x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tunisia's Islamists fear the long shadow of Egypt's Morsi

Events in Egypt being watched closely by Tunisia's Islamists.

In no capital city in the Arab world is the transition in Egypt more closely watched than in Tunis. With the demise of the government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, there remains only one post-Arab Spring country with Islamists at the helm. Ennahda may have been at odds with some of what the Muslim Brotherhood was doing in Egypt, but it knows that, as the mood of the Arab publics turn against the Brotherhood, it will find itself more closely scrutinised than ever.

The idea that Islamists were the sole winners of the Arab Spring was always somewhat oversimplified and overstated.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the first two countries to go through revolutions, the ballot box gave the most power to the formerly-hunted Islamists. But elsewhere, the picture was mixed. Exactly a year ago, Islamists lost out in Libya's election to a more secular-minded coalition. In Yemen, the Islamist party Islah was already a political force before the revolution, holding the second largest number of seats in parliament. Since the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was pushed out, their influence has slightly diminished, with the focus shifting to Hirak, the movement for southern secession.

Nonetheless, no organised movement was better placed to capitalise on the chaos of these postrevolutionary countries than the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. While campaigning in Libya, Brotherhood parties distributed leaflets reading: "You have heard of us. Now hear from us!" That could apply to Islamists across the Arab world. In Egypt, many didn't like what they heard.

Which leaves Ennahda, heading a coalition with secular parties in Tunisia. The rise of the Tamarrod movement in Egypt has led to a similar movement in Tunisia, which says it has collected 200,000 signatures demanding the removal of Ennahda and calling for widespread demonstrations next week, on Tunisia's national day. That number may not be as large as the 22m Tamarrod apparently collected, but in a country of just 10m people, it is respectable.

Yet there are strong reasons to suppose that, even if there are widespread demonstrations, Ennahda are sufficiently different from Egypt's Freedom and Justice party to be able to weather the storm.

The first is the most obvious difference: Ennahda are in a coalition, rather than, as in Egypt, dominating both the legislative and executive branches. (Indeed, Tunisia's president comes from a centre-left, secular party.) Any attempt to remove Ennahda, which holds the largest number of seats in the Constituent Assembly, would also mean removing its two secular partners - which would trigger fresh elections and probably just return the Islamists to power. Indeed, Tunisia's Tamarrod movement wants more than that, calling for all the institutions set-up by the Assembly to be overturned - a call that amounts to overturning the entire mechanism of transition.

In any case, it is unclear who would remove the Assembly. The army did not remove Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power and, unlike in Egypt, has historically had little role in politics. Nor are there widespread calls from the people on the scale of Egypt.

If the removal of Ennahda is unlikely, that does not mean that it can relax. There are lessons to learn from the experience of the FJP. Although the transition in Tunisia continues, the underlying economic problems that sparked the revolution remain in place.

In one sense, Ennahda are fortunate that these problems can't easily be focused on one person - in Egypt, Mr Morsi acted as a lightning rod for all the social and economic grievances of a public anxious for rapid change - but they remain a problem.

Tunisia has now agreed a loan with the International Monetary Fund, but it needs more. Its foreign currency reserves are low, around the critical figure of three months worth of imports, roughly where Egypt's reserves are. Unemployment is worse: 17 per cent in Tunisia, compared to 13 per cent in Egypt. In both countries, unemployment is worse now than before the revolutions. But the figures for those under 30 explain much: 30 per cent of Tunisia's young people are unemployed. In Egypt, it is a staggering 80 per cent.

Blame for the lack of progress can't entirely be laid at Ennahda's door, but it does speak to the problem of perception. Egypt's Islamists appeared to be obsessed with retaining political power, and searching for ways to appeal to their religious base. In Tunisia, similar criticisms have been levelled at Ennahda, especially after the ham-fisted attempt, last year, to amend the constitution to define women's roles as merely "complementary". This is the biggest danger for Ennahda, that the general suspicion that many Tunisians have of the party could be mobilised, in tandem with other grievances, into more general opposition.

That almost happened in February, when the killing of a member of the political opposition rocked the country and led to widespread demonstrations against Ennahda. Officially, the party wasn't suspected of the murder of Chokri Belaid, but there was a widespread perception that Islamists would use force against their political opponents. Ennahda eventually defused the situation, but the suspicion hasn't gone away. Tunisians hear the threats of Mr Morsi in his last days in power to bring his supporters out on to the street and hear the language of their own Islamists.

This is the challenge for the last Islamists in North Africa, to focus on the root cause of Tunisia's problems, without playing too much politics. Next week's demonstrations against Ennahda are unlikely to topple the party - but they are equally unlikely to be the last.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai