It has often been written in the past year that the beating heart of the Arab uprisings is Cairo's Tahrir Square. In this view, the events that took place the month before in Tunisia were a mere precursor to the real deal - the Egyptian revolution - as if the Tunisians were simply the warm-up act for the star of the show.
The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after all, was the most unexpected and counterintuitive of events: Ben Ali's Tunisia had been a well-run, orderly little place with its share of social problems and a pervasive police state, but no real political fissure on the horizon. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, on the other hand, was a disaster waiting to happen, in which an elderly president, his ineffectual son and a divided regime were gearing for battle as a leadership succession loomed.
In other words - from this perspective - tiny Tunisia was an uprising that could have easily ended differently if, during a few hours of panic on January 14, the president had not caved into the advice of his security chief and decided to leave the country. In expansive Egypt, long a gravity well of the Arab world, the spark of Ben Ali's downfall found ready kindle to unleash a much larger revolt that spread like wildfire.
I beg to differ with this analysis, which puts the horse before the cart. It is true that few saw the Tunisian uprising coming, despite waves of social unrest in the country's poor hinterlands in 2008 and the unceasing and dull brutality of Ben Ali's security forces. And it is true that the Tunisian revolt was less filled with tension and drama than the Egyptian one, which had the world's cameras perched above Tahrir Square and a people given to dramatic performances to enchant them. But we should not confuse the spectacular nature of the "Arab Spring", as brought to you by CNN and Al Jazeera, with its reality.
After an initial stumble, Tunisia has held a well-run, free and fair election for a constituent assembly and finds itself beginning the task of building a new political system. A legitimate interim government has been formed until a formal constitution is written and parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place. The interim president is a renowned leftist human rights activist who spent many years in exile, while the prime minister and the speaker of the constituent assembly are both veteran political activists (respectively Islamist and liberal) who spent years in Ben Ali's prisons.
In Egypt, resistance from the regime meant that after the elation of seeing Mubarak leave power, many activists were railroaded into a transition plan that has repeatedly tripped over its own lack of coherence.
Initially, the army generals who took charge seemed to look to the Muslim Brotherhood to buy social peace. The initial marches against Mubarak on January 25 had been organised by liberal and leftist activists, and resisted by all major Islamist groups (and both the Muslim and Christian religious establishment) as well as the token liberal opposition parties. Eventually, the sympathisers of these groups joined the uprising, often against the orders of their superiors, who were busy engaging in negotiations with the regime to calm the public's uproar. This strategy did not work and ultimately the army was forced to push Mubarak out.
From then on, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) has spent much of its time stalling. It took over three months to put Mubarak himself, his sons and his key henchmen in jail. Spymaster Omar Suleiman, who was briefly Egypt's strongman in early February when he was appointed vice-president, has not been jailed. The security apparatus remains largely unreformed, and parts of it - notably General Intelligence, Suleiman's former agency, which runs Egypt's foreign policy - are perhaps stronger now than at any time under Mubarak's rule. Police abuse continues, and is now supplemented by lethal methods of crowd control deployed by army soldiers that have claimed, since October, at least 60 lives.
This latest bout of violence is now putting stress on the official history of the Egyptian uprising of 2011, which had been rewritten by Scaf to make it seem like the military sided with the protesters against Mubarak (whereas in fact it tergiversated for two and a half weeks and did nothing to stop the regime-instigated violence during the so-called "Battle of the Camel", the bloodiest episode of the occupation of Tahrir Square.)
The protest movement now stands accused of sowing chaos, just as it was by Mubarak, while the military has arrested thousands. Amid all this, shoddily prepared elections are being held as reports suggest that the army has backed the fundamentalist Salafi movement, whose unexpected success at the ballot box concerns both the secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood.
As 2012 begins, we now find Tunisia hailed for its remarkable (and ongoing) transition to democracy while, with regards to Egypt, predictions of doom and gloom prevail. The reason for this is simple, and has much to do with the state of that nation's institutions and its elite.
When I was in Tunisia in January reporting for this newspaper a few days after Ben Ali fled, I had lunch with a senior banker. He told me that he was receiving routine paperwork only a couple of days after Ben Ali fled. In other words, the machine of state and the economy kept turning. In another meeting with private sector leaders, there was much wringing of hands: they blamed themselves for accepting the Ben Ali regime's deal of suppressing dissent in exchange for pro-business economic policies. By October, wage increases of approximately 15 per cent had taken place across the board, addressing the socio-economic component of the protests and, in the process, buying the stability necessary for a successful transition. While the poor regions where the uprising began, such as Mohamed Bouazizi's hometown of Sidi Bouzid, still trail behind - it will take years to improve job opportunities there - they have become an important political constituency and visiting them is a rite of passage for every politician of national stature.
The Tunisian transition started off with difficulty, with a prime minister close to Ben Ali taking over government for two months before being forced out by continuing protests. But over the course of the next few months, political elites - of existing parties and new ones whose leadership returned from exile - hammered together a consensus on how to proceed. Helped along by the technocratic cabinet of Beji Caid Essebsi, a respected veteran of many past administrations, they could negotiate directly without any higher authority interfering.
In Egypt, it took a month for the banking sector and stock market to fully reopen (in part, it is said, because the well-connected stood to lose much from the correction that would inevitably take place when they did), and many public administrations were simply frozen as the caretaker authority - the military - delayed decision-making. Egypt's machine of state had been in a state of disrepair and decay for decades, riddled by corruption, nepotism and inefficiency. The damage here will take much longer to repair, and any reform will necessitate leadership that is willing to take on a vast bureaucracy that, as much as in any police state, is uncontrollable.
But it was also the political handling of the transition that has been, and will be, a determining factor. Egypt's generals represented the existing regime while pretending to be a new one; their power (and, unfortunately, its recognition as legitimate by much of the population, including many protesters) allowed them to act as an arbiter between new political forces and more established ones. Much of the political class cravenly adopted a strategy of proximity to the country's new rulers, even before Mubarak's fall: note how the Muslim Brotherhood, prominent businessmen and the leaders of the token opposition parties all rushed to legitimise Omar Suleiman when he became vice-president. Today, the same pattern continues: Islamists and secularists jockey for position next to Scaf. Unwilling to form a coalition to better oppose it, they would rather negotiate. Yet, even when a concession is extracted from Scaf by protesters who descend on the streets, the political class is not up to the task of maximising these gains. Hence the current three-way divorce that persists between politicians, protesters and the powers-that-be in Egypt.
The irony of Tunisia under Ben Ali is that, precisely because the first family was so corrupt and tolerated absolutely no dissent - it ran a nightmarish police state - it became easy to call for a clean slate. In the more tolerant Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, factionalism within the regime, pressure from outside to reform and the state's own precariousness have, perversely, made radical change more difficult.
This difference, perhaps even more than these countries' respective size, population or strategic importance, is what is making Tunisia seem like a promising success and Egypt so difficult. And this is why 2011 should be remembered for the extraordinary example Tunisia gave the region: not just an uprising that overthrew a despot, but a genuine, sui generis popular revolution, one that took place first and foremost in the hearts and minds of its citizens with a cry of "never again dictatorship". Egypt's real revolution, on the other hand, is yet to come.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist and commentator. He blogs at www.arabist.net