x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tunisia should learn from the chaos of Egypt

Tunisians should realise that not everything that spreads from Egypt is good for all of North Africa.

There is a reason why Egypt is considered the essential Arab country: what happens there eventually finds its way to the rest of the Middle East. Such is the case with the protest movement, Tamarrod, that shook Mohammed Morsi's presidency and ultimately led the army to remove him from power.

Ripples from that political earthquake made their way along the Mediterranean to Tunisia, where a similar movement, also called Tamarrod, has been rocking the place where the Arab Spring began, seeking to remove the Islamist party Ennahda from power.

The protests have gathered pace in recent weeks, as the country approached the six-month anniversary of the murder of an opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, and as the funeral of another murdered leftist politician passed.

Thousands have taken to the streets of Tunis in the past few days, some supporting Ennahda, but many also bearing slogans in favour of democracy. Set against that are protests of thousands more, warning against the rise of Islamism and the impunity with which extreme Islamists, such as Salafists, feel they can operate. (Radical Salafis have been blamed for the murders of the two leftist politicians.)

So serious have the protests been that the Constituent Assembly, the main law-making institution of the transitional period, has suspended its work. Tunisia is approaching a crossroads, as Egypt did.

What comes next is difficult to say. Tunisians have a right to make their voices heard and to protest peacefully if they feel the Ennahda-dominated Assembly has overstepped its bounds. As in Egypt, if enough of the country can be mobilised, Ennahda could be said to have lost legitimacy.

And yet a note of caution should be sounded. Tunisia is not Egypt and Ennahda not the Freedom and Justice Party of Mohammed Morsi. The Tunisian army does not have the same history of intervention. Ennahda rules in coalition with two other, secular parties. In contrast to Mr Morsi's tone-deaf approach, Ennahda's head Rachid Ghannouchi has been conciliatory. He said this week that the party is willing to discuss all options.

If Tunisians continue to see their own politics in such polarised terms, they should realise that it is precisely that polarisation that has led to the convulsions still playing out in the Arab world's largest country. Not everything that spreads from Egypt is good for all of North Africa.