It is somewhat ironic that Tunisia would be the catalyst for revolutionary upheaval in Egypt and, quite possibly, for future uprisings in the Arab world. Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, turned his nose up at Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, emphasizing instead his own country’s uniqueness and forging close ties with the West. And, as I have repeatedly found over the years by way of their lukewarm response to my distinctive Egyptian dialect, ordinary Tunisians don’t have much love for Egyptians, who are seen as hypocrites for their pervasive, but often superficial, displays of piety.
The real irony, however, is that as a result of its Jasmine Revolution, staunchly secular Tunisia may increasingly come to resemble contemporary Egypt, a deeply conservative country that, over the past decade, has so enthusiastically adopted Wahhabi-style customs that, in some areas, you might as well be in Saudi Arabia.
The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions do, of course, provide a ray of hope for Arab pro-democracy activists. But amid the jubilation we should not forget that the corollary of greater democracy in the Arab world until now — from Morocco to Yemen, Bahrain to Palestine — has been a greater role for Islamist movements.
For all that their media-savvy spokesmen — and they are always men — pay lip-service to democracy and pluralism, Islamists in both countries share similar goals and outlooks. Ultimately, they are guided by the belief that a return to the fundamentals of Islam is the solution to everything. They want to Islamicize their societies, if necessary from the bottom-up or, if given the opportunity, from the top down.
Already, the Muslim Brotherhood — with its long-cherished goal of establishing an Islamist state in Egypt — is seizing the moment to increase its sway. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s long-suppressed Islamists are returning from exile and being freed en masse from prison. (The Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders had to break out of their Cairo prison.)
Before the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia was one of the most liberal and secular societies that the Islamic world has ever known. The veil is banned in public institutions, polygamy is outlawed and mosques are shuttered outside prayer times. Tunisia is the only Muslim country where abortion is legal, and frank sex education is compulsory in high schools.
How long will this secular order last? Presumably not very long if Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the newly un-banned Ennahdha Islamist movement, has anything to with it. To mark Ghannouchi’s post-revolution return to Tunis, secular women demonstrated against any move toward a more Islamist way of life. They have good reason to be worried, because the Islamists are likely to find post-revolutionary Tunisia highly fertile ground.
In the past few years, more Tunisian women have been donning the veil, and recordings of recitations from the Quran could, as never before, be heard blasting from taxis, restaurants and local shops. That trend is likely to deepen as Tunisia’s young people despair of a quick fix — democracy or no democracy — to the country’s economic woes (which are not dissimilar to the problems currently facing many European countries).
In both Egypt and Tunisia, the revolutions are certain to make their countries’ economic problems far worse in the immediate term. Tourism is the lifeblood of both economies, and Westerners have been evacuated en masse. The once-peaceful Tunisian and Egyptian streets now have a reputation for being filled with gangs of thugs and looters. It could take years for both countries to salvage their images. Foreign investors, the second pillar of both economies, are re-thinking their plans, stability always mattering more to them than democracy.
The Muslim Brotherhood will have a much easier time cashing in on the resulting misery. Exploiting the room given to it by the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood has already transformed the religious face of much of Egyptian society. If the Brotherhood gains sway over the government — whether by seizing power or, more likely, joining in a new governing coalition — it may find itself in a position where it is able to put the the institutional heft of the Egyptian state behind its agenda.
Tunisia’s Islamists will find the going tougher, but the momentum is on their side. Two decades ago, during the last elections in which they were allowed to partake, Islamists may have won as much as a third of the vote. Although it might seem like sacrilege to utter such a thought now, secular Tunisians may one day even come to regret that their revolution ever took place.
John R. Bradley is the author of “Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and, most recently, “Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).