But the narrative emerging from key players in the Arab world for which Tunisia’s Arab Spring legacy presents a clear challenge — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — was far more univocal: The events in Tunisia marked the death knell for political Islam in democracy.
Newspapers, television commentators and social media influencers in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt hailed Saied’s move as the triumph of the popular will over Ennahda. The three countries — as well as Tunisian opponents of Ennahda — have for years sought to link the party to the transnational Muslim Brotherhood and accused it of abetting terrorism. Ennahda long ago disavowed connections to the Brotherhood.
“Tunisia revolts against the Brotherhood,” the semiofficial Saudi newspaper Okaz proclaimed. Emirati news outlet 24Media heralded “a brave decision to save Tunisia.” Egyptian daily Al-Ahram called the events a “loss for the last Brotherhood stronghold in the region” — and Ahmed Moussa, a prominent Egyptian television host some have likened to Sean Hannity, said the Arab world was witnessing the Muslim Brotherhood’s “final fall.”
Analysts said the media blitz shows the autocratic countries have seized on the opportunity to advance their shared goal of quashing support for political Islam in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt all view movements affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which promotes an Islamist political agenda, as an existential threat to their regimes, especially in light of the popular support Islamist groups gained after the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago.
“There has been no talk about Tunisian institutions or keeping up any kind of democratic governance; it’s just being portrayed as people who have liberated themselves from an oppressive Islamist government,” said Elham Fakhro, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Ennahda garnered the most votes in Tunisia’s first democratic election following the 2011 revolution.
In Egypt, the only other Arab Spring country to transition to democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood performed well in the polls — only to be ousted in a military coup in 2013 that quickly won support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The Egyptian coup scared Ennahda, which entered into alliances with secular parties.
But its popularity has declined since then, and anger toward the party has mounted over the past year as the pandemic ravaged the country and its economy and a movement against police brutality gained steam. Calls grew for the dissolution of parliament, which is helmed by Ennahda’s highly unpopular leader Rachid Ghannouchi.
Saied’s move to freeze the legislature and fire the prime minister followed protests Sunday that appeared largely aimed at Ennahda. Videos on social media showed demonstrators vandalizing local party offices.
Supporters of Saied poured into the streets of the capital and other cities to celebrate after his announcement Sunday night.
Ennahda, meanwhile, has decried Saied’s moves as a coup. In a statement Tuesday, Ghannouchi said the party is calling for further consultations and urging Saied to walk back his suspension of parliament.
Independent Egyptian publication Mada Masr cited unnamed government officials Tuesday as saying that Egypt believed Saied’s moves were intended to curtail Ennahda’s political influence but that Cairo hoped for the end of Tunisian democracy, which continues to inspire Egyptian activists.
Tunisia’s foreign minister spoke Monday to his Saudi counterpart, who said Saudi Arabia supported all efforts to achieve “security, stability and prosperity" in Tunisia, the Saudi Press Agency reported. The UAE has yet to comment publicly. But the authoritarian states keep a tight lid on expression, so experts said reports and commentary in the media reflect the government line.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE “would see [developments in Tunisia] as a victory for the kind of foreign policy they’ve been trying to promote regionally,” Fakhro said — one that aims to counter Islamist ideology.
Social media influencers have also been pushing this narrative. Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, said he has seen evidence of what appear to be manipulation campaigns on Twitter, led in large part by Saudi and Emirati influencers. Jones analyzed thousands of tweets and found that most users tweeting or retweeting posts with the hashtag “Tunisia revolts against the Brotherhood” report their locations as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the UAE. “To me this is absolutely typical of Emirati and Saudi campaigns,” Jones said. “It’s almost like a classic signature of accounts you’d expect to see engage in this type of behavior.”
Twitter discloses when it discovers state-linked information operations, and has suspended hundreds of accounts originating in the UAE and Egypt and thousands related to information campaigns backed by Saudi Arabia in recent years.
While the impact of the apparent campaigns was likely to be limited, Fakhro said, “It does raise a lot of questions about how involved the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been in the events in Tunis.”
Three days before Saied’s announcement, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai’s deputy police chief, tweeted a cryptic message: “Good news … a new blow … powerful. … Coming to the Brotherhood.”
In an interview with Turkish public broadcaster TRT’s Arabic service on Monday, Ghannouchi accused Emirati media of pushing for a “coup” in Tunisia. Media coverage in Turkey, which supports Ennahda, has been largely sympathetic to Ghannouchi.
There is no evidence that foreign governments pressured Saied to take action, and Tunisian analyst Mohamed-Dhia Hammami said he thinks it is unlikely.
But Tunisian security forces raided Al Jazeera’s Tunis office on Monday, raising concerns about a crackdown on press freedom. Al Jazeera is funded by Qatar, which is close to Ennahda and sympathetic to Islamist groups.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has called on the Biden administration to investigate possible interference by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Tunisia’s political crisis.
Fakhro called similarities between the Saudi and Emirati media responses to Egypt’s 2013 coup and their coverage of Tunisia in recent days “striking.”
Still, important differences in the contexts remain. Saied told Tunisian rights groups Monday that he remains committed to civil liberties and the democratic process, and he has said the freeze of parliament will be temporary.
“What is happening in Tunisia is not a revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood” but rather a reaction to “the paralysis of political life,” Egyptian TV presenter Moataz Abdelfattah wrote on Facebook on Monday.
But whatever happens in Tunisia — which has been seen as the symbol of revolutionary promise in the region — will have ripple effects, said H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Opponents to that struggle for accountable government are going to try to contain their glee at this very substantial step away from an accountable process, especially as it is being portrayed in many sectors as a squeezing of a pro-Islamist current that they oppose,” he said.
Siobhán O’Grady and Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.