Change marches on in Tunisia and Egypt despite obstacles

The march for change continues in the Middle East, with both its advantages and disadvantages.

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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Two events this week underscore the correction taking place in the march for change in the Arab region known as the Arab Spring, which began nearly four years ago. Tunisia, the first stop in that march, has returned to secularism -- in the sense of separating religion from the state -- after the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to abolish the goals of the Jasmine Revolution by hijacking the Tunisian uprising and imposing religion on the Tunisian state.

Beji Caid Essebsi’s victory in the presidential election is a clear testimony to the commitment of a majority of Tunisians to the principle of coexistence between moderate Islam and the state. Congratulations to Tunisia for this important achievement. Egypt, the second stop in the march for change, foiled the Muslim Brotherhood plot to impose religion on the Egyptian state through a popular decision and not a military coup, as some like to claim. This week, Qatar joined the strategic Gulf contract based on giving priority to stability in the region, and Egypt a leading role in the regional balance of power.

The march for change continues in the Middle East, with both its advantages and disadvantages

Raghida Dergham

This happened following measures for an Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement that Saudi Arabia had sponsored. One of the most important results was a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood , who lost an important political and propaganda outlet following the closure of Al-Jazeera Mubasher, which is broadcasted out of Qatar. These two developments have multiple implications for the form of the regional map in the coming years, particularly in light of important developments taking place in Iran, Israel, and Turkey. Another important issue will be the repercussions of lower oil prices, not only for Iran, but also Russia and its involvement in the Middle East.

Tunisian President-elect Beji Caid Essebsi (88 years old) has proven for the new generation the need for seasoned politicians like him. He contested the elections in his capacity as the founder and leader of the anti-Islamist Call of Tunisia Party, and won in the second round beating his rival the outgoing President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki (69 years), who was supported by the Islamists.

The European Union election observation mission said in a statement that Tunisians had voted for the first time in a credible and transparent presidential election, and completed an electoral cycle in line with international electoral standards.

Some in the media tried to portray Beji Caid Essebsi as part of the old guard, for having served as interior, defense, and foreign minister previously under the late President Habib Bourguiba, president of Tunisia from 1956 to 1987, and speaker under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in 1987 and served until 2011, when he was toppled by the Jasmine Revolution.

I believe BBC America’s coverage of the elections was hostile and biased, describing Essebsi as a relic of the era of tyranny, while describing Markouzi as a human rights advocate and former dissident opposed to Bourguiba and Ben Ali, as though the BBC was voting on behalf of the Tunisians. The quasi-official channel did not mention that Marzouki is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that Essebsi had left his post a year after he became speaker to protest Ben Ali’s violation of a written pledge to democratize, as Essebsi put it.

Regardless of the bias of some Arab and Western media outlets, the Call of Tunisia Party, an alliance of trade unionists and secularists, was able to topple the Muslim Brotherhood project led by Rashid Ghannouchi - who in turn had been met with astounding attention from the Western media and forums when he practically took over power in Tunisia and embarked on a project to draft a constitution that would have imposed religion on the state.

The first achievement of Tunisia’s men and women was drafting a new Tunisian constitution replacing the Muslim Brotherhood draft constitution. The new constitution, which was approved in early 2014, gave broad powers to parliament and the prime minister, and limited powers to the president to ensure no authoritarian president reemerges. Beji Caid Essebsi vowed in his first statement following his victory in the election that there would be no return to tyranny. The Tunisian people, most definitely, will be alert and vigilant, and will monitor carefully whether this pledge would be fulfilled. This people had launched the process of rejecting tyranny, refused for their revolution to be hijacked, insisted on a constitution that separates religion from state, and insisted on the rights of women whom the Islamists wanted to be merely an “extension” of men. Tunisia said boldly and determinedly: No.

Secular Tunisia will not accept to be taken to exclusion. And the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia learned from the mistakes of their experience in power in Egypt, and did not let themselves be excluded like the Muslim Brotherhood had done in Egypt following the popular trial they were put on and which took them out of power. Tunisia's Muslim Brotherhood decided to join the political process as an opposition, which is their right as long as they commit to the principles of the political process, rather than taking advantage of elections to commandeer the entire democratic process and impose their ideology on the state and the people, as happened in Egypt.

A right to celebrate

Egypt today, under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has the right to celebrate the collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood project, and the right to boast of its rejection of the imposition of religion on the state, as it has the right to impose order in the country after uncovering plots that threaten the country’s security. However, it is unbefitting of Egypt today to adopt exclusion as a policy against anyone, even those who excluded themselves from the outset. It is unbefitting of Egypt to play the game of exclusion and exoneration as it seems from the trials of former Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. Egypt must adjust course lest President Sisi appear as though he desires the “Pharaoh” approach, dictating what he wants and excluding whom he wants, and exonerating and pardoning whomever he wants.

Egypt, particularly at this juncture, is a sensitive Arab spot that must not be weakened by mistakes. Egypt is now a pivotal Arab counterweight in the regional balance of power, at the decision of active and key Arab states in the equation of equilibrium. Saudi and Emirati support for Egypt is a strategic decision with extremely important implications. Moreover, the rapprochement that took place this week between Egypt and Qatar was brokered by Saudi Arabia, and follows the summit in Riyadh that preceded the Doha Gulf summit.

The Qatari-Egyptian detente has many dimensions that go beyond the closure of Al-Jazeera Mubasher and the cessation of campaigns in the Egyptian media against Qatar and its leaders. The Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani fulfilled his pledge to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to shut down Al-Jazeera Mubasher and initiate rapprochement with Egypt based on the strategic contract for Gulf consensus. The Gulf leaders welcomed the move and praised the Saudi sponsorship of the Egyptian-Qatari reconciliation.

For his part, the Egyptian president deliberately ruled out a rapid development in the ties with Qatar, and said the visit by the Qatari emir’s envoy to Cairo a few days ago was just a starting point to send a message of appeasement to the Egyptians, cautioning that the parties planning to destroy Egypt have not yet raised the flag of surrender and continue to work to achieve their goals. An Egyptian official said that the Qatari move was a “reasonable step,” adding that the crisis issues “also include activities by wanted fugitives in Doha and other issues that will be the subject of discussions soon with Doha.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s reactions had a tinge of impudence that is unnecessary at this juncture in using words like “just a starting point” and “appeasement.” It would have been better if he encouraged and appreciated Qatar’s moves instead. Putting the Gulf house in order is important for Sisi’s most important backers. Furthermore, the implicit message from Qatar to the Muslim Brotherhood is not “just a starting point” to “appease” the Egyptians. It is a policy with many important implications and dimensions.

The implications are important first and foremost in the context of the ambitions and capabilities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Arab region, bearing in mind that Qatar is accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in various ways, politically, financially, and in the media. Secondly, the implications are important in the context of the rivalry over positions in the regional balance of power, given the impact on the ambitions of the primary sponsor of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, namely, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since Egypt is affected by both matters, perhaps Egyptian diplomacy should reassess the meaning of the Qatari positions and the Saudi sponsorship of the rapprochement.

Saudi diplomacy is active on the regional and international levels, politically and economically at this period, and in an elaborate, ingenious, and extremely precise way. In addition to the issues of the Gulf front and Egypt in the Gulf and Arab priorities, Riyadh is tackling the Syrian issue through the impact of oil prices on both Iran and Russia.

Some say that this is not about deliberate political shrewdness, but simply supply and demand in the oil markets that led to the slump in prices, leading to a harsh blow to the Russian currency and the Russian economy, as well as the Iranian and Venezuelan economies. Others believe the Saudi decision to keep oil prices low is extremely resourceful, not only in the context of an agreement with the United States, but also in the context of weakening the ability of Russia and Iran to project force beyond their borders - especially in Syria, which Riyadh attaches special importance to.

Either way, the result is very painful for Moscow and Tehran. It is painful for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is now feeling the brunt of the sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of his adventures in Ukraine. The sanctions and the oil prices have put him in a corner and face-to-face with a backlash, not only in the context of his adventures outside his country and his policies in Syria, but also internally where he could face popular opposition. Russia will still be Russia and will one day regain its huge capabilities, being a resource-rich country. As for the response to what the leaders are doing to the country, this is something that will be dictated by economic conditions, because nationalism and patriotism are not enough in and of themselves.

In Iran, if the draft budget submitted by President Hassan Rowhani to parliament is any indication, it seems that the authorities are forced to shower money on security establishments like the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij to the tune of 64 percent of the budget. This is at a time when the budget is relying on an increase in tax revenues to offset the falling oil revenues. So how will this affect living conditions and what kind of popular reactions will there be? This is something to keep an eye on in the coming year, especially if the security establishment’s funding is increased so that it may continue its foreign adventures.

The march for change continues in the Middle East, with both its advantages and disadvantages.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 26, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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