Tunisia is the theatre of the Muslim Brotherhood’s last stand against us. If they win, they will have succeeded in their plan to achieve power in the periphery, partially compensating for the loss of their position at the centre — in Egypt. If they lose, it will be the end of them.
This battle is so crucial for them that they will resort to every weapon at their disposal, including illegitimate means. Let us not forget how they fought in Egypt where their weapons ranged from deceit and fraud to outright violence and bloodshed until they managed, for the first time in their history, to gain control of the government of the country located at the heart of the Arab world and the most important centre of the Islamic world. They then brazenly declared that they would stay in power for 500 years. As we look back on their behaviour until their reverberating fall on 3 July 2013, we can observe a considerable degree of similarity between the Egyptian and Tunisian experiences, which enables us to anticipate their next steps in Tunisia today.
In Egypt in the post-January 2011 period, the Muslim Brotherhood launched their bid with a lie. They officially stated that they had no aspirations to power and would not field a candidate for the presidency. As soon as nominations for that office opened, they nominated not one candidate but two. More lies followed. Mohammed Morsi, their last candidate, pledged that if he won he would form an inclusive council representative of political forces and outlooks. He also said he would designate a national figure who enjoyed the respect and general approval of all political forces as prime minister. As we know, when he became president he appointed someone known for his pro-Muslim Brotherhood sympathies as prime minister and formed a government heavily weighted in favour of this organisation. All thought of a presidential council went out the window.
Such devious plans and stratagems culminated in the nightmarish presidential decree Morsi issued in November 2012, just four months after taking office. With that decree, he abolished all political and legal recourse against his decisions. Note that this is exactly what Tunisian President Kais Saied stands accused of in certain circles despite the fact that his actions were grounded in a constitutional provision whereas Morsi’s decree had no constitutional foundation whatsoever. During their year in power, the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated their dismal failure at managing the affairs of the state. Their incompetence is ultimately what precipitated the mass uprising against them on 30 June 2013.
In Tunisia, Ennahda, which is the Tunisian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, used the same kinds of deception. Their initial dissembling, their pretence of flexibility, their feigned acquiescence to the civil, secular state convinced many at home and abroad that the Islamist movement in Tunisia was more mature than its counterpart in Egypt. Their ruses enabled them to win a parliamentary majority and form a government, but soon their sham was exposed just as it had been exposed in Egypt. They had no development project to speak of. Their sole concern was to consolidate control, place members and loyalists in key government positions, and pursue the Muslim Brotherhood’s ultimate goal of “empowerment”.
The practical result of their machinations was total government paralysis at a time, moreover, of severe economic instability and decline, with nationwide unemployment climbing to over 18 per cent. As conditions grew from bad to worse, the government’s ineptitude at managing the Covid-19 pandemic and inability to get the vaccine out to more than seven per cent of the population were the last straw.
On 15 July, Tunisia recorded 205 Covid related deaths in a single day, the highest ratio of fatalities to population in the world. Popular anger exploded.
On 25 July, President Saied stepped in, availing himself of the provisions of Article 80 of the Tunisian constitution which permits the president to take exceptional measures in instances that warrant them. He dismissed the prime minister, suspended the Islamist-majority parliament and took other urgent steps, prompting throngs of Tunisians throughout the country to take to the streets again, this time to express their support and jubilation.
The Tunisian Muslim Brothers now had the opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which they benefited from the experience of their peers in Egypt. And they did. They orchestrated counter demonstrations in which they accused the president of staging a coup and appealed for international intervention to defend democracy. At home, they began to threaten recourse to violence and a return to terrorism and bloodshed, just as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did. It is curious how quickly certain political circles in the West chimed in with the “coup” narrative to describe the Tunisian president’s actions at a time of national crisis while they remained mum when Morsi concentrated all powers in his hands and attempted to free himself of all checks and balances.
In light of the similarities we have seen so far between the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences, we can expect the Tunisian Muslim Brothers to turn to violence just as occurred in Egypt, from the attacks against protestors outside the presidential palace to the events at Rabaa and Nahda squares. The Tunisian authorities are currently investigating a number of Ennahda members who resorted to violence during that party’s sit-in outside the parliament building last week. Like the Muslim Brotherhood at Rabaa, Ennahda also protested that its sit-in was “peaceful”. One also hears reports that some Ennahda leaders might be brought to trial on charges of corruption and receiving illicit campaign donations from abroad during the 2019 elections.
The glare has also focused on the movement’s Secret Apparatus, long suspected of involvement in a number of political assassinations. It has even been suggested that an investigation might be opened against the Ennahda leader himself, the speaker of the suspended parliament Rached Ghannouchi, because of suspicions surrounding his sources of income at the time he served as chief public prosecutor. Will the Tunisian Muslim Brothers resort to violence in order to preempt such measures? Or will President Saied beat them to the punch?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly