Egypt’s shadow in Tunisia

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 4 Aug 2021

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s moves against the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Ennahda movement were welcomed in Egyptian political circles


Tunisian President Kais Saied took on 26 July the surprising decision to dismiss Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and suspend the activities of the Islamist-dominated parliament for one month.

Saied’s decision came one day after thousands of people staged street protests against the government and the parliament’s biggest party, Ennahda, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. The protests also came after a big spike in Covid-19 infections and growing tensions over political issues and economic problems, including high levels of unemployment and the slow recovery of many industries due to the pandemic.

In Egypt and also in many parts of the Arab world, Saied’s moves against the Islamist-dominated parliament and the Muslim Brotherhood party of Ennahda (Renaissance) was largely welcomed.

In Egypt, in particular, many political analysts agreed that the 25 July protests in Tunisian cities were primarily against Islamists and leader of Ennahda and Parliament Speaker Rachid Al-Ghannoushi monoplising power and politics.

Political analyst Mustafa Al-Feki said in a TV interview that like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, political Islamist movements in Tunisia have proved to be a big failure. “In fact, political Islam forces have so far proved a big failure in three Arab countries — Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia,” said Al-Feki, noting that “just like when Egypt moved to overthrow Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and his government in July 2013, the Tunisians decided eight years later to do the same in terms of dismissing the Islamist-supported prime minister and the Islamist-dominated parliament.”

Mustafa Bakri, independent MP and chief editor of the weekly Al-Osbou, tweeted that 25 July was “a day of revolution” against the Muslim Brotherhood. “This is quite similar to Egypt’s 30 June Revolution which saved Egypt from the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Bakri, adding that “Tunisian events show a new loss for another Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in the region. They lost in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia, but they still have a stronghold in Libya,” Bakri said, noting however that President Saied’s moves against the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia might not mean a quick end to their involvement in Tunisian politics. “Like Egypt, Islamists called what happened in Tunis a coup and threatened that they might resort to violence and terrorism to restore power,” Bakri added.

Gamal Abdel-Gawwad, an Al-Ahram political analyst, told ON TV that “Tunisia under the Muslim Brotherhood was democratic but just in form and not in content. Like in Egypt, Tunisian Islamists abused power to advance their extremist agenda and monopolise power and for this particular reason President Saied, supported by the people, decided to save Tunisia from political Islam and the threat of turning the country into a religious autocracy.”

Abdel-Gawwad notes that like Egypt, Tunisians marched in the thousands to torch the headquarters of Ennahda. “In this respect in particular, the Tunisian people were inspired by Egypt,” said Abdel-Gawwad, noting that “like Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia accused gangs of bullies and mercenaries” of torching their headquarters and leading the coup.”

Abdel-Gawwad also agrees that like Egypt, the 25 July Revolution in Tunisia came under heavy political and economic pressure. “Tunisia under the Islamist-supported prime minister and parliament faced some of its worst economic conditions, and like the period ahead of the anti-political Islam 30 June Revolution in Egypt, Tunisians faced huge inflationary pressure and high unemployment rates, not to mention the collapse in the healthcare sector and medical services,” said Abdel-Gawwad, adding, however, that “apart from the deteriorating economy, Tunisia, like Egypt, saw Ennahda implementing the grand ‘Brotherhoodisation’ project that is helping political Islam affiliates monopolise power in all sectors of society.”

Tunisians, like Egyptians, saw that the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda was aiming to become a state within a state, and so President Saied’s decisions on 26 July came at the right moment to save Tunisia from this scenario, said Abdel-Gawwad.

Nevine Mosaad, a professor of political science, also remarked that like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda’s autocratic practices turned Tunisia into a “dysfunctional democracy”. In the last few months leading to Saied’s decisions, said Mosaad, there was an internal power struggle between the president on one hand and the prime minister and parliament speaker on the other. As a result, some in Tunisia, like Egypt in 2013, called on the army to intervene to dissolve parliament and the government, she added. “President Saied seized the 25 July protests to dismiss the prime minister and suspend parliament, and we saw that he was supported by the army which moved to prevent Ennahda leaders from challenging the president and storming parliament by force,” said Mosaad, adding that “nobody can guess how events will develop in Tunisia. Like Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia might resort to holding mass sit-ins in public squares and at this point the Islamists might push Tunisia into violence.”

According to Mosaad, some in the West like to describe Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda as moderate Islamist forces that came to power in elections and after gaining the majority of votes. “But the last few years in Egypt and Tunisia should show this is far from the truth and that everywhere that political Islam exists it spreads violence, sectarian strife and terrorism,” said Mosaad.

Hammadi Al-Raisi, a Tunisian political thinker, told Al-Ahram newspaper on 27 July that like Egypt, Islamist forces in Tunisia rode the wave of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions in 2011. “But some like to describe Tunisia’s Ennahda as more enlightened than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in terms of accepting to work closely with secularist forces,” said Al-Raisi, but political developments in Tunisia over the last 10 years show that Ennahda in Tunisia, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both use democracy to advance their radical agendas and gain power. “They believe in the one-time election in which they know how they can win the majority of votes and then move to monopolise power and implement the Brotherhoodisation project,” said Al-Raisi.

Mohamed Al-Agrodi, a Tunisian political analyst, also believes that the interest of political Islam movements in both Egypt and Tunisia to forge close relations with Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also impacted the peoples in the two countries. “The peoples in the two countries saw how Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood show allegiance and loyalty not to their homeland but to the regimes which espouse their ideology, particularly Turkey and Qatar, and how they used their years in power to serve Turkey’s interests,” said Al-Agrodi, indicating that “Al- Ghannoushi used his position as parliament speaker to help Turkish military expansion in Libya.”

Gamal Zahran, a professor of political science, notes that when the so-called Arab revolutions erupted in January 2011, they took similar paths in Egypt and Tunisia at the beginning. According to Zahran, this led some in Egypt to say that “if Tunisia sneezes, Egypt will catch a cold,” but later when Egypt moved against political Islam in 2013, some said Tunisia was different because Islamists there believe in democracy and are by no means interested in abusing power like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “But the 25 July protests in Tunisia, the suspension of the Islamist-dominated parliament and the referring of some of its MPs to trial on corruption charges made this analysis incorrect,” said Zahran.

Zahran said he believed that the political and economic stability which Egypt achieved following the overthrow of Islamists in 2013 had a tremendous impact on Tunisians. “Tunisians began to compare and saw how Egypt stabilised after getting rid of the Islamists and how Tunisia suffered politically and economically under their rule,” said Zahran.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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