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As The Revolution Fades, Tunisia Begins To Splinter

Sep 12, 2013
Originally published on September 12, 2013 9:35 pm

For Tunisia's ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, what happened this summer in Egypt is a cautionary tale and a constant reminder of the risks it faces as it navigates through its own political crisis.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood easily dominated all post-revolutionary elections, only to be ousted by the military in July. Brotherhood supporters now carry yellow placards, a reminder of the military crackdown, and that same placard now hangs on Ennahda's headquarters in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

Tunisia's Islamists have been facing mass protests against their rule since the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, the leader of a rival secular party just over a month ago. It was the second assassination of an opposition figure in just six months. And many Tunisians blame Islamists for these murders.

Thousands of protesters turned out last weekend in Tunis calling for the immediate resignation of the Islamist-led government.

Similar protests took place in Cairo in the days before the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of then-President Mohammed Morsi.

Noureddine Arbaoui, a member of Ennahda's executive bureau, says the party has learned from the Egyptian experience. He says the Muslim Brotherhood tried to rule alone. But in Tunisia, Ennahda is allied with two non-Islamist parties.

Arbaoui says that what happened in Egypt was a conspiracy by the old regime. A government that fails should be tested through elections, he says, not tossed out in a military coup.

Twin Engines Of Discontent

As in Egypt, the discontent in Tunisia is largely driven by two factors: the economy and security. People's lives just aren't getting better. And the political stalemate in Tunisia is only making things worse.

At the central market in downtown Tunis, the stalls burst with the colors of fresh figs, bananas and grapes.

But when asked about his business, one fruit vendor named Sufian just shakes his head. He says Tunisians are living month to month, hand to mouth.

When asked about politics, he grimaces.

"I don't smoke," he says, "but these politicians make me want to smoke two packs a day."

Nearby on a main drag in downtown Tunis, others echo that sentiment.

Fahima is a housewife, dressed in a flowing abaya with her head covered in a stylish orange and black scarf. She voted for Ennahda in the 2011 elections, but now she regrets it.

She says her family can't pay their bills and are worried about security. She says she fights with her husband more because of these tensions, and she doesn't let her daughters go out alone.

Critics of the government are seizing on this discontent to build a base against Ennahda. The opposition is uniting around a party called Nidaa Tounes, led by 86-year-old Beji Caid el Sebsi, a former minister in the old government. He was briefly prime minister after the 2011 revolution.

Sebsi says the opposition has made its demands: Dissolve the government immediately, put a deadline on the work of the constitutional assembly, or dissolve it and set a date for new elections.

Now, he says, it's up to Ennahda.

Could Tunisia become Egypt, with the Islamists forced from power and persecuted by a military-backed regime?

"Now, no. Not now. We have not similar situation," Sebsi says. "But in any case, if we don't go forward — maybe yes."

What Tunisia Has Done Differently

Egypt and Tunisia followed different paths after the 2011 uprisings. Egypt elected a parliament and president, Tunisians elected representatives to write a new constitution and form a temporary government.

But just weeks before the assembly was due to complete its work, almost a third of its members withdrew in protest. It was another major blow to Ennahda's leaders.

"There's a lot of fear in Tunisia about the ultimate goals of Ennahda and more radical elements in Tunisian society," says Bill Lawrence, a North Africa expert. "A lot of Tunisians are concerned about that drift. And I think an even bigger issue is the economic crisis, in that increasingly Ennahda is viewed as an incompetent steward of the economy."

The growing opposition is a sign of a wider backlash against the Arab Spring because the revolutionary promises of freedom, work and dignity have not been realized, Lawrence adds.

"It was inevitable," he said. "Revolutions always spawn counterrevolutions and instability."

Ennahda has made some concessions to the opposition. It has agreed in theory to step aside in favor of a caretaker government — but not immediately.

It's also distanced itself from ultraconservative Islamist groups, and designated one of them, Ansar al-Sharia, as a terrorist organization.

Ali al-Lafi is a political adviser to the religious affairs minister.

He says the anti-Islamist fervor in Egypt has strengthened Ennahda's opponents.

But Ennahda members are confident that they remain the most organized political force in Tunisia. When elections do come, they say, they will beat out their political opponents again. Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt made that same prediction before they were removed from power.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.