Tunisia and ‘the Egyptian Model’

Ever since the abrupt end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, there has been endless speculation about whether the Islamists governing Tunisia would suffer the same fate. An examination of how the similarities and differences are emphasized by the various parties.

Ever since the abrupt end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, there has been endless speculation about whether the Islamists governing Tunisia would suffer the same fate. Settling on the self-evident argument that “Tunisia is not Egypt,” put forward recently by the leader of Tunisia’s ruling Ennahdha party, misses the mark. More useful would be an examination of how the similarities and differences are emphasized by the various parties.

An Egyptian editor once explained to me the outsized Egyptian interest in reporting from post-revolutionary Tunisia, saying that “whatever happens in Tunisia happens fifteen minutes later in Egypt.” That was on display with the countries’ revolutions, ideological disputes between secularists and Islamists, and attempts to consolidate revolutionary gains through internationally supported and monitored elections. Now Tunisians who lost at the polls are trying to reverse the course by importing the recent Egyptian model. That means throwing out new leaders elected through new means—the ballot box—using the street and old means.

With regard to the Tunisian street, it has to be clarified which groups are demonstrating. Among the anti-government protesters who have gathered nightly in front of the Constituent Assembly, there are some members of Tamarod, a copycat of the Egyptian group that was instrumental in organizing popular support for the eventual coup. This Tunisian group, waving some Egyptian flags and supporting the Egyptian army, is small. There are leftists and members of the Popular Front coalition. Both of the opposition politicians assassinated in the last six months belonged to this coalition. There are also the largely Francophile elite, descending from the upscale suburbs of Tunis, which are divided each night from the less developed downtown area by police checkpoints. Local vendors are happy to see these people venturing into the heart of the city during evening hours.

Then there are many other Tunisians who may not have a unifying political allegiance but who are upset with the government’s failure to improve the economy, deal with corruption, provide basic security or essential services, fix the justice system and reduce inequality. They are also upset at the incredibly slow pace of the Constituent Assembly, and many of its members’ unprofessionalism, in drafting a constitution. These basic grievances are particularly acute outside of the capital, and demonstrations in other cities are characterized more by these bread and butter issues and less by ideological ones.

Those demonstrating in favor of the government are almost exclusively supporters of Ennahda, and, partly due to its superior organization, their numbers appeared to dwarf anti-government demonstrators when they turned out in force on August 3.

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the state’s most important and entrenched institution remains the security establishment. In the case of Egypt, this means the army. It wields enormous political power, has close relations with the U.S., oversees the complicated relations with Israel, and maintains interests in virtually all sectors of the economy. Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were all military men, and it seems that General Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi seeks to follow in their footsteps.

In Tunisia it is the Interior Ministry that retains potentially decisive power. This is the case particularly with the police, which was led at one point by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, before his ascendance to the presidency. Tunisia, under his rule, was rightly characterized as a police state. What we know of the Interior Ministry is more limited than what we know of the Egyptian army, and Human Rights Watch has described it as “a black box,” However, tiny slivers of light have begun to emerge, and the role of the ministry and the police in the current standoff between pro- and anti-government protesters may be key to understanding why Tunisia has not followed Egypt’s lead.

Those who assassinated opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi on Republic Day (July 25) and those who have carried out subsequent attacks on the Tunisian army share the goal of destabilizing the country at a critical moment in its democratic transition. Immediately following the murder, police brutality only exacerbated this instability. When police beat anti-government protesters in front of the assembly on July 29, they injured, among others, two assembly members. It may be significant that there are reports from witnesses that some police officers objected to this brutality, while Interior Minister Ben Jeddou denied giving orders for such behavior. Shortly afterwards, an unverified list was released by the security forces union, purportedly showing the names of people within the ministry who have been cultivated by the Ennahda party to serve them directly.

The list is highly dubious, particularly as it was published in many media outlets along with accusations that those on it were responsible for Brahmi’s assassination. Furthermore, the interior minister has denied the allegations. Nevertheless, the report is important for a number of reasons.  First, it represents what appears to be the first public airing, by those who work or who have worked within the ministry, of the institution’s inner-workings. Second, the allegation attempts to draw a parallel between Ennahda and Mohammed Morsi’s unsuccessful attempt to cultivate support from within the security establishment in Egypt. Finally and most significantly, it suggests that there may be divisions within the ministry.

Whether Tunisia ultimately follows the Egyptian model will depend to a great extent on the role of the security forces. If they apprehend those responsible for the assassinations and subsequent acts of violence, this will go far towards easing political tensions. If they refrain from employing brutal tactics on demonstrators, this too can help cool the situation.

How opposition leaders and the powerful unions act will be another major factor in shaping Tunisia’s future. Ideological divisions in Tunisia are sharply drawn, just as in Egypt, and Tunisian opposition figures have accused Ennahda of being a local manifestation of the Muslim Brotherhood monolith. However, their argument against Ennahda has less weight, as the Tunisian governing party has shown far more willingness to compromise than Egypt’s Islamists. After the elections, Ennahda formed a coalition with two non-Islamist parties, despite holding enough assembly seats to proceed to single-party rule. Subsequently, in drafting the constitution the party backed down from divisive, values-based articles. In the current crisis, Ennahda’s leadership has incrementally conceded more ground with one offer after another. This, despite their fear of “coup plans” and pressure from their political right.

It is possible that these gestures will sway anti-government protesters, who are currently divided on whether they would like to see the assembly dissolved. Many of the protesters accept the argument that the assembly must finish its task of writing the constitution, a goal seemingly within grasp. However one coalition member, Mustapha Ben Jaffar, the speaker of the assembly and the leader of the Ettakatol party, has already made his move. He announced the suspension of the assembly (not within his power, says one constitutional lawyer) and has met with the head of Tunisia’s unions. Events remain in flux, but opposition members may indeed make the political calculation that it is better to avoid compromising with Islamists and instead undercut them with competing governing structures.

Despite the turmoil within and without, Tunisia may still find a peaceful, inclusive and consensual way forward if the squabbling politicians refrain from vilifying their opponents, overlook deep cultural divisions in favor of dialogue, and place patriotism and service to citizens above short-term political calculations. Citizens will also have to keep at least minimal faith in the post-revolutionary institutions, despite their glaring shortcomings. If things go right, then Tunisians will have set a second promising and hopeful precedent for the region. If not, the Arab Spring may end where it began.

Fadil Aliriza is a freelance journalist and writer currently based in Tripoli, Libya. He has written for Foreign Policy, The Independent, and Guernica. On Twitter: @fadilaliriza.