s, the economic growth consolidated some middle classes that increased consumption levels and access to education. The mechanisation of agriculture and industrial growth caused high emigration from the countryside to the industrial regions and Europe (France, Germany, Switzerland…), which changed the regional distribution of the population. Moreover, the percentage of active agrarian population (23% in 1970) was exceeded by that of the population employed in the secondary (38%) and tertiary (39%) sectors. The economic and social changes had political consequences. The opposition clandestinely aspired to bring Spain into line with the democratic European countries. The economic growth and the clandestine opposition brought Spanish society closer to its European references, while tourism and emigration – the two pillars of the inflow of foreign currency and funding of imports – illustrated the distance that separated it from them.

In Spain, as in Arab countries today, the transition took place at a time of world economic crisis, which undoubtedly represented a handicap for political change. However, the process was characterised by a high level of consensus among all the political actors (including the reformers of the old regime) and the Moncloa Pacts in October 1977 was a great social agreement to confront the effects of the economic crisis.

In the case of Libya, where after the civil war a National Transitional Council (NTC) has taken power; of Tunisia and Egypt, where the uprisings have managed to throw out the dictators; of Syria, where the uprising is leading to civil war given the brutal repression of Bashar al-Assad’s regime; of Morocco, where reform has been imposed; and of Algeria, where the demonstrations did not end in an uprising, the differences with mid-1970s Spain are notable. The differences with Yemen and Bahrain are even greater.

General Franco’s dictatorship had controlled the country with an iron rod thanks to its social support and the repression it used, two constants that, although they lessened with the passage of time, became the fundamental characteristics of the regime. The dictator died on 20th November 1975, while the country wondered about what the most immediate future would hold. The opposition had gained strength in the previous fifteen years and the sectors that opposed the dictatorship were increasingly broader, especially among the working classes and, decisively, among the middle classes. Yet, the strength of the opposition was not sufficient to overthrow the regime through a mass movement, as would later happen in Eastern Europe. The dictatorship had lost social support and even in the army some small cores of opposition were detected (such as the Democratic Military Union, UMD), but not to the extreme of being brought down by a silent or velvet revolution.

The political future of Spain in late 1975 was therefore in the hands of the most lucid inheritors of the dictatorship and the most pragmatic sectors of the opposition. Thus, the political transition ended up as an unwritten pact between them. It was a meeting point between Franco’s supporters and detractors or, if you will, a reform without rupture, even though the final result, the democratic state of law, represented a profound and definitive rupture with the previous totalitarian regime. Therefore, the transition was based on the legislation in force, that of “la ley a la ley, pasando por la ley” advocated by Torcuato Fernández Miranda (President of the Spanish Parliament and the Privy Council and mentor of the second president of the government under the monarchy, Adolfo Suárez), and the non-questioning of the figure of the King and the monarchic regime established by Franco’s 1966 Law of Succession. The dictatorship, through an agreed reform, was dissolved and gave way to a new legal framework that culminated with the democratic elections to the Spanish Parliament on 15th June 1977 and with the drafting of a Constitution agreed by the different political forces and approved in a referendum in December 1978.

The appointment of Adolfo Suárez as president of the government in July 1976 and the moderation of the opposition were essential elements for taking the process forward. In exchange for the legalisation of all political parties, including the Spanish Communist Party and the Catalan and Basque nationalist organisations, the democratic opposition agreed not to question the monarchy and carry out the transition without breaking with the legislation in force (agreed reform). This was all that was needed. On 16th July, Suárez announced his government programme that included an amnesty for political crimes and crimes of expressing opinion; public and trade union liberties and freedom of speech; national reconciliation; acknowledgement of the diversity and special characteristics of the peoples of Spain; holding of Spanish parliamentary elections before 30th June 1977 and integration into the European Economic Community (EEC).

The legislative process was very fast in order to avoid giving reaction time to the most ultraconservative sectors of the old regime. The most essential changes were concentrated in the eleven months from Suárez’s appointment to the elections of June 1977. In September 1976, Suárez announced the Political Reform Bill and, after its passage through Franco’s Parliament, moved to the passing of the Law, which was endorsed in referendum on 15th December. Thus, the process complied with the legislation in force and the opposition recommended, without much insistence, an active abstention (socialists and communists) or a vote in favour (Christian democrats and liberals). The result was predictable: a participation of 77.7% and 94.1% of affirmative votes.

The new law opened the doors to the legalisation of political parties but also to a period of terrorist violence by the extreme right, ETA (armed Basque pro-independence organisation) and GRAPO (First of October Antifascist Resistance Groups). In this context, on 9th April 1977, Suárez made his most controversial decision, the legalisation of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), opposed by the Armed Forces. A military coup was close but, once the reaction was under control, helped by the PCE’s acceptance of the monarchy, nothing stood in the way of the first democratic elections. To some extent, the legalisation of the PCE played a similar role, despite all the ideological distances, to what the legalisation of the parties of political Islam may play in the Arab Spring.

The Spanish parliamentary elections were held on 15th June 1977. The government party (Democratic Centre Union, UCD) won a clear victory, although without achieving an absolute majority. The elections rewarded Suárez’s political efforts to make the journey from dictatorship to a democratic state of law, but they were also the triumph of a generation of politicians (Adolfo Suárez, Felipe González, Santiago Carrillo, Jordi Pujol…) who were able to overcome the ideological differences to find an agreed way out of the dictatorship.

The process would be concluded with the approval of the Constitution in a referendum on 6th December 1978. In practice, the Parliament that emerged from the elections of June 1977 took on the role of a Constituent Parliament and began the drafting a constitutional text, which led to the legal rupture. It was accepted that the constitutional text had to be agreed by all the main political parties, as the government held the power and the opposition the historical legitimacy. The fundamental principles of the Constitution were the democratic and social state of law, the Parliamentary Monarchy and the autonomous state. The section that caused most arguments and the abstention of the Basque nationalists concerned the territorial organisation of the state (State of Autonomies). Even today, we can say that the main problem the transition left to be resolved was that of the articulation of the state, because the State of Autonomies has not meant the definitive accommodation of the historical and cultural nationalities (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) into the Spanish state. At the same time, but closely related, the democratic normality and coexistence in the Basque Country and in Spain have been compromised by the violence of ETA until 2011, when the armed organisation announced (8th January) “a permanent and general cease fire” and, later (20th October) “the definitive end of its armed activity.”

The Constitution concluded the decisive stage of the transition to democracy in Spain. This would be followed by the provisional restoration of the Government of Catalonia and of the Basque Autonomous Government (autumn 1977), the second legislative elections (March 1979), the first municipal elections (April 1979) and the passing of the successive Statutes of Autonomy. Of course, there were many loose ends to tie up. Undoubtedly, the most important, given the precedent of the attempted military coup on 23rd February 1981, was the reform of the Armed Forces which would be carried out by the first socialist government between 1982 and 1986. It would also be necessary to tackle the reform of judicial power and the configuration of the State of Autonomies, tax reform, membership of the Atlantic Alliance (on 10th December 1981, Spain signed the NATO membership protocol) that Felipe González’s socialist government, which had opposed it in form when in opposition, ratified through a referendum in March 1986, and the challenges of the future membership of the EEC, which came into force on 1st January 1986.

In short, the political transition in Spain was extremely fast. Its legislative phase was concluded in the eleven months from the appointment of Adolfo Suárez to the first democratic elections or, if you prefer, in the two and a half years until the approval of the Constitution. It was also a process that did not undermine the legislation in force – reform prevailed over rupture –; a process that was bloodless, despite reactionary attempts and outbursts of political violence by the extreme left and extreme right, and which took the country out of the isolation in which the dictatorship had immersed it to integrate it into the community of democratic European states. All this has meant that the Spanish transition has often been cited as a model for other processes of political transition started – or attempted – later. It is, without doubt, a reference but, as has been noted, it is not really a model to be followed because each process is based on its own historical, cultural and religious tradition and on certain socioeconomic circumstances, and on a correlation of political forces that are by their nature different. It would be wrong, therefore, to think that things will happen in a similar way in all the countries involved in the Arab Spring. The results are never predictable, however much we analyse processes that have occurred in other contexts and places. Each political transition is unique and non-transferable.

The Arab Spring

General Considerations

The western media often tends to see Arab countries as a homogeneous whole. This perception has been reaffirmed by the wave of Arab uprisings in 2011 as, after their start in Tunisia, they quickly spread to Egypt and then to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria, without forgetting the demonstrations that took place in Morocco, Algeria and other Arab countries. There has undoubtedly been a contagion effect that must not be underestimated and, also, common elements: rejection of the dictatorships and authoritarian regimes; calls for free elections and transition to democracy; trained youths, in many cases with university education but no future prospects, who claim back a dignity taken away by the harsh conditions of markets that condemn them to emigration, unemployment and indigence.

To some extent, a superficial reading of the Arab Human Development Report 2009 would endorse these similarities and this homogeneous perception, as it emphasised the democratic shortcomings of the Arab States and that formal support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law is questionable in practice.

Therefore, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen and Morocco were formally regimes based on political pluralism, while in the Gulf States, except in Bahrain, the political organisations were prohibited and the level of gender discrimination was one of the highest in the world. But the reality, the report noted, was that many governments restricted political liberties, adopted measures that limited citizen rights and, in the case of presidential elections with more than one candidate, the results were manipulated to ensure the election of the “official” candidate, so that the reforms underway “have not changed the structural basis of power in the Arab states, where the executive branch still dominates, unchecked by any form of accountability” (UNDP, 2009a: 69). Thus, in Egypt, the presentation of presidential candidates was limited to the legal parties (which excluded the Muslim Brotherhood), which, except for Hosni Mubarak, had no chance of being elected; in Algeria, the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was accompanied by the extension of the presidential term of office and the removal of limits to the length of mandates, which guaranteed the perpetuation of Bouteflika; something similar happened in Tunisia, where Ben Ali won election after election. In short, wherever the political economy, with its networks of influence, patronage system or vote buying, did not exist there was repression. The result is that “few Arabs feel they have any power to change current conditions in their country through political participation” (UNDP, 2009a: 73).

However, the 2011 uprisings have irreversibly shaken the status quo as, beyond success or failure, what they have made clear is actually the will to change current conditions in their country through political participation and that the new generations have lost the fear to call for a better future. These new generations were greatly nourished by the higher cohorts of those who in 2005 were under 15 and that for the Arab countries as a whole represented 33.7% of the total population. In 2010, the average age of the population for the member countries of the Arab League was 23.1, while in the OECD countries this average reached 39.9.

However, overall assessments will not allow us to further explore what is happening. The analysis of some relevant statistical data, on the countries where there have been uprisings or significant demonstrations, provides a better approach to the diverse situations emerging and which have very different starting points.

Both GDP per capita and income distribution (Gini coefficient) or the average income ratio show profound internal inequalities – albeit less so in Egypt, Syria, Algeria or Yemen, than in Tunisia or Morocco – and between the different countries (the 28,240 dollars of GDP per capita of Bahrain or the 16,502 of Libya, against the 2,470 of Yemen, 4,494 of Morocco, 4,730 of Syria or 5,673 of Egypt). At the same time, the percentage of population living below the national poverty line is very high in Egypt and Yemen, while in keeping with the international scale (less than 1.25 dollars a day income) Yemen has alarming poverty percentages, followed at some considerable distance by Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Therefore, the disparity in the levels of wealth and its unequal internal distribution do not seem to be determinant for explaining why the uprisings have occurred. The economic factors are important but not determinant.

The urban population is, in general, higher than in Spain in 1970 (54.2%, Fundación Foessa, 1976: 213). Bahrain and Libya even exceed the percentage of urban population of Spain and of many European countries in 2011. Algeria and Tunisia exceed the average of Europe and Central Asia (64.6%, UNDP, 2011: 183), while Morocco and Syria are quite similar. Only in Egypt and Yemen does the rural population exceed the urban almost reaching 60 and 70%, respectively. There are also notable differences in the percentage of young population, which is one of the variables provided to explain the uprisings. The population under 15 is relatively low – equal to or lower than 30% – in countries such as Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Libya. In contrast, in Egypt and Syria the under-15s represent around one third of the total population and in Yemen almost half. In short, urbanisation or the youth of the population do not in themselves explain the protest on the Arab streets.

The previous variables, as well as life expectancy at birth, which is always higher than the average of the Arab States and the world, with the very marked exception of Yemen, depend on the period of the demographic transition, the levels of agricultural mechanisation – or the absence of agricultural activities –, and industrial development and outsourcing of the economy. The differences in the Gender Inequality Index also indicate pronounced gender discrimination. These are high values compared with western parameters, and the relative and doubtful exceptions would be Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya.

In short, the economic, demographic and gender discrimination characteristics break with the supposed homogeneity of Arab countries, as does the most complete index: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) index. In this case, the differences also do not explain the outbreak of uprisings as, according to the UNDP classification, they have taken place in countries with human development that is very high (Bahrain), high (Libya and Tunisia), medium (Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Morocco) and low (Yemen).

More interesting in terms of the future is the potential for education, respect for human rights, press freedom and the fight against corruption illustrated by the democracy index. According to this index, no Arab country can be considered a democratic regime. All of them are authoritarian. The lowest levels in the index, in clear correlation with the uprisings, are found in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt, in that order. Note that the worse the democracy index, the more brutal the response of the governments to the uprisings, with the exception of Bahrain where it was repressed with foreign intervention. In Tunisia and Egypt the respective presidents were deposed and in Morocco and Algeria reform or silence has been imposed. The partial indicators are also negative and indicate a systematic violation of human rights and generalised corruption. In terms of press freedom, Arab countries are in last places out of a total of 174. In short, the regimes use repression to impede press freedom. The most extreme situations are found in countries which have experienced uprisings or significant demonstrations. Exercising the caution demanded by official statistics, the relative future hope lies in the literacy of the population under 24 (over 95% in Bahrain, Libya and Tunisia) and in the schooling years (over seven years in Bahrain, Libya and Algeria). In contrast, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Yemen have very negative and frankly worrying overall indicators.

Social Movements, New Technologies and Uprisings

Just over a year ago, the western world looked with surprise towards Tunisia and Egypt. Europe did not recognise the old mole of the revolution that was undermining the old order in the Southern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Added to the surprise at some unexpected uprisings was published opinion’s fear that the changes might favour the advance of Islamist parties. Al-Qaeda continued to triumph in the western media after the disappearance of Osama Bin Laden, while its discourse was clearly defeated in Tahrir Square and the streets of Tunisia. Western published opinion had spent a decade hijacked by al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks, exchanging liberties for an apparent security, and forgetting that, on the one hand, the discourse of Jihadist radicalism has always been marginal among Muslims and, on the other, that the place where this discourse has caused more victims is actually in the Islamic countries, in a broad series of terrorist attacks from Indonesia to Mauritania.

Greater attention to the opinion of experts – and to Arab published opinion – would perhaps have avoided the surprise. Situations like those of Egypt or Tunisia had for some time been explosive, while the European dignitaries did not curtail their support for Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak or Muammar al Gaddafi. It was not realised that the people of these countries would refuse to go on resignedly accepting dictatorships that based their legitimacy – in the view of the West – on stopping the rise of political Islam. A growing discontent was taking root in these societies – and very particularly among youths without a future – where along with the absence of liberties there was a growing increase in inequalities brought about by the corruption and nepotism of governing elites. The protests had happened for years promoted by the social movements until, finally, in late 2010 and early 2011, the uprisings broke out.

The inability to understand all of this has magnified the role of new technologies and social networks in the unleashing of the uprisings. There is no doubt about their importance as a means of avoiding the withholding of information by the authoritarian regimes and as a mechanism to publicise calls, meetings and demonstrations. It was not a new phenomenon and had already been used in Iran as a result of the demonstrations that followed the electoral fraud of June 2009. Moreover, the use of new technologies and social networks forms part of a far-reaching process that began in the 1980s with satellite dishes, which make it possible to see inequality in the distribution of wealth and have an undoubted effect of attracting immigration towards developed countries. CNN was the channel of the Iraq War in 1991. A decade later, in Afghanistan and Iraq, CNN had to compete with Al-Jazeera, which started broadcasting in 1996, and not only broadcast news but interpreted the conflicts from a non-western point of view, which gave it extra credibility among Arab peoples. At the same time, its programmes had a transforming impact on Arab societies that western channels were never able to achieve. In 2005, with the start of transmissions in English, Al-Jazeera directly competed and, often, beat western channels in their own countries of origin. In March 2011, Hillary Clinton recognised that “viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials” (Clinton, 2011). We are losing the media battle, concluded the Secretary of State. So it is not surprising that with the first outbreaks the reaction of the authorities questioned was to ban transmissions of Al-Jazeera and expel its correspondents. As noted by Marc Lynch, professor at George Washington University, Al-Jazeera “did not cause these events [the uprisings], but it’s almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al- Jazeera” (Worth and Kirkpatrick, 2011).

However, it would be unfair to argue that uprisings are only the result of the role played by new technologies and the social networks. Firstly, because we forget that in these countries access to new technologies is limited to small sectors of intellectuals, liberal professionals and youths as, in contrast to satellite dishes, access to Internet or third generation mobile phones is still very limited among most of the population with no economic resources and the knowledge necessary to use them. Exceptions include Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, in that order (see Table above). Secondly, it would mean underestimating the importance of the social movements that, over the last few decades, have confronted the authoritarianism of regimes such as those of Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, among others. These social movements include trade unions and youth associations, as well as unemployed graduates (in Morocco, for instance, they have been organising since the mid-1990s), women, human rights activists, opposition forums, non-governmental organisations and so on. In this field, Islamist associations stand out, which explains to a great extent the results of the elections in Tunisia and Egypt. On the one hand, the Islamist groups have most intensely suffered repression. On the other, despite the obligatory clandestineness, they were able to create support networks for the most unprotected sectors of the population, from institutions to combat drug dependency in the suburbs of the great cities to immigrant reception centres or schools and health centres, partly following the model established in Algeria by the Islamic Salvation Front in the 1980s. This is why the Islamists, although lacking an important role in the uprisings (in the first weeks the Muslim Brotherhood did not appear in Tahrir Square), are the best organised for confronting the new situation. However, although funding is still from Saudi Arabia, the model to follow in many cases is that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey, which could become the new regional power of the Muslim Mediterranean.

In short, the social movements have had a far from negligible role in preparing the conditions that have made the uprisings possible. The protests have continued in recent years and increasingly involved larger sectors of the population. In Tunisia, Mohamed Buazizi’s selfimmolation on 17th December 2010 was the catalyst of the uprising that ended Ben Ali’s regime. But that consequence cannot be explained without the antecedent of the uprising of the Gafsa mine basin in 2008-2009, which had the support of “the local and regional branches of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (the powerful trade union UGTT) [that] helped the population mobilise and provided an organised structure to the protest. The local base was [therefore] a decisive factor” (Driss, 2011). The confrontation lasted several months “and degenerated into bloody confrontations between a population fed up with the bad living conditions and the forces of order, before spreading like wildfire through the cities and villages of this traditionally rebellious and non-conformist working-class region in the Centre-West” (Kéfi, 2011). In Egypt, from 2004, the Kifaya movement grouped together activists from the social movements and, in April 2008, a general strike began in support of the workers of the Mahalla textile factory. The social activists and the social networks played a fundamental role in the success of the strike (Hirschkind, 2010: 138-143). The catalyst came in June 2010 with the killing of the Internet user Khaled Said by the police in Alexandria. The “We are all Khaled Said” movement flowed into the multitudinous concentrations in Tahrir Square that brought down Mubarak. In Libya, relatives and human rights activists kept alive the memory of the 1,200 prisoners killed in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in summer 1996. From this memory emerged an opposition movement that expanded with the social networks. In February 2011, the arrest of an activist in Bengasi provoked the first protests, to which Gaddafi responded with the army bombing the demonstrators, thus unleashing the civil war.

The uprisings are, therefore, part of a broader process bringing together social movements and new technologies and in which the demonstrators share objectives and characteristics: rejection of dictatorships and repression, demand for free elections and youths calling for a lost dignity. But it would also be a long heterogeneous process, with advances and backward movements, which would take different paths according to the particularities, context and correlation of forces in each case and of which now we can only say that it will be irreversible because the geopolitics of North Africa and the Middle East will never be the same.

Political Changes

A year after the first demonstrations the political changes continue in the Arab countries. In Tunisia, eight months after the flight of Ben Ali and the fall of the regime, elections have been held. The main political division has not been between left and right as is usual in the West, but between Islamist and secular parties. The same has happened in Morocco after the constitutional reform and the holding of legislative elections. And the same can be expected in Egypt and, very probably, in Libya.


In Tunisia the victory of Ennahda, a group inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish AKP, has been unquestionable, obtaining 1,500,649 votes, 37% of those cast and 89 seats, 41% of the 217 in the Tunisian Parliament. The speed with which the elections were held and the fact that they were for a constituent assembly, which has a year to draft the new constitution, has similarities with the 1976-1977 Spanish process.5 But the possible similarities stop here. On the one hand, the Tunisian electoral system does not seem to have favoured participation (in Spain, participation reached almost 80%). The Tunisian electoral roll was estimated at 8,289,924 electors, of whom 7,569,824 lived in Tunisia and 720,100 abroad. However, prior registration was required in order to vote, which resulted in low participation. 4,308,888 votes were cast, 52% of the electoral roll, and almost 6% (255,740 votes) were blank or null and void. Almost a third of the rest (1,290,293) were for candidatures that obtained no representation. Therefore, only 2,762,855 of the votes (64.1% of those cast) have parliamentary representation, which means only one third of the electoral roll (Bustos, 2011).

The electoral campaign was characterised by the opposition between secularists and Islamists. The leaders of Ennahda stressed their moderation, in the compatibility between Islam and democracy and in their commitment to pluralism and non-violence. After the elections, Abdelhamid Jlassi, Director of the Executive Committee of Ennahda, affirmed that “Tunisia’s priorities are clear: stability and conditions to live with dignity, as well as the setting-up of democratic institutions” and Nourreddine Bhiri, member of the party leadership, affirmed that “we will respect women’s rights based on the Personal Status Code and the law among Tunisians independently of their religion, sex or social belonging.” To dispel any doubt, Hamadi Jebali, Secretary General and second leader of the party, formed a government with two centreleft parties, the Congress for the Republic (CPR, 29 seats) and Ettakatol (20 seats). Previously, Ennahda had given its support to the election of Moncef Marzouki, of the CPR, as President of the Republic, and, before that, to Mustapha Ben Jaafar, of Ettakatol, as President of the Constituent Assembly. There is, without doubt, still a long way to go, not least to prepare a constitution that makes Tunisia a democratic state of law. And it will be done by a parliament where Ennahda has a comfortable majority, but not enough to impose its criteria. At the same time, it will be necessary to reform the police forces that was the agent of the repression of the previous regime, eradicate corruption and confront economic challenges such as an economic model and role of the state in the economy; mechanisms of transparency, redistribution and productive efficiency favouring social cohesion and reducing unemployment and regional inequalities; and securing capital for new investments.


In Egypt, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square forced Hosni Mubarak to resign on 11th February. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of the situation, giving way to a transition overseen by the Army, the backbone of the old regime and pillar of corruption. On the one hand, there were the demands of the demonstrators: to end corruption, patronage system, repression, inequalities and Mubarak’s regime; free elections; reform or drafting of a new constitution; and recognition of individual rights and freedom of speech. On the other, there was the military leadership that insisted on maintaining the alliance with the civil elites linked to the great public and private enterprises.

But after Mubarak’s resignation, influenced by the pressure of the White House on the military leadership (Sanger, 2011) and President Barack Obama’s desire for the United States to situate itself on the “right side of history” (Shear, 2011), there was no turning back. The necessary institutional and economic reforms (Kadry Said et al., 2011; Dunne et al., 2011) included prior elections, to be held between November 2011 and March 2012. The political change means substituting the old political elite with the rapid emergence of a new one. However, the political fragmentation, scarcity of trained professionals and Egyptian political experience of the last thirty years, where the opposition parties, with scarce or no influence, were far from the people’s demands going along with the farce of legitimising the regime while repression continued (Elzoghaimy, 2011), anticipate the difficulties of this change and a scenario favourable to the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised, and other less moderate representatives of political Islam (El-Anani, 2011). The power of votes creates a new legitimacy that will replace those that emerged during the “revolutionary” process, either the SCFA’s, which became the guarantor of the country’s stability and whose legitimacy emanates, according to high-ranking officers, from the fact that “the Army protected the revolution,” or that of the “revolutionary block”, which led the protest and endured the repression (Elzoughby, 2011).

The provisional results of the first two rounds of the election to the People’s Assembly or lower chamber of the Parliament (November-December 2011) showed that the political fragmentation was less decisive among religious parties than among secular ones. The first stood under different guises: the Muslim Brotherhood, undoubtedly with greater political and social presence (El-Shobaki, 2011); the Salafist parties, among which Al-Nur (the light) stands out; and other groups. No less fragmented were the secular parties divided between liberals (including the historical party Wafd), left-wing and Nasserist parties, subdivided into different parties (Awad, 2011). In the second round (14th-22nd December), the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood obtained 36.3% of the votes (36.6% in the first round), followed by Al-Nur with 28.7% (24.3%), while Wafd was in third place with 9.6%. The last round, which concluded on 11th January 2012, did not essentially modify these results. Neither should we expect highly different results in the elections to the Shura or upper chamber of the Parliament, to be held between 29th January and 11th March 2012.

In short, the reform or the new constitution emerging from the Parliament will have the stamp of political Islam and, mainly, of the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be, in any case, “what Egyptians [have] freely chosen, a choice that we [must] respect if we are true democrats. However much we disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood, are they not Egyptian citizens and with the right to win elections and participate in the government as long as they respect the democratic rules?” (Al Aswani, 2011). The West would prefer an evolution leading to a system and political Islam similar to Turkey’s (Núñez de Prado, 2011) although the Egyptian reality is not the Turkish and the errors of 1992 (Algeria) and 2006 (Palestine) should not be repeated. More worrying for the future democratic health of the country is the role that the Army might play through the SCFA, which might try a veiled continuation of the military regime in a new scenario socially dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. At this point, it would indeed be necessary to take good note of how important the military reform in Spain turned to be in order to neutralise any other attempt at regression (Serra, 2002, 2008).

Libya and Syria

Libya and Syria are the only two countries where the brutal response of the regime, which did not hesitate to use the Army to repress the uprisings, led to an open (Libya) or concealed (Syria) civil war. In Libya, the controversial UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (Arteaga, 2011; Mangas, 2011) supported an intervention by NATO and some Arab League countries which was decisive in moving the confrontation in favour of the National Transitional Council (NTC), which was quickly recognised by most of the international community. Muammar al Gaddafi’s regime was completely overthrown, giving way to a transition with a strong component of political violence and unpredictable outcomes.

However, at the time of writing (January 2012), it seems unlikely that the international community is going to adopt measures similar to those of Libya against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Why such a difference? Leaving aside the false issue of oil – Gaddafi guaranteed its supply and war damage has reduced production –, some causes can be noted: Syria’s military power is much greater than Libya’s and the opposition does not want foreign intervention, although this might change if the massacres of civilians continue; the United States (and the EU) already has too many open military fronts and not always of vital geostrategic importance for the White House; Gaddafi’s regime was internationally isolated – the Arab League backed the air exclusion area – and borders the countries where the uprisings began, although Syria has allies, such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, in an extremely unstable region. Moreover, Israel fears the consequences of the Arab revolts and even more a turbulent change in Syria (Naím, 2011). Whatever happens, neither one case nor the other seems likely to have excessive similarities with transitions in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s. Neither do the cases of Bahrain or Yemen.

Bahrain and Yemen

Bahrain is a financial and leisure centre in the Arabian Peninsula and the base of the United States 5th Fleet. Here the uprising was violently repressed in March 2011 with the support of troops sent by the Gulf Cooperation Council (1,200 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the Arab Emirates). Washington only nominally protested requesting democratic negotiations and concessions, an attitude in contrast with the one adopted in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Washington does not want to become enemies with Riyadh, its main ally in the Gulf region and with which it shares geostrategic objectives in the region: counterterrorism, the contention of Iran (the Bahrain uprising was to a great extent led by Shiites) and to guarantee the flow of oil (Bronner and Slackman, 2011; Sanger and Schmitt, 2011).

Yemen, a country with a heavily armed population, “is facing an unprecedented confluence of crises, which in combination are threatening to overwhelm the besieged Yemenite government. The country’s problems include international terrorism, extremism related to violence, religion and tribal conflicts, separatism and transnational smuggling” (Boucek, 2011a). In January 2011, the frustration with the corruption and an authoritarian regime led to an uprising calling for limited political reforms and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had the support of Riyadh because of the fear of an expansion of al-Qaeda – with great presence in Yemen – in the Arabian Peninsula. Washington also backed Saleh’s regime as it considers that Yemen is an instrumental piece in the fight against international terrorism. Support includes important economic provisions: around 300 million dollars in the case of Washington and between 1.5 and 2 billion in the case of Riyadh. In short, the two are committed to a stable Yemen which is not a danger for the neighbouring countries. However, the situation seems to be at a standstill with an increasingly more isolated Saleh who refuses to resign, in contrast to what he agreed with the opposition and with Riyadh,9 confronted tribal militias and demonstrators, who continue calling for reforms and a change of regime and with much of the country escaping control of a state in process of decomposition (Boucek, 2011a and 2011b; Hill and Boucek, 2011).

Algeria and Morocco

In Algeria, the democratic facade – holding elections with predictable results – feeds off the fear left by the bloody decade of the 1990s. The Arab uprisings have had a different echo in Algeria despite tentative demonstrations, calling for salary improvements and higher levels of freedom rather than the President’s resignation or the end of the regime. The current silence is the result of the transition which, with many shortcomings and imperfections, had begun in the late 1980s. Following the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the first round of the legislative elections (December 1991), the process was truncated by the military coup of January 1992. In order to legitimise it, the Army opted for reforming the political system until the current formal multiparty system that includes several moderate Islamist parties. Meanwhile, the FIS was declared illegal and the country was heading towards a concealed civil war. Nonetheless, twenty years later, neither Abdelaziz Bouteflika nor the political system awake the same fears as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Syria, although it is difficult to assess the well of resentment left by the 1992-1997 cycle of violence. In any case, part of the population believes that Bouteflika’s delicate health promises the end of an era and desires democratic changes (Safir, 2011; Martinez, 2011).

In Morocco, the 20th February Movement, which brought together young people from different tendencies ranging from the left to the Islamists of Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity) – who abandoned the movement after the elections to give a chance to the Islamist-nationalist government of Abdellah Benkirane –, managed to drive forward important demonstrations in the main cities of the country calling for constitutional reforms, greater freedom of speech, combating of inequalities and corruption (corruption affects the institution of monarchy, whose companies account for a considerable part of the GNP in a country with notable inequalities) and the removal of certain powers of the monarch, although without finally challenging his figure or the regime.

Mohamed VI appointed a Constitutional Council – of which religious figures and Ulemas were excluded with the exception of Rajae Mekkaoui, member of the Higher Council of the Ulemas and professor of law with broad international experience – to draft a new constitution granted by the King and not emanating from the Parliament, which is where the people’s sovereignty lies. However, the political parties agreed to participate in the consultations promoted by the Constitutional Council, with the exception of the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), which refused to attend, and the illegal, albeit tolerated, Al Adl Wal Ihsane, which was not invited and which disagrees with the constitution as it does not acknowledge the King’s religious authority.

The resulting text reduces the royal prerogatives: the President of the Government emerges from parliamentary majority; the King loses his “holy” character but is “inviolable”, he holds the title of “Commander of the Believers”, deals with religious affairs, presides over the Council of Ministers and controls the Armed Forces and foreign policy; freedom of religion is recognised although Islam is the religion of the state; the role of the Parliament is strengthened, which will be able to initiate constitutional reforms, promulgate amnesties and set up research committees; a National Security Council is created and Amazigh becomes an official language along with Arabic.10 On 1st July, the reform was approved in referendum with a majority of over 90% and 73% participation.

With the constitutional reform, Mohamed VI anticipated the possible contagion effects of the Arab Spring in Morocco and continued on the reformist path started in the mid-1990s. The new constitution has the Spanish constitution as a reference: “The Spanish constitution has inspired the proposals of parties and associations to justify the powers of the King. Like the King of Spain, the King of Morocco is not responsible and any action compromises, in contrast, the responsibility of the ministers. The major difference with Europe is that the King maintains the Army and religion under his control. This was the will of the parties, including those of the left” (Tozy, 2011a). For Abdellah Tourabi (2011: 2), “the constitutional reform indicates a significant evolution in the field of establishing human rights and liberties, strengthening the executive power, the enlargement of the sphere of law and protection of the independence of judicial power. It does not reduce the prerogatives of the King, who continues to be the centre of Moroccan political life.” Far more critical is Khadija Mohsen-Finan (2011) when stating that “the main innovation of this new constitutional text lies in the designation of a first minister who will no longer be appointed by the King but who will emerge from the political group that obtains ‘first place’ in the legislative elections… [Nevertheless,] if we focus on the King’s prerogatives, it is hard to believe that his power will decrease, because… the sovereign continues to be the highest authority in the royal powers of defence, diplomacy and domestic security. He continues to be the head of the Army and the person who accredits the diplomats… Once again, we are faced with promotional effects and a staging of political modernity without a real foundation… The constitutional reform proposed takes place within the opening granted by the monarchy, a gradual and controlled opening, which seemed enviable in a motionless Arab world, but which today falls far short of the demands of the people who have understood that liberties and the rule of law are extracted through a negotiation between a civil society today full of strength, and a power which has problems resuscitating an aged and obsolete mode of government in the Arab context.”

The following step was the anticipated call for legislative elections, the ninth since independence, which were held on 25th November 2011. With a low participation, 45%, which, however, broke with the downward tendency of the latest contests (64% in 1993; 58% in 1997; 52% in 2002 and 37% in 2007), the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won 107 seats out of 395. The second place was for the Istiqlal Party (PI) with 60 deputies; followed by the National Independent Gathering (RNI), 52; the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), 47; the Socialist Union of People’s Forces (USFP), 39; the People’s Movement (MP), 32; the Constitutional Union (UC), 23, and the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), 18; while ten other parties shared the remaining 17 seats (Agence Marocaine de Presse, 2011b). In short, there were few changes in the political party system, except that the PJD has become the first force in Parliament and, for the first time, has taken over the responsibility of governing. On 20th November 2011, Mohamed VI appointed as prime minister the PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane who formed a government with 14 ministers from the PJD, 6 from the PI, 4 from the MP, 4 from the PPS and 1 independent (a former RNI leader), while the ministers of Islamic Affairs, Defence and the Secretary General of the Government continued to be appointed by the King. A mixture, therefore, of moderate Islamists, conservative nationalists, Berberists and former communists. Hence, the doubts awakened by the Moroccan reform because it has not brought about the change of elites called for by the country, and the royal prerogatives continue to be excessive. Moreover, the participation was far below that of the constitutional referendum, which may indicate “lack of freedom or mistrust of power.” The main novelty, the PJD, has shown signs of accepting the status quo of the Moroccan system of official political parties and after the poor results of the RNI it aspires to be the new “King’s party” (Tozy, 2011b). The aspirations of many Moroccans are still pending and very short of achieving what a friend of mine, professor at the University of Marrakech, believes: “Mohamed VI should be like Juan Carlos I, who reigns but does not govern.” It is not yet the case and the long Moroccan political transition, which has lasted over more than one decade, must take forceful steps to make Morocco a democratic state of law.

Some Brief Conclusions

The Spanish transition has been a reference for other processes of political transition although the circumstances and historical moment of each country are different. Each process has its own unique dynamic – also in the Arab countries, playing down the contagion effect –, so the political and institutional changes must be adapted to the specificities of each place. Nevertheless, the changes must happen with some rapidity, especially the renewal of the political elites, the cleansing and reform of the Armed Forces, the holding of elections and the setting up of a new legalconstitutional framework to avoid the resistance of the most ultraconservative sectors. Moreover, the nature of the new state and the role of political Islam in it must be promptly clarified. Without the integration of political Islam there will be no democracy. Similarly, this must favourably resolve the false alternative between Islam and democracy, thereby showing that they are not only compatible but complementary given the historical, cultural and religious tradition of these countries. And, above all, to take into account that in a transition process the only possible remedy against the dangers threatening the scope of liberties is more democracy.


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