Is Tunisia really the answer?

Is Tunisia really the answer?

On December 17, 2010, Tunisia witnessed huge demonstrations against the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali following an incident where a vegetable seller burned himself after his goods were confiscated by the police.

The massive and continuous demonstrations succeeded in toppling the authoritarian regime led by Ben Ali within less than a month of the incident. Many countries of the region which have suffered from decades of repressive and inept regimes saw what happened as an inspiring and feasible model for breaking free from tyranny, corruption and mismanagement.

Two points of view

After the success of the Tunisian revolution in overthrowing the rule of Ben Ali, there was intense controversy about the possibility of achieving this in Egypt, the largest Arab country in terms of population.

The controversy can be summarized by two main points of view. The first is that a repetition of what happened in Tunisia is possible and realistic. Those who dream of democracy and a state of justice and efficiency adopted this viewpoint, calling for mass demonstrations against the regimes of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak convinced that “The Answer is Tunisia”, on the ground that the Tunisian model of change is a possible solution in the face of a strong regime that continued in power for three decades.

The second point of view was that change in this way is not possible. This view has been adopted by the ruling elite in Egypt. When the then Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was asked during the presence of angry demonstrators in Tahrir Square about the possibility of repeating the success of the Tunisian model in Egypt, he immediately said, “Egypt is not Tunisia.”

With the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime on February 11, 2011, it seemed that the first view had achieved a landslide victory in the face of a regime that the Egyptians had reached the conviction of its excessive power that it was immortal and capable of bequeathing power to the president’s son without any objection.

The idea that “the answer is Tunisia” continued to achieve success in one country after another, with the successive fall of regimes in Yemen and Libya, despite the experience in both countries falling into the trap of violence and the high cost of bloodshed. No one paid any attention to the failure of the idea in Syria until today, as the country plunged into a civil war for more than 10 years.

But no matter how successful the protest model was in bringing down the authoritarian regime, the actual outcomes told another story.

A new answer

Another story was taking place in Egypt. After the fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011, Egypt entered into a short transition to democracy, which was marked by a severe division among all the actors in the political scene.

There was a split between the revolutionaries on the one hand, and the ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood, the most prevelant political organization in Egypt over the issues and priorities of the political transition.

The Brotherhood also fabricated divisions over the country’s identity in the constitution and the role of religion in legislation to insight its supporters, and thus issues of democracy and social justice have been absent from the political debate.

In light of this division, the Brotherhood was able to win a majority in parliament and the presidency.

In this situation, and with the absence of any desire on the part of the Brotherhood to achieve political accommodation in such a delicate transitional stage, Egypt was in a dangerous place.

With the issuance of decisions and constitutional declarations aimed at monopolizing power in order to reshape the Egyptian state away from the goals of the revolution and to serve the purposes of a religious group with international and cross-border affiliations, the Egyptian streets began to boil.

With the further separation of the ruling authority from the priorities of the people in the streets, and in light of the external links of the Brotherhood which threatened the goals of Egyptian national security, on top of the group’s willingness to clash with all state institutions to achieve the interests and agendas of external parties, matters have reached the point of open clashes.

At that time, Egypt was engulfed into chaos that seemed to be the beginning of a civil war in the streets between the Brotherhood on the one hand and everyone else on the other. The army was forced to intervene to remove the head of state from his position in order to restore calm to the street. At the same time, it presented a new map for political transition in response to the huddled masses who were standing on edge waiting for action, as was the case with Hosni Mubarak.

With this intervention, a new political system began in July 2013, prioritizing stability and fighting terrorism while giving power in the first elections to a leader coming from the army, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as was the case throughout the decades preceding the Arab Spring revolutions.

From this intervention, it seemed that it was Egypt which offered a new answer rather than Tunisia.

Same conclusion

The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt coincided with the struggle that the Tunisian parties were waging to reach consensus on a new constitution for the country.

The Ennahda movement, one of the most influential actors in the Tunisian political scene, sensed the danger that it would be exposed to what the mother group was exposed to in Egypt, and thus lose the gains it got after the overthrow of Ben Ali. Therefore, as a matter of maneuvering, it decided to make concessions in drafting the constitution that contradict even its political ideology which it would not have made had it not been for what the mother group had been exposed to in Egypt.

Many international observers praised Ennahda’s wisdom and political flexibility, considering that Tunisia has always provided the answer in dealing with the challenges of the democratic transition, in contrast to the Egyptian model, which in their view turned into an icon of a coup against democracy.

But can the exceptional measures taken by Tunisian President Kais Saied, who froze the work of the parliament (which is dominated by the Ennahda movement) represent a coup, as the movement and its supporters say?

The description of what happened in Tunisia recently as a “coup” seems ironic, just as it was ironic when it was used to describe what happened in Egypt in 2013.

The matter does not need much clarification if we understand the nature of the political dynamics in the two countries, if we realize the difference between the concepts of power and the state, and if we draw dividing lines between the idea of a political party and the idea of a cross-border religious movement with foreign affiliations, interests, connections and agendas.

In my opinion, Egypt and Tunisia have reached the same conclusion, which is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish a democratic system in the absence of its concept among the actors in the political process.

Different dynamics

The dilemma in the two experiences was the same, both seeing the rise of a religious organization that considers the democratic process an opportunity to control the identity and loyalty of state institutions in favor of an international organization outside the borders of the country and to achieve organizational interests far from the interests of the living forces in the community. Moreover, this organization considers democracy a temporary game until political and economic domination of society is achieved.

This is exactly what we saw from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda movement in Tunisia. The difference is that state institutions in Tunisia have been late in realizing this dilemma, and this may be mainly due to the difference in political and social dynamics in comparison to Egypt.

Egypt quickly came to the conclusion that cross-border religious organizations cannot be integrated into the political landscape because its deep state is much stronger than civil society.

This deep state in Egypt is led by the army, which, with its great prestige with the people and its boldness in decision-making, was able to respond quickly to the Egyptians’ rejection of the existence of a religious organization that practices politics.

As for Tunisia, it is distinguished from Egypt by its lively political forces and its strong civil society, which, although it had a strong advantage in the normal situation, allowed a lot of maneuvering on the part of Ennahda movement to avoid being exposed.

On the other hand, the army in Egypt has been a powerful political actor for decades, like it or not. This is a purely Egyptian solution that ensures that the country does not fall into chaos and ensures a delicate balance between the society’s political and social forces, even if a man from outside the military establishment comes to power. As for the army in Tunisia, it never played such a role. Therefore, solving the political and economic crisis in Tunisia required the presence of a strong president capable of untangling the mines of political and constitutional life, which the Ennahda movement made and benefited from, to cross the country from its stifling economic and political crisis.

Inevitable exit

The Tunisian political system is a hybrid one with power shared between 3 parties: the president, the prime minister, and the parliament. This system has caused political tension, attraction and stagnation, which have negatively affected the country’s chances of getting out of its economic crisis, and caused restlessness and discontent among citizens, a quarter of whom live on tourism revenues that were severely affected during the Corona pandemic.

Therefore, it was natural for the head of state, who clearly prefers the presidential system, to seek a way out. Kais Saied found himself helpless under this system, so he resorted to a broad and loose interpretation of Article 80 of the constitution, allowing him to acquire broader powers that would enable him to resolve the country’s problems, especially in light of the political performance of Ennahda movement that never pays attention to the concerns of Tunisians.

Even if some observers see that what happened as just a round in a political battle that will not eliminate Ennahda movement, the exceptional measures taken by Said will expose much of what happened in Tunisia during the past few years and the roles of the movement that harmed the country’s stability and economic capabilities, hitting its popularity to the core. All of this will make its exit from the political scene or the decline of its influence inevitable.

But the cost, which will be exorbitant, is that Tunisia’s fledgling democracy will be tainted by exceptional measures, which citizens may become accustomed to accept in order to ensure a minimum level of political stability, much like the Egyptians accepted to end the chaos that accompanied the Brotherhood’s presence in power.

Therefore, if the exit of the Muslim Brotherhood from the Egyptian political scene was hard and fast, the exit of Ennahda from the Tunisian political scene would be smooth and slow.

Thus, experience tells us that the answer was Egypt, not Tunisia: Whatever the dynamics of politics, whatever the country, international religious organizations are killing democracy.

Islam Farag
Islam Farag is an Egyptian journalist, analyst and researcher. He is an expert on Middle East affairs and has contributed dozens of press kits on regional affairs and issues. He participated in many research projects within Egyptian governmental and non-governmental institutions. He has worked in many Egyptian and Arab press institutions as a journalist and analyst. He is interested in issues of the historic relationship of the Arab world with regional and world powers. Also he is interested in power conflicts in the middle east.

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June 2024