Defending Egypt and Tunisia

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 10 Aug 2021

Abdel-Moneim Said draws significant comparisons between Egypt and Tunisia

The corrective decisions recently taken by Tunisian President Kais Saied have exposed him to on onslaught of fierce hostile attacks from so-called “liberal” circles in Europe and the US. Taken in accordance with Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution, those decisions grant the president extraordinary powers at a perilous time in his country. They were in response to the will of throngs of Tunisian people who had taken to the streets to express anger at their conditions, which had needlessly worsened due to long drawn out government ineptitude. 

Time and again, their officials proved unable to take the crucial decisions to counter the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby contributing to an unprecedented spike in its toll. Before that, incompetence and infighting continually impeded the introduction of the economic reforms needed to stimulate a reasonable level of growth. As a result, production had slumped, public services had deteriorated, unemployment soared and living standards plunged. It was painfully obvious that the system, as it stood, could not meet the needs and aspirations that drove the people to wage the Tunisian revolution in the first place. 

Indeed during the decade since then their country has staggered from one economic crisis to the next due to a succession of cabinets shackled by the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Ennahda movement. This same movement spearheaded the deviation from the Tunisian people’s long secularist tradition and the inroads they had achieved on the path to modernisation and development since independence. 

In stark contrast to that trend, large numbers of young people driven into the embrace of Ennahda as the country veered to the religious ultra right developed the urge to join terrorist organisations, to the extent that Tunisia became a major terrorist recruiting ground. The upshot is that some warp in the political system had given Ennahda a status and position it does not merit, and it has used this not to build the country but to tear it down, as evidenced by its encroachment on the authorities of the president in the interest of pursuing foreign policy actions in the framework of Tunisian-Turkish relations. The fact is that Ennahda, like all Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, never had a real program for reform, development and progress. 

The assault from Western circles in response to the actions President Saied has taken to save his country quickly expanded to include Egypt, ostensibly the model for those developments, then to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two countries whose invaluable assistance helped Egypt overcome the plight of the Muslim Brotherhood in the past and will help Tunisia today. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Independent, the Atlantic and others lashed out in the name of democracy. No mention was made of the ravages of the pandemic, the country’s economic plight, governmental incompetence and, above all, the Tunisian people who poured out in overwhelming support for President Saied’s decisions. 

Nor did those publications or the American think tanks that exist alongside them bother to address that imbalance that has given rise to a parliamentary order in which religion is used to mislead the people and to vest power in the hands of a cultish terrorist organisation whose medieval essence flies in the face of everything to do with modernity and modern era. Perhaps even more dangerous is that all the knowledge that has come to light about the shoddy performance of the Muslim Brotherhood and all its kindred organisations from Egypt and Tunisia to Iran and Afghanistan when in government and positions of responsibility has yet to raise sufficient awareness of the true nature of this movement.

The Western media assault is based on three notions. First, democracy is under threat in Tunisia, the last living embodiment of the “Arab Spring”. Secondly, it is not the Tunisian people who merit sympathy because of the injustice done to their rights to life, well-being and progress, but the poor Muslim Brotherhood, which many countries regard as terrorist but which those Western circles see as liberal, moderate and even democratic. Thirdly, the events in Tunisia are a prelude to the export of anti-liberal, anti-democratic Egyptian scenario which those circles portray as reduced to state of fear and want. This three-pronged stance is in fact shaped by lack of knowledge and information and, more importantly, a lack of integrity that reeks of Brotherhood influence. 

In the Atlantic of 30 July 2021, under the title “The Return of Hypocrisy”, Shadi Hamid accuses President Joe Biden of failing to live up to his lofty rhetoric when “he identified the struggle between democratic and authoritarian governments as the central challenge of both the present and future,” a failing that the author suggests extends from Washington’s attitudes towards improving relations with Egypt to its position on the current changes in Tunisia. In fact, whether we speak of Egypt or Tunisia, the true hypocrisy is to treat these countries as though they are on some prime time TV contest competing to win points or prizes for “the most democratically attractive”.  

Such an approach ignores what should be the central purpose and aim of any government, democratic or otherwise, which is to work to realise the betterment of the state and society, bringing to bear, to this end, knowledge-based, rational decision-making processes and cultures founded on the principles of work, production and recognition of others, not on exploiting some notion of “cultural specificity” to promote repression and backwardness.

What actually took place in Tunisia is a practical exercise of democracy against a political order that was driving the country to the brink of catastrophe through its mismanagement of the pandemic, the economy and public culture. If the Egyptian experience has important lessons to offer in this regard, they are to be found in the national drive to progress which continues its forward march at an ever increasing pace, to which an array of international organisations both public and private now testify. At another level, the 30 June 2013 Revolution in Egypt marked the beginning of fresh waves of reform in many Arab countries, which unfolded at unprecedented speeds. If the so-called Arab Spring delivered Arab countries into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, and opened the door to violence, terrorism, anarchy and civil war, the new wave of reform heralds the advent of an Arab era totally unlike its predecessors. 

No less importantly, the Egyptian experience proved the concrete existence of the Arab bond which, when it knows how to manage differences within it, can serve as a source of genuine good for Arab countries. We see this at work once again today in Tunisia and, if Arab foresight does its job, it will rise to the duty to rescue Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. As I said before in this column and elsewhere, the US departure from the region does not imply the existence of a strategic vacuum or that the Arabs will be left to the jaws of greedy and aggressive regional powers. Rather, it is another test of the forces of the Arab drive to progress. 

They have achieved remarkable successes in the past and, with the help of the great energies of the Tunisian people, they will succeed again in their country. This battle is not just about countering the effects of the so-called Arab Spring which bore no gentle breezes, flowers or fruit. It is about taking the people forward in the framework of a great project of revival at the national and Arab levels. 

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.



*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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