Written by Youssef Cherif
Looking back at 2013 and how political Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia have taken two different approaches to power
Mohammed Badie (far left), leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement seen with Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party Rachid Ghannouchi (third from right) at a major conference of Islamists in Khartoum on November 15, 2012. (ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images)
Today, there is an understanding that if a significant change occurs in Tunisia, the same will follow in Egypt. Yet the recent political history of the two countries is quite dissimilar—postcolonial Egypt was marked by the army’s involvement in politics, while postcolonial Tunisia was the work of bureaucrats. Egypt was at the heart of the Arab–Israeli conflict, while Tunisia was on the margins. Many Egyptians, especially in the big cities, were fond of politics, but Tunisians preferred football. The Islamist movement, however, had an appeal in both countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a global movement, with a supreme guide and an overall strategy. Ennahda is often said to be its Tunisian offshoot. These assumptions, while underlining many similarities between the two groups, hide major differences and lead to misunderstandings over the subsequent actions of the parties. In fact, Ennahda’s connection to the Brotherhood is merely symbolic.
Both Islamist movements are conservative and follow a liberal economic agenda. At one point they both espoused armed violence, but they have both since renounced it. Broadly speaking, Ennahda is a young organization; the Brotherhood is not. Whereas the Brotherhood largely managed to resist the crackdowns in the early 1980s and 1990s, the crackdown on Ennahda’s members in Tunisia in the early 1990s led either to their arrest or to their being forced to flee the country. Hence the chronology of the Brotherhood spans from the 1920s until the current era, without interruption, whereas Ennahda’s lifespan was initially only two decades long (from early 1970s to early 1990s), followed by a long hibernation, before its rebirth in 2011.
The two groups latched onto the revolutions in their countries as they progressed; they were not leading them. They quickly organized themselves once former presidents Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were ousted from Tunisia and Egypt respectively, and sent out messages signaling their moderateness and openness. Both groups enjoy good relationships with Qatar and Turkey, but have rocky relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their rivals include mainly secular groups and former regime affiliates, plus a large army in Egypt and a strong police apparatus, as well as the powerful general labor union (UGTT) in Tunisia.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood movement needed to show detachment from its newly created political wing—the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) headed by Mohamed Mursi—though the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, was allegedly controlling both. As a political party, the situation was different for Ennahda, which elected Rachid Ghannouchi as its president. At first, both Ennahda and the Brotherhood pledged not to run for the presidency. Then the Brotherhood reneged on its word and presented Mursi. Ennahda, however, was able to keep its promise—and look more credible—while monopolizing power; it nominated Ennahda party member Hamadi Jebali for prime minister instead.
Looking for a compromise, Ennahda gave up on the inclusion of Shari’a in the Constitution after the secular opposition threatened to quit the Assembly. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, simply ignored all objections and inserted it anyway. When the opposition later walked out of the Egyptian constituent assembly, that body became exclusively Islamist. The Brotherhood, working alone, rushed to have a constitution written and ratified. On the contrary, in Tunisia, the work of the assembly slowed down each time the opposition withdrew. Tunisia, moreover, has never witnessed anything like Mursi’s 2012 temporary presidential decree that granted him almost absolute powers.
National dialogue never worked in Egypt; the opposition kept on insisting on a governmental reshuffle while Mursi refused to make concessions. And whenever there was a ministerial reshuffle, more Brotherhood affiliates were added. It was a deadlock. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the UGTT initiated a dialogue in 2012, which was later boycotted by Ennahda and the Congress for the Republic, President Moncef Marzouki’s party. Another round was then hosted by the Presidency, without the UGTT. A third round took place in May 2013, led by the UGTT, with almost everyone in attendance. The dialogue has had its stops and starts, but it is still ongoing. When anti-Ennahda demonstrations took place in February this year over the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, Jebali, the prime minister and Ennahda member, resigned, and a semi-technocratic government replaced the coalition. When a second crisis erupted, the party announced its readiness to leave power. There was no total rupture.
As anti-Mursi protests spread in Egypt, the Brotherhood sent their men to face them. Dozens died in these clashes. In Tunisia, Ennahda’s members also resorted to violence, and so did their Leagues for Protection of the Revolution (a mixture of thugs, Islamists and unorganized, working-class demonstrators). Their brutality was limited, however, and there were almost no casualties. As for facing terrorism, the Tunisian government was harsher than its Egyptian counterpart, especially in 2013.
Ennahda’s members always minimized their relationships with the Brotherhood, branding themselves as being more like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. They praised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s policies and considered the Brotherhood to be lagging behind. When Erdoğan advised Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, he was rebuked by the Brotherhood. In Tunisia, however, Erdoğan’s words are almost echoed by Ghannouchi. When Mursi was deposed, Ennahda condemned the coup, but criticized the Brotherhood’s mistakes. Moreover, Ennahda scored better in terms of compromising and consensus.
This may partly explain why the Muslim Brotherhood chapter has closed in Egypt, while Ennahda, despite its recent stumbles, still has influence in Tunisia.
Source: Majala Magazine