The ripple effects of the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi are shaking the already unstable Ennahda-led government in Tunisia.
Ennahda is reaching a crucial juncture, similar to the one Morsi faced: compromise with an increasingly dissatisfied majority, or risk losing power.
Unlike in Egypt, in Tunisia there is no real possibility of a military intervention. However, also unlike in Egypt, the non- and increasingly anti-Islamist political opposition is organized enough to bring the government down without violence. And they appear to be very close to succeeding.
The struggle began last year when Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi was, unbeknownst to him, videotaped asking Tunisian Salafists to give him time to consolidate control over the police and the military, lest secular forces return to power. That candid statement confirmed many of the worst fears of the opposition that Ennahda's eventual agenda was the complete domination of the state (the same concern that drove an overwhelming movement to overthrow Morsi in Egypt).
Everything that has happened since has worsened Ennahda's position. The government it leads is widely perceived as having failed on two key fronts: security and the economy.
Salafist-Jihadists are waging an open rebellion near the Algerian border in the West and parts of the South. Salafist extremists, especially Ansar Al-Sharia, have become increasingly brazen in their own violent tendencies. Parts of the country are already in a state of civil conflict, and others threaten to fall into one.
The security collapse was brought home to the Tunisian opposition and majority in the most direct and brutal manner twice in the past six months. Leading anti-Islamist, liberal politicians – in February Chokri Belaïd and in July Mohamed Brahmi – were gunned down in broad daylight. The government claims they were assassinated by jihadists, and even with the same gun.
The government is widely blamed for having "coddled" Islamist extremists, thereby creating the sense of impunity that allowed parts of the country to drift into civil conflict and respected politicians to be murdered in the streets. The minimal charge is guilt by omission, if not by commission itself.
Even worse for Ennahda is the country's ongoing economic meltdown. It is widely seen as being on the brink of bankruptcy. Last week it received a terrible economic evaluation across the board from Standard and Poor’s.
Both of these issues, especially the economic crisis, have brought Ennahda into a potentially fatal confrontation with the redoubtable Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). With over 1 million members, it is more powerful than any Tunisian political party and has no labor movement parallel in any other Arab country.
Traditionally, the UGTT has valued its role as a "mediator" in politics. But it has now formally renounced that position and identified itself as having a political role in opposition to the government. This could prove an impending catastrophe for Ennahda, since the UGTT is the one group in the country with the potential power to unseat the government.
Ghannouchi and company are clearly disturbed by the uninterrupted series of setbacks they have suffered in recent months, as well as the overthrow of Morsi. But the opposition – including many members of the suspended National Constituent Assembly – have been staging sit-ins and other protests with a simple but deadly demand: form a national unity government of technocrats to deal with the crisis.
Ghannouchi has been quickly backpedaling from his more recalcitrant initial positions. But, this is essentially asking him to relinquish power as Islamists are not well-represented among the technocratic class. A government of experts is bound to look very different from a government of religious fanatics and include few, if any, Islamists.
However, Ghannouchi is now frightened enough to have recently met with his most dangerous opponent, UGTT leader Hussein Abassi, and, secretly, with the head of the increasingly popular Nida Tounes party, Beji Caid el Sebsi. Recent polls, though questionable, suggest Nida Tounes may now outstrip Ennahda as the most popular party in Tunisia.
Ghannouchi reportedly offered both an "all party" government of national unity, but not the dreaded technocratic government. They turned him down, but more talks are planned.
Ghannouchi knows he's fighting, not just for political power now, but for the long-term survival of Ennahda as a credible and potential governing force in Tunisia: a less dramatic version of exactly what's happening to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So do the secularists.
So, just as Egypt recently did, Tunisia now faces a crucial juncture in which Islamists will either compromise or confront a vast coalition that will overwhelm them. Their government is perceived as having failed, and Tunisians are demanding change.
Ghannouchi seems to understand the need to be perceived as conciliatory. But if he does not give sufficient ground, he may end up losing everything he has accumulated in the past two years, and more.