THE BLOG

Tunisia and Egypt: A Tale of Two People

05/02/2014 11:41 GMT | Updated 06/04/2014 10:59 BST

Two historic peoples in the Arab world appear now to be heading in two opposite directions. After a roller coaster political journey, both Tunisia and Egypt found unique opportunities to reclaim their national glory when mass uprisings succeeded in ousting their ruthless dictators, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. The world watched with amazement and admiration the speed of events since grocery-seller Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation on 17 December 2010 in Tunisia, which sparked the 'Arab Spring' in 2011. Egypt followed suit; Cairo's Tahrir Square became a symbol of a bloodless revolution in the most populous Arab country. For the first time in many decades the Arabs were radiating with optimism and pride.

But alas, all hopes from the Arab Spring seem to have evaporated. The so-called Spring has turned into a desert storm. In Egypt politics fell flat and the country resorted to a path of self-destruction within a year of starting a democratic journey. However, in Tunisia the national leadership hung on and refused to succumb to self-destruction: in fact, it has just seen in a new constitution and has been praised for its power to compromise with political opponents.

Why did one country prosper and the other fail? In Egypt, the political sand storm has blown away civility from its military rulers. It has been five months since they ousted, through a coup, the country's first ever democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi. The country has since fast-tracked to the dark era of despotism again. Unfortunately, from the day Morsi was elected on 18 June 2012, the military and opposition secularists were in no mood to give him a chance to run the country. Multiple obstacles were thrown before his government by the military and violent demonstrations by the defeated secularists paralysed the country during his rule. Given the gravity of the situation and deep fracture in the Egyptian society President Morsi's response was also less than satisfactory; it proved reactive and inept. In hindsight, it is evident that in their own ways all three main political players - the Islamists, the military and secularists - became entrapped within short-sighted power games. It did not help Egypt, which has lost a golden opportunity to come out of its brutal past.

On the contrary, Tunisian national leaders dealt with their challenges in a very different way. The Islamist group running the minority government understood that they could not rule the country alone. Its leadership forged alliances with the secularists. Even in the aftermath of two political killings that shocked Tunisia the alliance remained strong. They determinedly worked together to find a political solution and have now come up with a new constitution broadly acceptable to the nation. The resilience of Tunisia's national leadership - both secularists and Islamists - should be a lesson for other Arab and Muslim countries.

The Tunisian constitution is a monumental step forward. This will hopefully move the country towards a stable democratic system, based on a clear human rights framework that will protects civil, social, economic, cultural and environmental rights, as well as safeguarding women's rights. The constitution sets a governance framework based on separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a semi-presidential model with executive power divided between the President and Prime Minister.

Can Egypt avert itself from anarchy?

The situation in Egypt is currently very worrying, not only for the country itself but for the entire Arab world. "Tahrir Square, emblem of youthful hope and anti-dictatorial change three years ago, is home now to Egyptians baying for a military hero with the trappings of a new Pharaoh to trample on the 'terrorists' of the Muslim Brotherhood," commented The New York Times recently.

Since the ouster of President Morsi the military appears to have gone berserk to wipe out the Muslim Brotherhood. The massacre of al-Nahda Square and Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque in the aftermath of the coup will remain a blot on Egypt. Killings of street protesters and imprisonment of opposition leaders and activists, mainly from the Brotherhood, have continued unabated. There is no sign of let up.

Designation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party which was in power only a few months ago, as a terrorist organisation tells how vengeful the military has become. Trying Morsi, the first ever democratically-elected president, for a jailbreak in 2011 (many others did this at the same time), also lacks common wisdom. Accusing foreigners "of aiding the group (Brotherhood) with funding and equipment to broadcast false news" gives a disturbing picture. Foreign journalists, who could at least speak with the opposition in the Mubarak era, are now imprisoned in Egyptian jails.

The military may be riding high in opposition-free opinion polls at the moment, but their revengeful acts may one day haunt them and the nation. One hopes that Brotherhood, master of survival under brutal repression in the past, will hold their nerve and be able to restrain their hotheads from causing mayhem; the last thing Egypt needs is to become a battleground with tit-for-tat violence.

The Morsi government underestimated the power of the military while in power and proved itself politically naive and inept. It became too complacent and over-confident that it could rule a fragmented Egypt. Morsi failed to find an 'out of box' solution and resorted to steps that, in the end, only harmed its own cause. Can the Egyptian military stop treating the Brotherhood with disdain and continue with violent crackdown? With unrestricted hard power in their armoury, if the military looks for an all out win against Brotherhood, it can then plunge Egypt into an abyss of uncharted future. Like it or not (and this is not always well understand among secularists overseas), The Brotherhood is part of Egyptian society and cannot easily be decimated.

Giving political space to the opposition is the only way to avert catastrophe. Millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in 2011 to overthrow the Mubarak regime will not simply lie idle without achieving their goal for an Egypt with rule of law, freedom of speech and dignity.

Once the dust has settled all the players - the military, Islamists and secularists - should take a long hard look at their recent actions and learn serious lessons. Military badges, Islamist passion or secularist ideology will be meaningless if they keep on letting down the nation for short-term political gain.

The West also should come out of its ambivalence and adopt a principled stance on justice and democracy, rather than sitting in the fence and supporting the status quo. In our global village today the policy of selective justice - one for secularists and another Islamists - is untenable.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, community activist, author and commentator on social and political affairs. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari