Will Tunisia Follow Egypt?

Tunisia has always been considered to be the “Arab Spring” country most likely to succeed in its democratic transition.  But recently, there have been worrisome signs.  An opposition leader was murdered today, which is bound to lead to widespread protests.  A group of Tunisians has started a Tamarod, or rebel, movement.  They are emulating the Egyptian Tamarod, which collected 22 million signatures in a petition for early presidential elections and organized the massive demonstrations against President Morsi which ultimately triggered his overthrow by the military.  The Tunisian Tamarod’s stated objective is to withdraw confidence from the elected constituent assembly (whose mandate was supposed to end in October 2012) and from the government.  The Islamist Ennahda Party has the most seats in the assembly and leads the Tunisian government.

There are two important similarities between Tunisia and Egypt.  First, Tunisian society is polarized between secularists and Islamists.  Tunisian secularists are even more vocal than their Egyptian counterparts.  They are influenced by the French concept of laïcité, which implies a stronger separation between church and state than in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.  They complain about the “Islamization” of the civil service and argue that Ennahda’s long-term objective is to turn Tunisia into an Islamic state.

Second, the Islamist-led government in Tunisia has so far failed to deliver on the revolution’s economic demands.  About 78 percent of Tunisians are dissatisfied with the general direction that their country is taking, 83 percent feel that current economic conditions are bad, and 42 percent believe that the country was better off under the former dictator.  Discontent in Tunisia appears to be even greater than in Egypt (see table 1).  On a more positive note, the Tunisian government has recently reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, and some 75 percent of Tunisians expect their economy to improve. 

Table 1:
Responses to questions about economic conditions (percent of the population)

   Tunisia    Egypt 
 Dissatisfied with the direction
 the country is taking
 78 percent  62 percent
 Think that the current economic
 conditions are bad
 83 percent  76 percent
 Feel that the country is worse off
 after the departure of dictator
 42 percent  30 percent

Source:  Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.  Tunisian data is from July 2012 and Egyptian data is from May 2013.

About 81 percent of Tunisians feel that corruption has increased either a lot or a little after the revolution.

Tunisians also believe that their government has failed to control corruption, which was a major revolutionary demand.  About 81 percent of Tunisians feel that corruption has increased either a lot or a little after the revolution.  This is higher than in Egypt, where 64 percent of those surveyed felt the same way (see table 2).

Table 2:
Perceptions about changes in corruption over the last two years (percent of population)

   Tunisia  Egypt 
 Feel corruption has increased a lot  61 percent  37 percent
 Feel corruption has increased a little  20 percent  27 percent
 Feel corruption has stayed the same  14 percent  21 percent
 Feel corruption has decreased a little  5 percent  11 percent
 Feel corruption has decreased a lot  2 percent  5 percent

Source:  Transparency International, Global Corruption Barometer, 2013

On the other hand, there are three major differences between Tunisia and Egypt.  First, unlike the Muslim Brothers, Ennahda has not been governing alone.  It is leading a coalition with two secular parties and therefore may not carry all the blame for negative economic results.  The Egyptian secularist claim that the Muslim Brotherhood monopolized power and that President Morsi was an autocrat could not be easily transferred to Tunisia.      

Second, the process of constitution writing in Tunisia has been long and has included a real debate between Islamist and secular members of the constituent assembly; both sides have been making concessions and accepting compromises.  This is different from the Egyptian case, wherein the constitution was written in a hurry by an Islamist-dominated commission and approved through a referendum in which the turnout was less than 33 percent.  Tunisians are eager for this process to conclude.  Therefore, it is hard to see them supporting the creation of another assembly or commission which would start writing a new constitution from scratch (as is demanded by Tamarod).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Tunisian military is different than the Egyptian one, in that it does not have a history of political involvement.  It is unlikely that the military in Tunisia will side with Tamarod and force the overthrow of the constituent assembly and the government.

The chances of Tamarod succeeding in turning Tunisia into another Egypt appear slim, at least for the time being.  Things could change if the constituent assembly continues to delay agreement on a new constitution and a road map for elections and a stable government.  This job was supposed to be completed some nine months ago, and Tunisians are starting to show signs of impatience.