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Tunisia and Egypt on the brink

Last week’s murder of leftist Tunisian opposition figure Chokri Belaid has sparked unrest across the country and ignited a political crisis that threatens to destabilize the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets calling for the regime’s downfall, in this case the Islamist-led coalition government. A power sharing agreement between Islamist and leftist parties, the so-called troika, appeared to be unraveling as Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali vowed to form a new government of technocrats that would exclude all political parties. But his own party, Ennahda, and others have rejected his proposition. The Islamist party called on its own followers to take to the streets and express support. Tunisia, the Arab Spring bellwether, is now on the brink of chaos more than two years after demonstrators peacefully toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Secular parties have denounced the ruling coalition, led by Ennahda, and Tunisians have expressed fear that Belaid’s assassination will usher in an era of political violence. Belaid’s killing by unknown assailants was the first political assassination since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1965. An outspoken opponent of Islamist rule he had warned of an outbreak of political violence in his country and warned against Ennahda’s revolutionary committees which he described as militias. Belaid was the target of threats by radical Salafist groups, some closely allied to Ennahda, which had won a majority in the last elections.
While Ennahda has condemned the killing, many Tunisians view the party’s close alliance with Salafist groups as a ploy to diminish and terrorize secular parties. Unlike Egypt, Yemen or Libya, Tunisia’s record in higher education and social causes, particularly the status of women, sets it apart. If any country had a chance of achieving the socio-economic goals of the revolution it would have been Tunisia.
Now two years on the country continues to be challenged by tough economic conditions, poverty and high levels of unemployment. Critics of the Islamists believe the government has failed to address key economic and social issues. Instead they believe Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, has bowed to pressure from radical Salafist groups to pursue a scheme to stem the secular tide and force an Islamist agenda on the country. In recent months radical Salafists had destroyed religious shrines and threatened journalists and artists.
Jebali’s position is surprisingly sober. He is the secretary-general of Ennahda party and yet he has decided to follow an independent path by trying to form a technocrat government that would run the country in a neutral manner until a constitution is written and new legislative elections are held. But his proposal has split the ruling coalition and it is likely that he will fail in his endeavor and be forced to resign. Meanwhile, the secular party of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has withdrawn its three ministers from the government.
Head of Ennahda Rachid Ghannouchi has defended his party’s ties with Salafist groups and told BBC recently that the revolution was not in danger but there “was a battle about the new post revolutionary model.”
Not far from Tunisia another beleaguered leader, President Muhammad Mursi of Egypt, recently attacked his opponents accusing them of being remnants of the Mubarak regime. He said “counter-revolution” forces are attempting to “undermine the state.” There have been many deaths in recent weeks as opponents of his presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood clashed with police in various parts of the country.
Egypt too is reeling under unprecedented economic pressures and economists have warned that unless stability is regained the country could face financial bankruptcy in few weeks. Belaid’s assassination in Tunis has raised fears that something similar could take place in Egypt soon. Again the Muslim Brotherhood had built alliances with a number of Salafist parties and groups. Last week a Salafist professor at Al Azhar University named Mahmoud Shaban issued a fatwa calling for the killing of leaders of the National Salvation Front (NSF) including Hamdeen Sabbahi, Amr Moussa and Mohammad ElBaradei. Another Islamist TV personality had vowed to hunt down anti-Mursi demonstrators who have been staging sit-ins and rallies for months now.
The political standoff in Egypt has split the country and polarized Egyptians. President Mursi’s call for national dialogue was rebuffed by the NSF leadership. But the opposition too has been unable to control the street. Fringe groups, mostly disgruntled youth, have appeared recently promising to topple Mursi. Islamist followers have vowed to do everything possible to protect the president.
The moderate Salafist party, Al Nour, has joined the NSF in calling for the formation of a national unity government. The move signaled a rift between the Freedom and Justice party and its Salafist ally. Al Nour party spokesman Nader Bakkar even went as far as to criticize President Mursi’s style of government. But the president has snubbed calls to fire Prime Minister Hisham Qandeel. The political logjam is far from over.
In both Tunisia and Egypt the Islamists are facing popular pressure to cede power. And in both cases the Islamists are warning of a plot against them by counter-revolutionary forces and remnants of the old regime. Belaid’s assassination may open a new bloody chapter in the current standoff. And in both countries the transition to democracy and pluralism has faltered.

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