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Media portray crisis in Tunisia as Egyptian scenario despite clear differences

January 27, 2014 at 2:07 pm

After the events of the Arab Spring, observers in Europe and America turned to watch Tunisia’s development. The consensus was that if Tunisia could make a successful democratic transition from Ben Ali’s autocracy then it would be a model for the other “Arab Spring countries”. Indeed, over the past two years the Tunisians’ experience has been the one to watch, as they entered elections, elected a diverse and balanced assembly, formed a new coalition government that rose above the “Islamist-secularist polarisation”, drafted a new constitution and began preparations for new elections to conclude the transition. Since the revolution, Tunisians have continued to set a standard for others in the region to follow. However, Tunisia has faced its fair share of problems and recent events prove that the country is not out of the woods yet.

Whilst Egypt has descended into full scale chaos following a military coup which removed the country’s first democratically-elected president, Tunisia cannot be said to be heading the same way. Events in Egypt since June 30th have left many pondering what future democracy has in the country, what role the military continues to have and how Egypt will get back on its feet after some shocking events, including the deaths of hundreds of protesters at the hands of the authorities. If one was to view Tunisia through the lens of the Western media outlets one would assume that these questions could be posed there too, although events in Tunisia have not taken quite the same turn as Egypt and the two countries are distinctly different.

The troika government in Tunisia has faced its fair share of difficulties, with the recent assassination of Mohamed Brahmi bringing everything to a head. The killing was the second of its kind this year, following the murder of left-wing politician Chokri Belaid. The Education Minister, Salem Labyedh, an independent politician who had been brought in following Belaid’s assassination, resigned following this latest killing, citing his close relationship to Brahmi. Yet whilst the Al-Nahda led government is in trouble, it is unlikely that Tunisia will experience an Egyptian-style trauma. Apart from the major difference between the two countries in terms of the nature of their two armies and their involvement in politics, a number of other differences exist. As opposition forces use the assassinations to stir up trouble for Al-Nahda, there is still a keen desire to hold on to electoral legitimacy. Though some opposition members call for a new “unity government” to be formed and the dissolution of the current government, Al-Nahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi has made clear that whilst he and his party are keen to engage in talks, dissolving the National Constituent Assembly would be a “red line”. The party, he said, remained committed to “dialogue, national unity, and (to) reaching a consensus.” The media might be reporting that members of the NCA are resigning but a number of deputies have merely withdrawn (as their resignations would trigger their replacement) and it seems that they are certainly not withdrawing in the numbers suggested; wildly-varying numbers are reported, from 42 to 69, while no officially-confirmed number seems to be available yet.

Egypt has been a hotbed of protests and sit-ins since the removal of Mohamed Morsi; there have been almost daily protests across Cairo (and the country) calling for electoral legitimacy to be restored and opposing the coup. Whilst the army used thugs and its own brutal force to kill their countrymen, the Tunisian situation is nowhere near this state of affairs. There have been calls for civil disobedience and the media have reported a number of rumours that governorates are being taken over; yet again, though, these rumours appear to be portraying an image not quite in line with the facts on the ground. There have been a number of protests, both in opposition to and in support of the government but the police and security forces have been maintaining order and calm on the streets of Tunisia. Indeed, the opposition protests have not been as large as one might imagine if they relied solely on the Western media for their information. With most protests equalling a few hundred, there have only been a few which have brought thousands to the streets and though they may be loud and large, these protests have almost always been outnumbered by those protesting in support of the troika government. Whilst every Tunisian may not be a supporter of Al-Nahda, the pro-troika protesters recognise that a difficult transition is far preferable to any forced upheaval. Events in Egypt could certainly act as a warning to Tunisian protesters: happy or not with the government, there is a realisation that the danger of not using ballot box democracy could bring untold harm to the country.

The differences between the military should also not be taken for granted. The Egyptian military has been at the forefront of the coup, removing Morsi and installing its own government; without the army the coup would have failed. The Tunisian army does not seem to be taking the same approach; remaining neutral the military is doing what most other countries’ armies do by following the government’s orders and not ordering in a new government.

One of the more interesting comparisons between Tunisia and Egypt has been the “lazy labelling” phenomenon. When writing about the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party, media outlets across Europe have referred to them as the Muslim Brotherhood. Whilst the two may share similar inspirations and comparative views, in reality the two are distinct entities and Al-Nahda is not part of any international Muslim Brotherhood grouping. A parallel laziness has come in the description of protesters, with many of the pro-troika protesters being dubbed “Islamists”. The reality is that they are far from any description of an “Islamist”; rather, they are protesting in support of a peaceful, democratic, legitimate transition. Such sloppy journalism seeks to devalue the protesters’ support and suggest that the protests are about the “Islamists” vs everyone else; in Tunisia this just isn’t the case.

Whilst the media attempts to portray the country as being out of control and suggest that the opposition is winning the battle, the facts on the ground suggest a different reality. Tunisia is not facing quite the same turmoil as Egypt, it has not resorted to killing protesters and its leaders remain committed to two necessary elements: electoral legitimacy together with an openness to dialogue, compromise and consensus-building in order to resolve the crisis and complete the transition to possibly the first successful democratic model in the region.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.