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Will Tunisia follow the Egypt route?

Leading Ennahda party may have to make uncomfortable concessions and unite with a fractured opposition block.
Last modified: 1 Aug 2013 17:21
Islamists took to the streets of Tunis to defend the Ennahda government against calls for it to resign [Reuters]

Like Egypt, the street here in Tunisia is divided. Anti-government protesters say they are determined to topple the Ennahda-led government. And, like Egypt, the trial of strength is an efficient weapon to press ahead with more demands and secure more concessions.

Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood share many things in common. They are both conservatives, wedded to building societies where social justice, ethics and religious principles prevail.

To their critics they say they have a vision for a Muslim world where Islam and modernity can coexist.

For decades the two movements were repressed and secluded but all that changed after the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood won the first democratic elections after the collapse of authoritarian rule and rose to the pinnacle of power.

The Muslim Brotherhood's ascent to power was short lived - on July 3 the army deposed Mohamed Morsi after days of giant street protests.

In Tunisia, Ennahda is still a key member in a governing coalition, but it faces the biggest threat to its almost two years in power: the assassination of an opposition leader; the second in six months; the killing of eight soldiers by radical fighters; and the declining economy are seen by many here a sign Ennahda is not fit to govern in the staunchly secular Tunisia.

All in all, in Tunisia and Egypt, two parties emerge out of the shadow to shape a new era, only to find themselves months later grappling with a serious crisis. But this is where drawing parallels between the two countries should come to an end.

The Muslim Brotherhood's fight for survival is complicated by the fact that among its plethora of opponents the army stands as the most formidable.

Unlike Egypt, the army in Tunisia does not have the same tentacles that stretch to every sphere of life. Former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, chose not to build a strong army for fear it might turn against him. He relied instead on police brutality to maintain his grip on power.

Ennahda faces two potentially powerful adversaries. The seculars and leftists who built a vast network across the country: They are in labour unions, business community, judiciary and state bureaucracy.

Fractured opposition

The Popular Front - an umbrella organisation of leftist groups, is calling for a mass movement similar to the Egyptian Tamarod. They want to topple the government, dissolve the Constituent Assembly, establish a "Salvation Government" and appoint experts to draft a new constitution.

There are even those who vow to send Ennahda leaders to jail and ban them from politics.

But, the opposition to Ennahda is far from united. The powerful labour union General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) has called for a national unity government but stopped short of calling for the parliament to dissolve. This came as a sigh of relief for the governing coalition.

Ennahda is now trying to negotiate a new deal with the main opposition parties. The deal would pave the way for an expanded coalition, where Ennahda will still have a bigger say. But the deal will not include the parliament, known here as the Constituent Assembly. For the governing coalition, it is a "red line".

The ruling party suspects remnants of the old regime and radical left for colluding to stage a coup against the legitimate government in a replay of the Egyptian scenario. But Ennahda remains a very powerful, well organised party with huge grassroots support.

To weather the current storm Ennahda has only one option: Reach out to the main opposition block in the parliament, form a new national unity government, and hold elections the sooner the better.

To negotiate a way out they will have to make some concessions. But concessions at this stage, no matter how painful they may be, outweigh the risks of losing power.

The chaos that ensued the military coup in Egypt played to the advantage of Tunisia's Islamists. It is going to be extremely difficult today to convince people that ousting Ennahda will not come at a huge price for Tunisia.