x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tunisians have strong appetite for news on Egypt

People are eager to discuss political parallels, with many worrying that the chaos in Cairo contains cautionary lessons for Tunisia.

TUNIS // In Tunis, where an uprising toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked Egyptian revolutionary flames last year, many now feel that the struggle for Egyptian democracy has been blown off course and worry that the chaos in Cairo contains cautionary lessons for Tunisia.

Appetite for news from Egypt is strong in the Tunisian capital, with people eager to discuss political parallels and newspaper vendors laying out journals with Egyptian developments on the front page.

One such vendor, Mohammad Meshruha, expresses a common view. "It will never happen with Egypt that they have a government elected without the army intervening," he said.

Although Tunisia's transition to democratic rule has been far from trouble-free, its path has been smoothed by the fact that Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, perhaps fearing a coup, kept the army weak in comparison to Egypt's military-economic powerhouse.

"The problem with Egypt," added Mr Meshruha, "is that the army was involved in corruption and made many mistakes, and if there is a new regime, it will be judged." In Tunisia, he argued, the corruption was limited to senior officials and the president's family.

Others see the approach of Tunisia's dominant Ennahdha party, an Islamist group, as less divisive than that of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party.

"I think Ennahdha is smarter than the Freedom and Justice party," said Mouheb Garoui, an activist and president of an anti-corruption watchdog. The Brotherhood, he said, left itself open to charges of not "standing with the people" by not challenging the military openly enough.

Ennahdha, by contrast, united with two secular parties to form a coalition government, said Radwan Masmoudi of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

Riots in Tunisia calling for stricter Islamic government, Mr Masmoudi said, highlight the challenge of maintaining dialogue between Islamists and secularists, but he believes Ennahdha is trying harder than the Brotherhood.

"I think that the Brotherhood has scared the secular parties in Egypt," he said. "They should have given them more weight than they got in the elections."

Some Tunisians say that it is the success of Ahmed Shafiq in Egypt, once prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, that worries them.

"The main threat to the two countries is the ex-members of the system," said Issam Bejawi, who was reading a newspaper in a shop in Tunis.

"The [former ruling] RCD party is the main threat here, mainly Essebsi." Mr Bejawi's concern about Beji Caid Essebsi, a politician under Ben Ali and Bourguiba who recently launched a new party, was shared by others.

"The lesson from Egypt," said Larousse Mhirse, owner of a beauty supplies shop, "is that it was us who made the revolution - not Essebsi or [veteran Tunisian Islamist leader] Rachid Ghannouchi".

"The lesson is not to let any of these guys come back."

"Egypt can still have a transition," said Afef Chabaane, a judge who criticised an Egyptian judicial ruling that part of the parliament was illegal.

"They are an intelligent and intellectual people and they love their country. It will be difficult but not impossible for them," she said. "It may be time for a second revolution."