“I am the system”: Power in North African regimes

Plan Author

  • Amelia Fanelli, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Rhetoric and Debate
  • Course: Why do we obey? Social structure and normative systems
  • Tutorial: Researching Modern Tunisia
  • Tutorial: Thinking and Writing Sociologically

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Gregory White, Smith College


Through my six-month internship in Tunisia, I grew to have a greater appreciation for the intricacies of politics and power in this modern nation. After returning to the US I decided that I wanted to write about the Tunisian Constitution of 2014. To complement my writing on Tunisia, I decided to write about the Constitutions of 2012 and 2014 in Egypt, another North African country which experienced an uprising in 2011. Finally, I determined that I would that I would preface both of these constitutional papers with a brief examination of constitutions in history, so as to very briefly introduce some of the themes and terms that will resurface in the second two papers. In these following papers, I have not addressed the entirety of the Tunisian and Egyptian constitutions. Rather, I have focused on two historically powerful institutions, the presidency in Tunisia and the military in Egypt. I have examined how these institutions are treated under their respective constitutions, and how the president and the military have or have not limited themselves to their prescribed roles and responsibilities.


Constitutions are incapable of enforcing themselves, and all of the clearly outlined legal processes or guarantees of individual rights are meaningless unless they are followed, respected and enforced. In both Tunisia and Egypt, there were constitutions in force before the 2011 protests, yet both countries were dictatorships. The ultimate authority in both countries was not the constitution but a man, or an army. A constitution could and did provide a legal underpinning to these regimes, but in direct conflict between the dictates of the constitution and the desires of the ruler, the constitution would have to change or it would be overlooked. The constitution was, in short, a document with little real power.

As the unrest spread across the region, in some countries the violent repression of revolt or the granting of limited reforms proved sufficient to halt the protests without regime change102, other countries descended into civil warfare, and in Libya and Egypt, as in Tunisia, longtime rulers were forced from power103. Yet as eye-catching, unexpected and monumental as successful street protests can be, they are only the first step of any revolution. What fled from Tunisia in January of 2011 was a man, not a regime. The institutional features that he had nurtured and depended on to maintain his authoritarian rule were still very much a part of the country. It would take structural, legal and societal reform to effect lasting change.

Much has changed in Egypt over the course of the past decade. The country has cycled through three presidents, two constitutions, an interim constitution, two revolutions or coups, depending on one’s political sympathies, and a series of elections. Yet, Egypt in December of 2017 does bear a marked similarity to Egypt in December of 2010. A strongman with a military background holds incredible power and represses dissent. Ultimately, the protests in 2011 unseated Hosni Mubarak. They did not dislodge his regime. The army, which had supported Mubarak, turned against him, but never relinquished its own power despite being as fundamental to the old regime as the face of the dictator had been.


I fondly remember the last days of writing: it was so nice to see everything finally come together. I’m particularly proud of my second paper, which is focused on Tunisia. I studied abroad in Tunisia and I wanted to find a way to integrate my time abroad with my interest in politics and the rule of law. I will be going to law school next year, where I will continue to study constitutions and law.

Amelia in Tunisia during her internship.
Four North African Leaders at the 2010 Afro-Arab Joint Summit in Sirte, Lybia.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reviews troops.