Courtesy Reuters Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Argentina, 1997

First They Came for the Islamists

Egypt’s Tunisian Future

An Islamist political party does well at the polls, and an authoritarian regime goes after it with a vengeance, killing its activists and arresting its leaders. The party is driven underground while secularists and other political groups applaud the government’s harsh measures, all taken in the name of eliminating a terrorist threat. Meanwhile, the regime and the non-Islamist parties assure the world that once the Islamists have been dealt with, the regular political process will resume again.

So it has happened in Egypt, but it is also the story of Tunisia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when hopes for a democratic transition were smashed after a campaign of repression that first targeted Islamists but eventually grew into a much wider effort to eliminate all political opposition. Tunisia’s experience offers a glimpse of what may be yet to come in Egypt -- and suggests that Egyptian secularists should think twice before supporting the army’s efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood.

After replacing President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in November 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a military officer, embarked on a program of liberalization and democratization that was at that point unprecedented in the region. His government released all political prisoners and gave them amnesty, revised the laws governing the press and political parties, and got every political bloc -- including the Islamist Ennahda Party -- to sign a national pact guaranteeing civil liberties and free elections.

Those elections were held on April 2, 1989, and were at the time the most competitive in the country’s history, if not in the entire Arab world. Although the winner-take-all system guaranteed that Ben Ali’s party would carry the day, given its organizational advantages developed over decades of unopposed rule, the president and most observers assumed that the secular opposition parties would emerge as the dominant opposition. Instead, the Islamists received the highest share of the opposition vote, 14.5 percent, a figure that was likely deflated due to fraud. 

Just after the election, The New York Times declared, “Tunisia is undergoing a transition from a one-man dictatorship to a much more open society with a sleight of hand that could furnish lessons for Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader.” The article went on to quote the head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights saying, “I am absolutely certain of Ben Ali’s good will.”

As it turned out, though, the prospect of a strong Islamist opposition, and especially of an Islamist government at some point down the road, was too much for Ben Ali and the Tunisian state to bear. The government launched a brutal crackdown, killing 1,000 Islamists, jailing another 30,000, and forcing into exile the leader of Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. The regime justified its actions by claiming that the Islamists were terrorists out to sow discord and tear Tunisia apart. Only because of the national security threat that they presented, Ben Ali argued, were the Islamists being targeted.

Even as the government’s campaign against Islamists turned violent and repressive, Tunisia’s secular opposition parties cheered it on. Fearful of the possibility of Tunisia’s Islamists emulating the Algerian intifada taking place next door, the secularists had no problem with the state neutralizing the threat of political Islam. Furthermore, given the country’s history of secularism, most Tunisians did not want to see Islamists of any stripe coming to power, and so they watched quietly as Ennahda was driven underground. 

The twist is that once Ben Ali finished with the Islamists, he trained his sights on the rest of the opposition as well. Even if his crackdown initially stemmed from a legitimate ideological fear of Islamism, once he started down the authoritarian path, it was only a short skip and a jump to viewing all political opponents as enemies. In early 1992, the government shut down secular newspapers and magazines, imprisoned liberal journalists, and passed a new law of associations that curtailed the actions of human rights groups. A whole generation of secular opposition leaders, including Tunisia’s current president, Moncef Marzouki, found themselves in jail. In the 1994 sham presidential election, Ben Ali ran unopposed after disallowing all other candidates from running, and in 1999, he was “reelected” with 99 percent of the vote.

Egypt is now in the throes of a similar campaign to rid the country of its Islamists. The military rulers have charged Muslim Brotherhood members with terrorism and murder, and they are considering formally labeling the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and banning it entirely. Although Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s erstwhile strongman, did not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in politics formally, even he did not go so far as to ban the group, and the contemplation of such a move in conjunction with the unprecedented arrest of the Brotherhood’s supreme guide demonstrates just how far the military is willing to go. To be sure, the Brotherhood-led government under former President Mohamed Morsi was hardly a paragon of democracy, and Brotherhood members have indeed resorted to violence since his ouster. But the terrorism charges represent a major escalation in anti-Islamist rhetoric since the military coup, and they allow the army to justify all its actions in the name of security.

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood’s secular opponents, many of whom opposed the military when it last ruled the state following the toppling of Mubarak, are not only staying out of the streets but also actively supporting the anti-Brotherhood campaign. Much like their Tunisian counterparts two decades ago, Egyptian secularists have convinced themselves that the government is out to eradicate only the Islamists, rather than all political opposition. The enemy of their enemy, many of them figure, is their friend. This frame of mind is spreading among less stridently secular Egyptians as well, with former Morsi voters and Egyptians who were previously sympathetic to the Brotherhood lauding the military’s moves

For the military, the support from secular parties and ordinary Egyptians is crucial. The army’s removal of Morsi was made possible only by the presence of millions of protesters in the streets. Similarly, the widening crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood has been a much easier task, given the political and rhetorical support the army has received from Egyptian liberals. Were prominent liberal and secular voices to denounce the army’s moves, it would not bring an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s troubles altogether, but it might constrain the military’s range of actions, just as public outrage against the last military government led to an expedited election and transition process. Yet for now, Egypt’s secularists seem to be backing the military to the hilt.

This view is shortsighted. Looking at the bigger picture, Egypt’s secular parties should realize that the authoritarian genie is extremely difficult to put back in the bottle once it has been released in the name of national security. Although the army is likely to return to the barracks at some point and resume ruling from behind the scenes -- it has promised to hold elections by 2014 -- it will not allow secular parties to construct a democratic system, let alone a liberal one. Egyptians are in for a rude awakening if they believe that just because the military has not yet put measures in place to repress all political opposition or begun to arrest secular figures, that it will not eventually do so. As Egyptians remember all too well, the allegedly temporary state of emergency put in place following President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 lasted 31 years. Today, there is little reason to think that the current monthlong state of emergency will expire along with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political fortunes.

If history is any guide, authoritarian governments do not confine their repression to only one category of opponents, and coercive measures taken in the name of security always morph into something larger. The secularists should think twice before cheering on the regime’s campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, no matter what type of language the government is using to couch its antidemocratic actions. The lesson of Tunisia is that once the Islamists are gone, the secularist opposition is going to be next.

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