The head of the Tunisian Islamist party and the brains behind a successful transitional coalition with two securalist parties has flown to Cairo to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to share power.
The trip by Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, comes as Dr Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, is poised to win the second round of the Egyptian presidential elections this weekend – head-to-head against Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak regime. But the Tunisian Islamists are warning Morsi it would be a huge mistake to take the lion’s share of the political spoils.
Ghannouchi said the Brotherhood in Egypt could only prevail with the agreement of secular political parties. He told the Guardian before flying to Cairo: “51% is not enough to rule.” The stakes were high, not just for Egypt but for the Arab spring, he said. “Either we accept democracy within the form of Islam or we will end up dismissing Islam from the political process because Islam will become a cause of fragmentation not unity.”
His mission in Cairo is fraught with difficulty. First, the Brotherhood, or Ikhwan in Egypt, is fiercely independent, regards itself as the mothership of other offshoots of political Islam, such as Ennahda and Hamas, and does not take kindly to outside advice. A previous mediation mission by a founding Brotherhood member, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, ended in failure.
Second, the Brotherhood is confident of success, even though its candidate, Morsi, is its second choice, and is seen as lacking in charisma. Egyptian expats in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, traditionally tied to the candidate of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, gave Morsi more than 70% of the vote, indicating a comfortable victory.
Third, a Tunisian-style coalition in Egypt would mean the Ikhwan having to share power with a Nasserite secularist, Hamdeen Sabahi, and an independent, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. He was a leading light of the Ikhwan, before breaking ranks by declaring he would run for the presidency when the Brotherhood said it would not put up a candidate. The Ikhwan then expelled him.
Power-sharing negotiations between the Ikhwan and each man are proving difficult and lengthy. To strengthen his hand, Sabahi met the old regime’s candidate, Shafiq, to send a signal to the Brotherhood that he could switch sides.
Dr Tarek Kahlaoui, head of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Tunis, and a leading analyst on the Ikhwan across the Arab world, said: “The Brotherhood in Egypt will be making a huge mistake if they insist on being the main face in the presidency and the head of the government. They only got 25% of the vote in the first round. If they take both, that would show me that the brothers are prepared to take on the old regime and the army alone.” Kahlaoui says the brothers will have to swallow their pride, particularly about working with Aboul Fotouh: “Anyone who breaks ranks, who leaves the jama’a [the organisation] is regarded as an outcast. But Aboul Fotouh was exactly the candidate they needed precisely because he was independent and had wide cross-party appeal.”
Sheikh Ghannouchi said his party too had had to make fundamental compromises in stitching together a workable coalition in Tunisia. They dropped the word “sharia” in the preamble to the new constitution they are co-authoring, saying instead that the new political order in Tunisia would be” founded on Islamic principles”.
He said: “We say that Islam is a force of unity, not division. Therefore we refused to stipulate sharia in the constitution because we know this does not represent an agreement and constitutions are built upon what is agreed not what is disagreed upon.”
The sheikh is increasingly influential in the Islamic world and in Tunis there are rumours that he might step down as head of Ennahda at its annual congress in July to become a leader of the Islamic movement in the Arab world.
A senior member of Ennahda speaking on condition of anonymity was blunter still about the prospect of a clean sweep by the brotherhood in Egypt. He said the choice facing Egypt in the second round was a disaster. A win for Shafiq would be a counter-revolution and send everyone back into Tahrir Square, and a win for Morsi would potentially leave the Brotherhood pitted against Israel and America, with Washington actively thinking about withdrawing its funds to the Egyptian army. The brotherhood needed a buffer particularly in foreign policy.
The Egyptian army is another concern for Tunisia. Kahlaoui said the results of the first round, in which the old regime’s candidate came second with 5.5m votes or 23.6% of the vote were frightening.
“Anyone who thinks that the old regime is weakened, or they can can not reinvent themselves as the party of stability should think again.”
The sheikh will not present his mission to Cairo as an altruistic one.
If the Ikhwan shares power, the Tunisian model would take on another dimension and become a serious model for the Arab world.
Dr Rafik Abdessalam, Tunisia’s minister for foreign affairs, said: “If Egypt catches a cold, we have flu, and if we catch a cold they have flu. Democratic Tunisia is acutely aware of its geostrategic position. We are not the only ones to need Egypt to succeed.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.