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Yesterday hundreds of people were killed when Egyptian security forces cleared two pro-Morsi sit-ins, ending their nearly seven-week-old protest that began after the army toppled former president Morsi on July 3. One should understand that Egypt has always been considered to be (culturally) the most important country in the Arab world, it is due to this importance that Arabs also know it as oum al-dunia (mother of the world). The events in Egypt have had a huge impact on Tunisian politics right from the moment the army stepped in to topple Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi. Yesterday, it did not take long before Tunisian political parties were quick to respond to the Egyptian events. Many of them were quick to point out that the Egyptian scenario is one that Tunisia should be avoided at all costs. Some warned (some) Tunisians in this regard, whereas others found it necessary to emphasize that Tunisia differs from Egypt. It is undeniably true – and widely recognized – that the Egyptian events have a big influence in increasing fear and distrust between pro-government and opposition supporters in Tunisia.

Post-revolution Tunisia & Egypt

So, in which way can the Tunisian political situation actually be compared to Egypt? And where does it differ, if so? A small introduction before starting with the comparison is needed to give a broader picture about the current political situation in both countries. The series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa that commenced in 2010 has become known as the “Arab Spring” or “Arab Uprisings”. It was sparked by the first protests that occurred in Tunisia on 18 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, following Mohamed Bouazizi‘s self-immolation in protest of police corruption and ill treatment. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011 following four weeks of massive protests, ending his 21-year presidency. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011 after 18 days of massive protests, ending his 30-year presidency. After elections were held in both countries – the first ones that were widely considered to have been “transparent and free” – Ennahda (Islamist) became the biggest party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Both countries have since then been led by a Ennahda-led government in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government (and president) in Egypt.

Differences

[1] Government coalition & parliament:

After Tunisian elections in 2011 for a constituent assembly Ennahda turned out to be biggest party with 31% of the votes. The other 69% of votes went for more than 90% to non-Islamist parties (or independent candidates) who also won seats in parliament. After the elections Ennahda formed a coalition with two secular parties; CPR (center left) and Ettakatol (social democrats). Presidency was offered to CPR’s Moncef Marzouki, and President of Parliament to Ben Jaafar (Ettakatol). After the elections Ennahda has expressed repeatedly that the constitution should be written in the spirit of “national consensus” and should “represent all of Tunisian society”. Although its skeptics argue that Ennahda might interpret “all of Tunisian society” and “national consensus” differently to what is commonly understood of it. Nevertheless, the results of the Tunisian elections forced all parties in parliament – including Ennahda – to form alliances when writing the constitution in trying to get a majority to approve an article to be included in the constitution. This might be one explanation why the new Tunisian constitution, that is supposed to be almost finished now, took more than a year and a half to be written. In Egypt however, the Muslim Brotherhood coalition won more than 50% of the votes in parliamentary elections in 2011, with the Salafist party becoming second (25%). Parliament would for 75% be dominated by Islamists, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammed Morsi would a year later become president winning presidential elections with 51.7%. Contrary to Tunisia this meant in practice that the Muslim Brotherhood had just to agree with the Salafist party in parliament (together 75%) in writing and approving the constitution, and it would later pass a referendum with approximately 60% voting in favor. Although 33% of the eligible voters actually turned up.

[2] Army and its role in politics:

Mohammed Morsi, Hussein Tantawi

During the Tunisian revolution its (small) army stood at the side of the demonstrators. Well known is General Rachid Ammar, who refused to give orders to fire on demonstrators. After the revolution the Tunisian army has kept itself busy with national security. A reason for this is that in its history it has never been involved in politics, it is actually well-known that former president Ben Ali kept it small on purpose. After the revolution estimations indicate army personnel to be around 65.000. Equipment is considered to be old and “out of touch”. Almost all Tunisian political commentators agree on the fact that the army is not interested in becoming involved in politics nor capable of it. Decisive power to stage a coup as was done in Egypt is not present in Tunisia. Moreoever, due to increasing threats to national security and terrorism there is an urgent need to invest in the Tunisian army in order to increase border patrol and combating terrorism. The Egyptian army on the other hand has in modern-day history of Egypt always played an important role in its politics. Military rule has been more often a fact than an exception. It is considered to be the most advanced army of the Arab world nowadays and has been ruling Egypt for decades through a military dictatorship.

[3] Geopolitics:

Tunisia is an North African country with just over 11 million inhabitants, not sharing any important river nor is it geographically close to the Middle East. Egypt however is without doubt the cultural “heart” of the Arab world with more than 80 million people. It neighbors Israel, is next to – if not part of – the always turbulent Middle East, heads the Nile as the world’s most longest river in the world and connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Suez canal, which is of utter importance in for example shipping 5.5% of the world’s oil daily. In short, there is absolutely no comparison between the importance of Tunisia and Egypt in terms of geopolitics. Another fact stemming from the difference between both countries regarding its importance in geopolitics is that Egypt, and its army, has always received billions from especially the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent Saudi Arabia or the EU. As is well known aid is not for free, in almost all cases it is offered only if certain conditions are not. 

Similarities

Rached-Ghannouchi-leader-du-parti-tunisien-Ennahda

[1] Ruling party & decades of persecution:

Although Ennahda (led by Rashed al-Ghannoushi, picture above) and the Muslim Brotherhood are both Islamist in their approach to politics. Although they obviously have a lot in common they also differ nowadays. One such difference is the fact that Ennahda agreed (with 60% after having voted among its members) that Islamic law (sharia) did not have to be mentioned in the new Tunisian constitution, a decision that led to quick political consensus in Tunisia in maintaining article 1 of the ’57 constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood however explicitly mentioned that sharia should be mentioned in the Egyptian constitution as the main source of law, although unchanged from Egypt’s old constitution they later added definitions to limit “sharia principles” to Sunni Muslim jurisprudence. Both parties have however in common that they won elections in countries that had for decades been ruled by (secular) dictators. Moreover, both parties have (sometimes) been (severely) persecuted at the hands of previous dictators. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and fair elections, they finally had the chance to govern.

[2] Islamist vs secularist divide:

Tunisia, as well as Egypt, has after the revolution been increasingly polarized between Islamists and secularists. Although the divide is not new and actually rather historic, it seems to have paralyzed both countries the divide and polarization is rather destabilizing both countries.

[3] National security:

In both countries national security has since the revolution deteriorated. The state as well as security intelligence has been significantly weakened due to the revolution. With weapons coming in from Libya this offers (militant) groups a chance to arm themselves and in some cases openly threaten or attack state institutions.

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