Tunisia's President Kais Saied announced at the beginning of May the launch of a "national dialogue" to help resolve the political deadlock in the North African country which followed his controversial power grab, when he sacked the government and dissolved the elected parliament. Saied, a former law professor, carried out what his opponents, law experts and political analysts call a coup against the Constitution on 25 July last year. He has ruled by presidential decree ever since.
The president claims that he is "cleansing" the country and he will not rescind his moves. "I tell honest and steadfast citizens to be a little patient, and there is no turning back at all," he was quoted as saying last August. "I promised God and the people that I would move forward, and history would never go back."
During a meeting with his government ministers earlier this year, Saied announced the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council, accusing it of serving political interests. The Council is an independent constitutional body set up in 2016 to guarantee the proper functioning and independence of the judiciary.
At the beginning of this month, he sacked 57 judges during a cabinet meeting, accusing them of disrupting investigations into terrorist cases, protecting terror suspects and being financially corrupt.
Since the start of the coup, Tunisia has been sliding into a dark place, so Saied began to think about sharing the burden of his failure with the people. However, he insisted on excluding the largest and most effective political groupings and keep everything revolving around himself.
He proposed his "national dialogue" with a particular quartet: the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA); the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. He ignored the Islamist Ennahda Party, which is the largest political and social party in the country, having emerged as the main and best organised political movement since the revolution that ousted the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
In Egypt last week, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's administration of national dialogue announced the date for the first session of the dialogue. Diaa Rashwan, the head of the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate, had been selected as the general coordinator of the process.
This was the first time that an official Egyptian body has called for a national dialogue since 2013. That's when Sisi carried out his military coup against the first freely-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was imprisoned by his former defence minister and passed away behind bars.
The Egyptian military now basically runs the country. Tens of thousands of Morsi's supporters, mainly Muslim Brotherhood officials and members, as well as opposition activists from other parties, have been imprisoned. Local, regional and international human rights groups report that political prisoners in Sisi's prisons endure very harsh conditions which do not meet international standards; they lack proper healthcare and are deprived of fair and just trials. Dozens have died, and many were denied proper funerals and have been buried secretly.
"No one will be excluded from the presidential call for national dialogue except those who have blood on their hands or practiced terrorism or violence," said Rashwan. In other words, the main political power in the country – the Muslim Brotherhood – is excluded because the regime has already outlawed it as a "terrorist" organisation, a designation used to justify the imprisonment of its senior officials and members.
The measures taken by both Saied and Sisi have this in common: both are coup leaders and both exclude their political opponents who are Islamists from what are supposed to be comprehensive national dialogues. Both also accuse the Islamists of being terrorists and planning to destroy the country in favour of foreign entities. Without a hint of irony they accuse their political opponents of being corrupt and exploiting the state to serve their interests. No proof has ever been provided to back up the "terrorist" allegations; it is a lazy and very easy accusation to make, mirroring claims made against Muslim political and social groups — even legitimate humanitarian aid organisations — all over the world.
Saied visited Cairo to meet Sisi in April 2021 in order to learn from his experience with the Muslim Brotherhood and find out how he could deal with Ennahda by turning it into an outcast movement. In a joint press conference they said that they had agreed on ways to fight terrorism and Islamic extremism.
Both Saied and Sisi claim that they are working to get rid of evil powers that their citizens also want to be rid of. Saied alleges that he is working to purge Tunisians from the "the terrorists" and "extremists", a blunt and obvious reference to Ennahda. He believes that he is doing what the people of Tunisia want him to do. Sisi has made the same claim about the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
According to Al Ahram Online, Sisi's man Rashwan has claimed that the Egyptian political forces preparing themselves for the national dialogue "reject any participation by Islamists, particularly the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood."
Such hostility towards Islamists is no coincidence; it is part of a pre-planned strategy imposed by the international colonial powers. They do not want popular Islamist movements to upset their "interests" which depend on autocratic regimes being in place across the Arab world.
In some places, allegations have been made that "Islamist extremists" are being backed by colonial powers in order to de-stabilise Muslim countries and discredit Islam in the West. Due the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in democratic elections, the movement has been targeted specifically by the West and its stooges in Arab capitals. Far from being a "terrorist" organisation, it is a moderate, democratic organisation with an understanding of Islam as the "radical middle way".
Colonial powers led by the US and its allies in the West and across the region do not want to see even moderate Islamists in government because they do not want to see a stable Middle East. Divide and rule has long been the tactic adopted by colonial powers, and this is evident in the way that the West interferes across the Arab world in order to control the region's natural resources.
When given the democratic option, the people in Arab states have generally opted for the Islamist parties which are incorruptible and thus more likely to challenge Western hegemony in the region. We only have to look at how the West opposed the result of the 2006 "free and fair" election won by Hamas in occupied Palestine to see how this has worked in practice, with Western support propping up a corrupt Palestinian Authority which has no electoral mandate led by a president whose own political legitimacy ended in 2009.
Indeed, divide and rule has always depended on corrupt local rulers ready and willing to accept the diktats of colonial powers. Saied in Tunisia and Sisi in Egypt are playing this role to perfection as far as their masters are concerned. It is easy to blame the West for this, but without the likes of these two "presidents", the tactic would fail. That is why it is imperative for them to keep Islamists out of the supposedly national dialogues in the Arab world: those in power — and those behind them in Western capitals — want to ensure that the Arab world remains governed by despots and dictators. And it's all in the name of "fighting terrorism". By excluding major and popular political parties, they are destroying democracy in order to defend what they claim is the democratic will of the people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.