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Protesters battled police in Tunis on Wednesday after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid sparked the biggest street protests since the Arab Spring uprising two years ago. The crowd set fire to the headquarters of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won the most seats in an legislative election 16 months ago. (ANIS MILI/REUTERS)
Protesters battled police in Tunis on Wednesday after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid sparked the biggest street protests since the Arab Spring uprising two years ago. The crowd set fire to the headquarters of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that won the most seats in an legislative election 16 months ago. (ANIS MILI/REUTERS)

A tale of two struggling democracies Add to ...

When the Arab uprisings first erupted in Tunisia two years ago, people in the region were taken aback. Sure, the country was run by a corrupt autocrat, but the quality of life was among the best in the Arab world: Literacy rates were high, infant mortality low, and women were treated equally. People enjoyed a freedom of movement and expression that was the envy of most Arab nations. What do they have to complain about, many asked.

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But revolutions don’t normally come about when the situation of the people is at its worst, when they’re struggling just to survive. They take place when people who have been kept in check are finally free enough and are able to imagine themselves in a better place.

That’s what the educated, sophisticated Tunisians saw at the beginning of 2011 – a better way. They were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

Once again Tunisians are angry and looking for a better way than what was brought about from just two short years of democracy. This time, however, they have met the enemy and it is them, their fellow Tunisians – two parts of the nation each seeing democracy as the path to its own particular promised land. The majority wants a Tunisia in its likeness – an Islamic state. The minority, the non-religious, wants a country that reflects its interests in greater freedoms.

Wednesday’s assassination of a secularist leader may well be the shock the country needs to reach a compromise formula in its new constitution. There is hope for that because the two sides are not that different in size. The minority secularists are numerous enough to be taken into account and wise enough to understand the need for religion to play an important part in the state – it’s not an either/or situation.

Most of the religious majority, embodied in the relatively moderate Ennahda Party, are smart enough too, to keep in check the more extreme religious elements among the Salafists and in their own party. That was the essence of the coalition Ennahda formed with two secularist parties and the hope for the future. The alternative is a protracted conflict between the religious extremists and secularists, with Ennahda acting as referee.

Can the Arab nation a few hundred kilometres to the east – Egypt – learn from this Tunisian experience in the same way it took inspiration from Tunisia’s bold uprising two years ago?

Among Egyptians, too, there are fundamentally different views of what kind of country they should have. The problem in Egypt is that the two sides are vastly different in size. That’s why it came as no surprise that more than 70 per cent of Egyptians voted either for the Muslim Brotherhood or for the even more religiously oriented Salafist parties in last year’s parliamentary elections. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is predominantly a conservative religious society. Left with little other choice, the people cast ballots for conservative religious parties.

The only hope for compromise in revising or applying Egypt’s hastily drafted new constitution is if the people are given other viable electoral choices: parliamentary parties that can appeal to a wider constituency. In that way, the Brotherhood might see fit to align itself with secularists, rather than with the more extreme Salafists, in order to form a majority.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood used to say that it didn’t want to form a government, dominate parliament or hold the presidency; not at the start of postrevolutionary Egypt anyway. Let some other parties try to tackle the country’s enormous problems – and fail. The Brotherhood, its leaders whispered, would come to the fore in the second wave and be the people’s broad choice to save the country from the first batch of incompetents.

Somewhere along the line, the Brothers’ leadership changed their mind and got caught up in what they saw as their undeniable right to govern. They ended up employing undemocratic means of intimidation and rushing through a constitution to keep their democratic process afloat.

Will Egypt’s Brotherhood now take a leaf from the playbook of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and forge a broad alliance with liberal Egyptians?

An uneasy Arab world is waiting to see which way both these countries go.

Follow on Twitter: @globepmartin

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