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There is no fear over the Arab Spring in Tunisia

January 27, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Although the Egyptian scenario is overshadowing the picture in Tunisia, the difference between us and them is that they can see some light at the end of the tunnel, while we are still looking for the tunnel.

I was invited to speak in Tunisia about the developments in the region after the stumble of the Arab Spring. I was told, in advance, that I would be speaking at three different locations: Ibn Rochd Centre, Alfadel ibn Ashur Centre for Enlightenment, and the Euro-Mediterranean Research and Development Centre.

I took this invitation seriously and prepared as much as possible in order not to disappoint the hosts and the audiences, but from the moment I arrived at Carthage International Airport until I left three days later, I only spoke about Egypt because that’s what all the questions were about. I was even asked about matters that didn’t concern me, such as the daily tweets posted by witty Egyptians or the songs exchanged by the opposition and supporters. I answered some of the questions by referring to what is being broadcast by Egyptian television and Al-Jazeera Live, since each expresses the situation from opposite points of view to a large extent.

The term “Egyptian scenario” has been used in many discussions, and I have noticed that the comparison between what is happening in the two countries was addressed at every meeting; a comparison between what has happened in the “mother of the world” and the “mother of the revolutions”.

I will not deny that I benefitted from the constant comparisons between what is going on in Egypt and Tunisia, not only in terms of detailed information, but also because I found that most, if not all, the forms of protest and challenge exercised against President Mohamed Morsi were immediately replicated in Tunisia. There is one notable exception; the intervention of the Armed Forces to remove the president along with the protests in the streets, the setting up of solidarity tents, the formation of a Salvation Front and Tamarod Movement, and the withdrawal from the Constituent Assembly charged with writing the constitution. Even the road map announced on July 3rd in Egypt encouraged Tunisia to declare an alternative road map to the one announced by the government.

Moreover, when I pointed out that the events in Egypt were being echoed in Tunisia, some said that the revolution in Egypt was an echo of the events in Tunisia, which brought attention to the fragility of tyrannical regimes and to the strength of the people when they unite and voice their opinions. There were also some who said that during the revolution, the Tunisian youngsters shared with the Egyptian youth their experience in dealing with the suppression of the police and the dodging of tear gas canisters.

The proof that I was flooded with questions and comments regarding the Egyptian situation was that I put away the papers I had prepared for the talk about the challenges of the Arab Spring and answered all their questions. However, I did set the condition that we allot some time to address the Tunisian situation by comparing the outcome of the revolutions in both countries.

The weight of strategy and population was not up for discussion, as there is no comparison between the 90 million people in Egypt and the 10 million in Tunisia. Furthermore, the challenge faced by Egypt, which was put in place by Israel, cannot be compared to the Salfist Jihadist or Al-Qaeda challenge facing southern Tunisia.

Perhaps the cultural role played by Tunisia in the Arab Maghreb could be compared to Egypt’s strategic importance in the Middle East, but anyone observing the two countries from afar would realise that they have many things in common, as the people of both countries started a revolution against tyranny and were successful in overthrowing the respective heads of their two regimes, even though the bodies remained intact. The success of the two revolutions raised the ceiling of people’s hopes and expectations.

As for facing the destruction left behind by the regimes, the revolutionary governments in the two countries felt the weight of this, and were unable to meet the people’s demands in the way that they had hoped. This caused different levels of chaos and resentment.

It was destined for the Islamic trend to win the majority vote in the elections held in Tunisia and Egypt, and then both Islamic governments rose to address the gap between the people’s hopes and the reality, which was stark; an official poll in Tunisia noted that the country experienced 35,000 strikes over an 18 month period, averaging to about 2,000 strikes a month.

Also, in both countries, the civil forces liberal, left-wing and nationalist led the opposition against the government and expressed this in the forms mentioned earlier. This planted the seed of polarisation within the community and turned it into two opposing and conflicting camps. On the other hand, the events proved that the Salafist trend had its place in the country, but in Egypt it allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and its groups got involved in the political process, distancing itself from violence throughout President Morsi’s period in office.

In Tunisia things were different because the Salafists were not involved in the political process; instead they dealt cautiously with the Al-Nahda government. It was then revealed that Al-Qaeda had infiltrated their organisation through the movement known as Ansar Al-Sharia. Investigations found that its members were involved in killing two opposition leaders.

We also cannot ignore the fact that the coup government accused the Brotherhood and allies of terrorism after the protests and clashes in Egypt, while the Al-Nahda government accused Ansar Al-Sharia of the same thing in Tunisia.

These are the common denominators noticed by those observing from afar, but closer examination of the scene reveals details and contrasts in the political maps that are not apparent to the untrained eye. In this context, I believe that taking into consideration the details of the scenarios causes the scale to tip in favour of Tunisia, as we find elements that are invisible or undetected in the Egyptian arena.

An example of this is the fact that the management of the country is not the sole responsibility of the Al-Nahda Islamic Party, but two other secular parties are involved in the governing coalition; the Congress for the Republic Party and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Party. On top of that, the Tunisian State President, Dr Moncef Marzouki, is a member of the Congress for the Republic Party, while the President of the Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jafar, is a member of the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties Party.

As for Al-Nahda Party, which received the majority vote, it appointed one of their members, Ali Laarayedh, as the country’s Prime Minister. The three parties agreed to form the “Troika”, despite the fact that Al-Nahda has 90 seats in the elected Constituent Assembly and that neither of the other two parties won more than 12 seats each (there are 217 Constituent Assembly members in total).

Further still, the army in Tunisia remained neutral regarding the conflicting parties and stayed completely remote from politics. This made sure that conflict was solely between civilians and kept the competition between the parties within a political context, to be settled by the masses through the ballot box.

It is noticeable that civil society in Tunisia is much stronger than that in Egypt, in which civil structures and organisations were destroyed across the past three or more decades of tyranny.

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) is the strongest of these organisations, joined by the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Lawyers’ Association. These civil groups play an effective role in the ongoing conflict and went so far as to present their own road map, known as the Quartet Initiative, to deal with the current political crisis.

The strength of the civil society organisations has greatly exceeded the strength of the political parties, which number around 140, as if the tyranny in Tunisia focused on weakening the political parties and was not very concerned with the growing role of the trade, industrial and human rights groups. As a result, the arena became familiar with relatively strong political figures, but weak political parties, and in the legislative elections held in 2011, the party leaders succeeded while the party representation failed, as some parties gained no more than 5 seats each.

Due to the former regime’s rivalry with the Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, the general work arena was open to left-wing and secular groups, which allowed them to spread amongst the elite and civil society. The result of this was that Al-Nahda preserved its popularity on the streets and amongst the masses while the other trends remained strong amongst the elites.

As such, Al-Nahda was always keen to hold elections and resort to the ballot boxes, while the other organisations would stall and prefer to suspend matters to be resolved through negotiations, which it wanted to be an alternative to the legitimacy of the ballot.

While we are examining the detail, we cannot ignore the wide margin of flexibility afforded by Al-Nahda, represented by Shaikh Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, who kept his sights set on the unity of the national group and the need to continue the path of the revolution.

This flexibility drove him not to insist on mentioning the legitimacy reference in the Constitution, as well as to concede the sovereign ministries, gained by Al-Nahda due to the majority vote, to other parties. It also drove him to positive interaction with the road map put forth by the Quartet, which prevented the tunnels of political dialogue from being closed off.

The Tunisian people have not rested since the revolution started at the end of 2010 and when 35,000 protestors took to the street over the last 18 months. This draws an image of the prevalent atmosphere in the country, as the ruling regime is facing great challenges from two main sources: the UGTT, which is the most prominent activist in the Salvation Front and is dominated by the left-wing (and has not stopped challenging Al-Nahda since its formation), along with the other secular groups. Despite the divisions and disputes amongst these forces, they are united in their confrontation with the ruling coalition led by Al-Nahda.

The source of the second challenge is the extremist Salafist groups, mainly Ansar Al-Sharia, which appears to be linked to Al-Qaeda. Some violent acts were attributed to them, including the assassination of two left-wing opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, earlier this year.

The death of Belaid caused the fall of Hamadi Jebali’s government, and after the death of Brahmi in July the angry protests renewed and there were calls for the fall of Ali Al- Laarayedh’s government and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly.

There is a consensus amongst analysts that the changes that occurred in Egypt on June 30th and July 3rd contributed to the increased incitement against the government in Tunisia and raised the demands calling for the resignation of the president himself.

If the clashes with the opposition and the threats of the Salafists are the most important sources of the protests on the Tunisian street, then the other challenges, including completing the Constitution, or facing the economic and social problems that have escalated after the revolution due to the relatively slow tourist economy, all provoke the elites on one hand, and aggravate the angry Tunisian masses on the other. All these challenges are not surprising during the transitional phase between a tyrannical and corrupt government and the dream of establishing a new democratic regime. From this angle, the problem is not the presence of challenges, but how to deal with them.

During one of the meetings in Tunisia, I said that as long as everyone chooses to resort to dialogue, which will be renewed this week; and as long as wisdom and rationality is preserved during such dialogue, then we should not fear for Tunisia. This message is not only for Tunisia, though, but also for us in Egypt.

Translated from the Arabic text which appeared on Al Jazeera Net on 8 October, 2013

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