Home > Algerian politics, Algerie, Arab revolution, Arab revolutions, Egypt, Egypte, Islam, Islamisme, Islamists, Tunisia > Tunisia: Tunisia doesn’t have to follow in Egypt’s steps.

Tunisia: Tunisia doesn’t have to follow in Egypt’s steps.

This is a good analysis on the Tunisian situation with a comparative framework with the Egyptian situation by a veteran quality journalist who covered the Middle Eastern politics of decades. Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, an independent, pan-Arab daily newspaper, from 1989 to June 2013.

Tunisia can step out of Egypt’s shadow

Though protesters have reason to demand change, Al Nahda, unlike the Brotherhood, has shown a willingness to compromise for the sake of national unity

  • By Abdel Bari Atwan | Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 20:00 August 4, 2013
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: REUTERS
  • Demonstrators shout to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government during a protest outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis August 3, 2013.

Egypt has long produced the historical and political blueprint for the rest of the Arab world, but Tunisia led the way in the Arab Spring, and the ouster of President Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali preceded that of Hosni Mubarak by several weeks.

Now, however, the military coup in Cairo and the failure of former president Mohammad Mursi’s Islamist-led government have inspired a new wave of protests in Tunisia and calls for the ruling Troika to step down. Can Tunisia’s fledgling democracy step out of Egypt’s long shadow?

It is a striking paradox that many of those who fought so hard to achieve democracy are willing to use the most undemocratic means to remove an elected government that is not to their liking.

It is in the very nature of democracy and elections that the results will not please all of the people all of the time. Given time, a mature democracy allows for debate and consensus.

Many suspect that exterior, as well as interior forces are at work in the current bid to derail the Arab Spring. When the wave of revolutions seeped from the fringes of the Arab world (Tunisia) to its heart, Egypt, the West became alarmed. Tony Blair, the architect of the destruction of Iraq, begin to talk about “controlled change” in the region, which was exemplified by the military intervention in oil-rich Libya.

When Islamist parties triumphed at the ballot boxes in both Egypt and Tunisia, Blair spoke up again, urging western governments to help the “liberal and democratic elements” in those countries and claiming (outrageously, surely, given the success of Erdogan’s Islamist government in Turkey) that religious parties were unable to offer “real democracy”.

Now those ‘liberal and democratic elements’ have championed the coup in Egypt, and violent protests in Tunis have seen the Tunisian army becoming actively engaged in street politics, shutting off Bardo Square to demonstrators and declaring it a “closed military zone”.

At home, these events will please the remnants of the former dictatorships, slow the pace of real change and further destabilise the region.

Abroad, Israel and its friends will be heartened by the challenge to hostile Islamist policy-makers — particularly in the case of Egypt, a key partner in the peace process. The military court in Cairo made this connection clear when it ordered that Mursi be detained for questioning over his ties with Hamas.

Al Qaida and like-minded groups have been quick to exploiting the security vacuum in both countries. They have all but taken over the Sinai and have established several new bases in Tunisia which is already surrounded by hotbeds of radicalism in Libya, Mali and Algeria. I am told that a Kalashnikov from Libya can nowadays be purchased in Tunis for just $20 (Dh73.4).

Last week, eight Tunisian soldiers were gunned down by men believed to be Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) members. The group may also be behind the assassinations of leading secular opposition figures Shukri Belaid and Mohammad Brahmi, which precipitated the current unrest.

Paradoxically, while its critics blame the Tunisian government for security failures, the ongoing protests and strikes by the country’s biggest union, the Tunisian General Labour Movement (UGTT) distract the army from its real purpose and weaken the state apparatus still further.

I do not wish to give the impression that I consider Mursi’s or the current Tunisian government blameless. They have both made many, glaring errors. My concern is for the stability of the region which, I feel, is best maintained through the ballot box.

Egypt is now in the hands of the army, and may remain so for years to come, but I believe there is still hope for a successful transition to democracy for Tunisia.

Unlike Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Al Nahda party (which won the most seats in the December 2011 elections) has not tried to monopolise power, appointing independents and politicians from other parties to key ministerial roles. As a result, a new generation of experienced leaders of every hue is in the making.

Perhaps most significantly, the Tunisian army is small (just 27,000 soldiers) and has not, historically, played a political role. Tunisia has been a civil state since 1956 when it gained independence from France and Habib Bourgiba took the helm.

By contrast, Egypt has an army of 1.5 million and the coup which brought Jamal Abdul Nasser to power in 1952 ushered in nearly 60 years of military rule when first Anwar Sadat and then Mubarak succeeded him. Mursi, a civilian, failed to last a year in office.

Tunisia’s protesters have many reasons to demand change. The current government’s mandate expired in December 2012 (elections were for a one-year term only) and it has angered the public by postponing elections and by failing to deliver the new constitution.

These mistakes might have been avoided by a president other then Munsif Marzouqi. On the day of the 2011 elections, I met Al Nahda leader, Rashid Gannouchi, and he told me that he intended to offer Al Baji Qaed Al Sibsi the presidency. As foreign minister under Habib Bourguiba and prime minister responsible for marshalling elections immediately after the revolution, Al Sibsi’s experience would have stood the National Constitution Assembly (NCA) in good stead in such turbulent times. Al Gannouchi bowed to political pressure and agreed to appoint Marzouqi instead.

Although I do not expect Al Nahda (which is a comparatively mild Islamist party) to retain its dominance of the Tunisian political scene, I believe that Al Gannouchi — who I know well from his years in exile in London — may play a key role in resolving the current crisis and returning Tunisia to the path of democracy. A pragmatist, Al Gannouchi is willing to compromise for the sake of national unity and has already responded to the escalating protests with a commitment to complete the constitution by October 23 and to hold elections on December 17, the third anniversary of the uprising.

If the NCA can hold on to power until then, I am cautiously optimistic that Tunisia will emerge from the post-revolutionary period with a properly elected, national unity government and take the lead over Egypt once again towards a brighter future.


Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.

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