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The 'Arab Winter' Will Be Cold but Calm in Tunisia - in Egypt It Will Be Violent

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Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered on Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to continue their public protest against the military regime. Like every other Friday over the past three months, protesters were arrested and sent to the same prison cells that house their movement's leaders.

Meanwhile, a political solution that would satisfy the army, the liberal parties and the Muslim Brotherhood is nowhere to be found, and the group of 50 officials assigned to the task of drafting a constitution remain hard at work, with no expected date of completion in sight.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Cairo for the third time in recent months, in order to try and work her magic and bring about the release of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, or at least foster some kind of reconciliation in the beleaguered nation. But the Egyptian military is not exactly interested in reconciliation.

A spectacular color image was published this week, 2,400 kilometers west of Cairo, in Tunisia's capital. The image depicted a caravan of camels, marching slowly as they do atop the golden sands of the southern deserts. The camels, laden with mats, food and water jugs, were joined by the ambassadors of European nations, who joined the special tour, organized by Tunisia’s tourism ministry, aimed at bolstering the nation’s ailing tourism industry.

“It’s a welcome effort,” wrote the Tunisian newspaper Al-Sabakh, “but if the state invested so much money, when its coffers are so empty, why couldn’t it wait for a better time, in terms of the weather and the boiling heat? Why did they wait until the last minute to invite the ambassadors from France, Italy, and the United States – the nations whose citizens we want to attract – so that in the end they couldn’t come? These things might be minor details – but they attest to the failure.”

First, the newspaper must be praised for printing this criticism. Just three years ago, a paragraph like that could not have been printed. This freedom of expression, an example of the changes in Tunisia following the revolution that deposed former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and made its people direct partners in the effort to solve the political problems that the fledgling democracy is trying to deal with to prevent a total collapse.

The country is led by the triumvirate that heads the Ennahda, the resistance party, a moderate Islamist party which received 37 percent of the vote, and is similar in ideology to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ennahda Party is joined in the coalition by the Congress for the Republic party, as well as the secular Ettakatol (also known as the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) party. The three parties agreed to appoint Moncef Marzouki, doctor and human rights activists, as interim president.

The political makeup of the parliament and the government following Ennahda’s victory, which came two months before the Muslim Brotherhood’s overwhelming victory in Egypt, is what coined the term “Arab Winter,” which of course followed the “Arab Spring.” Surprisingly, it seemed that the revolutionary euphoria and the spread of liberal democracy had succumbed to religious movements. A deep sigh of disappointment was heard not only in Tunis and Cairo, but in Washington and Paris as well.

The backlash was swift in coming. The Egyptian military deposed Morsi, and imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leaders. The courts ordered that all Brotherhood property be seized, and that their assets be transferred to the government. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt once again became a persecuted movement, much like in the time before the revolution.

Tunisia, on the other hand, seems to be on a different course. While Tunisia has also experienced a political storm over the last few months, over the triumvirate’s leadership, especially over the Ennahda, which sought to cancel equal rights for women granted by Tunisia’s constitution. The liberal opposition, seeking to displace the government has initiated large street protests. In response to the dire economic situation, the nation’s largest labor union has organized a series of crippling strikes. At the same time, the Tunisian government is facing violent opposition from the other end of the spectrum as well, as extreme Salafis attempt to dictate a rigid lifestyle for the country through the use of threats, violence, and weapons.

The political crisis that intensified following the killing of two activists has been ongoing for 9 months. In February, left-wing activist Chokri Belaid was killed, and in July, veteran revolutionary Mohammed Brahmi was also killed. In both cases, the liberals accused the government of powerlessness, and some even said that Ennahda agents were behind the killings. There is no proof to these claims, but they served to motivate the protest movements that much more.

Some of the opposition organized under one banner, calling themselves the “National Salvation Front.” Comprised of many centrist and secular parties, this political alliance is similar to the Egyptian Tamarod, the grassroots movement that initiated the protests in July, which brought down Morsi’s government. It seems that just as the Tunisian revolution that brought down Ben Ali encouraged the revolution in Egypt, the displacement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has made it clear to Ennahda in Tunisia that its powers are indeed limited.

But unlike the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the religious Ennahda movement is in fact following the political map, and been heeding the voices heard on the streets. Shirking the reins of government is not easy for a religious movement, but late last month, Ennahda leaders expressed willingness to dismantle the current government and install a government of technocrats. Though only a few days later, that willingness suddenly became dependent upon national reconciliation dialogue, and the determination of a new election day.

The worker’s union – founded in 1946, and representing most of the workers in Tunisia – has suggested a roadmap for beginning such a dialogue, which includes creating an interim government, appointing a new prime minister, drafting a new election law, and deciding a date for the next election. Progress toward any dialogue has been stuck for about a month, as the parliament chairman had frozen all parliament work. Just this week the freeze was lifted, and work towards dialogue can continue.

The most significant difference between Egypt and Tunisia is the ability of the various political movements to communicate, and reach an agreement without any military intervention, or external assistance. “Nonetheless, Egypt is a nation of institutions, and its political culture is based on traditions that are lacking in Tunisia; in Tunisia, we have secular traditions and secular law that is much more deeply rooted than in Egypt,” an Ettakatol party member told Haaretz. “Equal rights for women, polygamy is outlawed by law, we speak more French than Arabic, and we, even though my party is part of the coalition, will not allow a religious movement to change the character of the country. But we’ll do it politely – with dialogue. Not with huge street protests and especially not with the army.”

Tunisia marches slowly toward the establishment of a “new state.” The political spin of the last few months, the weakening of the religious Ennahda party, and the turn toward national dialogue as a means for the resolution of ideological differences are likely to ensure that Tunisia’s departure from the “Arab Winter” will be nonviolent. Egypt is shaking off the cold as well, but with violence.

Trampled poster of Egypt's ousted President Morsi on the ground outside the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosqueCredit: AP

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