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Column: Tunisia Shows the Way While Egypt Stumbles

Rached Ghannouchi (C), leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, gestures with his wife and two daughters Yousra (L) and Soumaya (2nd L) at a polling station during an election in Tunisia October 26, 2014.Tunisians voted on Sunday in parliamentary el

Rached Ghannouchi (C), leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, gestures with his wife and two daughters Yousra (L) and Soumaya (2nd L) at a polling station during an election in Tunisia October 26, 2014.Tunisians voted on Sunday in parliamentary el

The final results of parliamentary elections had yet to be announced, but Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s moderate Muslim Ennahda party, called the head of a secular alliance, Nidaa Tounes, on Monday to congratulate him on what appeared to be a decisive secularist victory.

Once again, Tunisia – the country where the Arab spring began in late 2010 – is showing other countries how post-authoritarian politics should be played.

Facing rising discontent, an Ennahda-dominated government resigned last year in favor of technocrats to manage the country through new elections. Ghannouchi’s willingness to accept defeat so gracefully increases the chances that Ennahda will be included in a coalition government to be formed after presidential elections scheduled for December.

Tunisia’s example is all the more impressive when compared to the path Egypt has taken since its 2011 revolution. There, the Muslim Brotherhood broke its promises not to seek a parliamentary majority and the presidency, then misinterpreted narrow electoral wins as a mandate to marginalize other factions.

The economy stagnated, crime proliferated and many of those who supported the removal of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 backed the “coup-volution” against his Muslim Brother successor, Mohamed Morsi, in the summer of 2013.

Hopes that Morsi’s replacement, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, would return Egypt to a democratic path have been largely frustrated.

Thousands of political prisoners remain incarcerated, the media is increasingly muzzled, and Sissi – who was elected president in May with no viable competition – on Monday announced that civilians could be tried in military courts for a wider range of offenses, including destroying public property and blocking streets.

Non-governmental organizations face a November 10 deadline to register with the government or be outlawed.

One NGO, the Carter Center, announced on October 15 that it was closing its office in Cairo and would not try to monitor upcoming parliamentary elections because of a restrictive environment “not conducive to genuine democratic elections and civic participation,” in the words of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

A delegation of prominent Egyptians who came to Washington last week to explain why Sissi deserves U.S. support encountered sympathy for the ordeal of a long-time U.S. ally mixed with concerns that the government’s harsh suppression of political freedom would ultimately undermine its stability and prosperity.

The Egyptians – who included two former ambassadors, several prominent journalists and religious leaders – urged the Barack Obama administration to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, as Egypt has done.

The Americans responded that they had not seen sufficient evidence that the Brotherhood was directly responsible for terrorism, which has escalated since Morsi was forced from office.

With its leaders all jailed or in exile, the Brotherhood has shown an “ideological ambivalence on the major questions of violence and tolerance of the political and religious other,” according to a new study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The paper, by non-resident associate Ashraf el-Sherif, calls on the venerable organization to re-invent itself but expresses doubt about whether the Brotherhood can do so under such difficult circumstances. At the same time, Sherif says, the regime cannot eradicate a group whose popular roots remain deep.

“The regime’s ability to freeze financial assets is greatly restricted by the sheer size of the Brotherhood’s domestic and regional economic networks, cultivated over decades and able to both relocate quickly and operate in hiding,” Sherif writes. “The state further lacks the capacity to compensate for the Brotherhood’s and other Islamists’ charitable operations. The Egyptian state is still in many ways mired in inefficiency and incompetence, which makes it even more difficult to counter an organization that has hundreds of thousands of adherents and bases of support in regions marginalized by the regime.”

For the time being, the Brotherhood and the Sissi regime are locked in a debilitating standoff. Egyptian officials and regime supporters sound eerily like some Israelis in trying to connect the Brotherhood to the murderous and fanatical group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

At a meeting with the Egyptian delegation to Washington that this reporter attended, an Egyptian television presenter, Riham el-Sahly, asked why the U.S. was willing to designate Hamas – a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood – as a terrorist organization but not the Brotherhood itself.

“How come the daughter [Hamas] is a terrorist and the mother [the Brotherhood] is not?” she asked.

Another participant, Emad Gad, of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told VOA that if not for last summer’s “revolution,” Egypt would have plunged into a Syria or Iraq-style civil war.

Unlike Syria and Iraq – or Tunisia – Egypt has a large and powerful military that retains widespread popular support. That is a benefit in terms of keeping the country together but has negative ramifications for Egypt’s democratic development since the military is the default governing institution in times of crisis.

With its hands full trying to contain IS, the Obama administration has toned down its criticism of Sissi and downgraded a signature democracy promotion program, the so-called Middle East Partnership Initiative, that annoyed authoritarian regimes in the region.

Obama met Sissi on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly and made no public reference to Egypt’s human rights abuses, including its jailing of three al-Jazeera reporters and several Egyptian-Americans.

Currently relying on loans from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which also oppose the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt can undoubtedly muddle through as it has so many times in its long history.

But if Egypt hopes to do better than that, both Sissi and the Muslim Brotherhood need to come up with a vision for Egypt’s future that does not look so depressingly like its past.

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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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