Watching what is taking place in Egypt as the military goes after the Muslim Brotherhood, I can’t help but note the parallels to Tunisia under Ben Ali’s first few years in power (which, not coincidentally, is one of the case studies in my dissertation). There too, the regime mounted a campaign against Islamists in the name of national security and anti-terrorism following Islamist electoral success, while the secular Tunisian opposition parties supported the government’s efforts on the theory that the regime would eliminate an ideologically threatening political foe and that they would benefit in the end. What happened instead is that once authoritarian methods were deployed against the Islamists, the state quickly decided that it wanted to repress any and all political opposition, no matter the ideological bent, and so the campaign that had initially only targeted Ennahda quickly morphed into a wider effort. I use this episode to argue in Foreign Affairs today that Egyptian secularists and liberals are being myopic in their cheering on the army’s fight against the Brotherhood, since that fight will quickly boomerang back in their own direction. Here is a snippet:
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.
To read about how the Tunisia story played out, and the specific lessons for Egypt, please head over to Foreign Affairs for the rest.