Tunisia’s elections represent yet another Muslim Brotherhood defeat

Tunisia’s elections represent yet another Muslim Brotherhood defeat

Arab voters, wary of radical Islam, reject Obama's ideas about the Islamist movement and the region's future; IS might suffer too

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Supporters of Tunisian party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls) celebrate their victory in parliamentary elections in Tunis, October 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Hassene Dridi)
Supporters of Tunisian party Nida Tunis (Tunisia Calls) celebrate their victory in parliamentary elections in Tunis, October 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Hassene Dridi)

Four years have passed since that historic event that set off the Arab Spring.

Four years and eight days.

A 26-year-old Tunisian from Sidi Bouzid opened his vegetable stand on the morning of December 17, 2010. A local female inspector came over and confiscated his wares, and, according to the vendor’s family, humiliated him in front of passersby.

The young man, Mohammed Bouazizi, decided to set himself on fire as an act of revenge in front of the local governor’s office. Seventeen days later, he died of his wounds.

The act led to a series of angry demonstrations against the rule of Zine El Abindine Ben Ali, “the Enlightened Dictator,” who ruled the country for 24 years. It didn’t take long for the protests to turn into the “Jasmine Revolution.” Ben Ali fled Tunisia on January 14. Eleven days later, a revolution began in Egypt, followed by Libya, Yemen, and of course, Syria.

As in Egypt, the first who managed to organize and make gains amid the chaos in Tunisia were the Islamists. The Ennahda Party won in the first free elections in October 2011.

Three years later, the Islamists are out of power. They first voluntarily stepped down to allow for an interim government to draft a constitution, then lost the recent parliamentary elections, followed by this week’s presidential elections, which were won by officials from the old regime.

President Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old former minister, leaves his party headquarters in Tunis, December 22, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Hassene Dridi)
President Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old former minister, leaves his party headquarters in Tunis, December 22, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Hassene Dridi)

At the beginning of the week, Tunisians were informed that their president-elect was Beji Caid Essebsi, 88, a former interior minister during the days of Habib Bourguiba, the dictator who preceded Ben Ali, and parliament speaker during Ben Ali’s rule.

It should be mentioned, perhaps, that an interior minister in Arab countries isn’t just a functionary responsible for giving out passports, but is the man in charge of internal security, including intelligence bodies. That is, the flesh and blood of the previous regime.

Essebsi, whose advanced age could give Shimon Peres some encouragement to run in Israel’s elections, won 55.7 percent of the vote, while his Islamist-affiliated opponent, Moncef Marzouki, garnered 44.3%.

Essebsi’s victory led to a wave of protests, primarily in cities in southern Tunisia, seen as more religious, poorer, and largely cut off from the modern, Western capital of Tunis.

Tunisia is the second Arab country to experience an Arab Spring revolution, followed by electoral victory by pragmatic Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, only to see them pushed out in favor of members of the old regime.

It happened in Egypt as well, after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi came to power, and was replaced by a second revolution that returned the army to its position of power in the country. Officials from the old political and security apparatus, who are nicknamed “a-doula al-amika,” or the deep state, have returned to power. They are from the same institutions that deepened their hold on the state over the decades, and after the fall of the dictator (Ben Ali or Mubarak) were left behind, and are now re-taking their positions of power.

One can assume that Tunisia’s new president, Essebsi, will enjoy the help of the two strongest moderate Sunni rulers in the Middle East — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and Saudi King Abdullah. What’s more, the regime in Tunis, along with its counterparts in Cairo, will try to help its apparent ally in Libya, which sits between them.

After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya stopped functioning as a country. Its territory is divided between major tribes from Misrata, and radical Islamist groups like Ansar al-Sharia.

In recent months, Khalifa Haftar, a former general from Gaddafi’s army, who lived in exile for almost two decades, joined the battle for Libya. Haftar managed to clean out large areas in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, from Ansar al-Sharia, and he is now focusing his efforts on the western part of the country, near the Tunisian border and around the capital of Tripoli, currently in the hands of Misrata tribes. He supports the representative assembly that sits in Tobruk, while the tribes support the government in Tripoli, made up primarily of former members of the National General Congress.

The losers

It’s difficult by this point to talk about coincidences. The Muslim Brotherhood camp has been suffering one political defeat after another. The Arab public, which has been watching the madness that has gripped the region in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State (which was born in the same ideological womb as the Muslim Brotherhood), decided in Tunisia and Egypt, at least, to stay away from anything that reminded them of radical Islam (less radical than IS, but still radical). In some ways, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its counterparts in Tunisia are now paying the price for the success of IS.

These developments do not, of course, portend the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Arabic, there is a wealth of proverbs that talk about sometimes being up, sometimes being down. But without a doubt, this is one of the low points in recent years for an organization that was seen, not long ago, as President Barack Obama’s hope for a better Middle East — especially given Qatar’s decision to bow its head to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In this file photo taken Monday, Nov. 3, 2014, Egypt's  former President Mohammed Morsi sits in the defendant cage during a court hearing in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Mohammed al-Law, File)
Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi sits in the defendant’s cage during a court hearing in Cairo, Egypt, November 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed al-Law, File)

The Muslim Brotherhood’s main patron (with the exception of Turkey) surrendered to pressure from Riyadh and Cairo and chose to move away from its hostile tone toward Sissi. This didn’t happen overnight, and doesn’t stem from good will. The recall of ambassadors from several leading Gulf States (Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia) from Doha did its work, and Qatar decided to appease the strongman on the Nile.

How will this affect the Middle East? It’s still too early to say. Senior Egyptian sources have expressed great caution over the move. “First let’s see their actions, then we’ll know their true intentions,” said one official regarding Qatar’s shift.

One immediate indication will be the line al-Jazeera takes about the Egyptian government. Until now, al-Jazeera has aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood camp against Cairo. It stands to reason that the station will take a more moderate line toward Sissi and his supporters.

Turkey could find itself even more isolated as the last country waving the flag of political Islam in Muslim Brotherhood-style. But the weakening of the movement isn’t necessarily good for the West or Israel. Hamas in Gaza, which subscribes to the Brotherhood ideology, will seek support elsewhere, like Iran; Hamas leaders have already been speaking about this openly.

Moreover, supporters of radical Islam could bring their support to even more radical groups, like the Islamic State. Still, the strengthening wave of moderate, Western-oriented Sunni Arab leaders could be an important factor in stopping IS.

A Kurdish fighter takes position in Kobani, Syria, November 1, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jake Simkin)
A Kurdish fighter takes position in Kobani, Syria, November 1, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jake Simkin)

And another word on the Islamic State: This week, the Israeli TV show “Uvda” showed a remarkable video of Israeli reporter Itai Anghel accompanying Kurdish fighters as they battled IS in Syria and Iraq. Anghel brought back from the field reports that gave a rare peek into the conflict. For the first time, we were able to see the fight against IS from up close. Instead of frightening YouTube videos of heads being cut off, suddenly we see IS fighters retreating from the Kurds. The enemy, IS, is not so terrible when seen through Kurdish eyes, almost the polar opposite from the way it is portrayed in the Western press. The footage shows IS recruits as barbaric, cowardly, fighting over scraps of meat, and high on drugs.

The Kurds, and especially the female fighters, in Anghel’s video are not especially intimidated by the acts of IS, and seem determined to fight them. With minimal arms, they are winning.

The report shows the unacceptable ease with which hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers enter Syria to join IS, while Washington’s ally Turkey — one of the last survivors of the Muslim Brotherhood-style governments — either turns a blind eye or even cooperates.

Maybe someone in the White House will wake up from the Brotherhood fantasy, and start putting resources and energy into helping the Kurds in their just fight.

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