With the recent violence in Egypt, the country’s future looks even gloomier and more unpredictable.  It might also spur further political instability in neighboring countries like Tunisia.   

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mursi holds up a Koran while shouting slogans during a protest in Cairo on August 6. Photo: Reuters

This summer, the military coup in Egypt embarrassed the entire international community, although everybody had long known that a violent change of government was a possibility.

In fact, the embarrassment stemmed from some logical inconsistencies. The West and Russia had not expected the 2011 revolution but ardently supported it when it happened, believing the democratic slogans proclaimed on Tahrir Square.

Then they had to believe the democratic rhetoric of the Islamist authorities who came to power in a free and fair election. Now we are faced with an ideological impasse: If Mohammed Mursi is a democratically elected president, we ought to be defending him but we are unwilling and unable to defend him because that would mean assuming the responsibility for all the outstanding problems.

New formulations and fine phrases will help prove that the military coup is just another form of democratic expression of real popular aspirations. Such a formulation is necessary because it might not be the last coup: Egypt’s social and economic problems are too daunting, popular expectations are too high. Society has come to believe that it is enough to gather half the country on a square to topple the government, society is too polarized and the rulers are sometimes too arrogant.

Yet we also need the formulation for another reason. It is possible that Egypt might be only embarking on the second revolutionary wave and next in line will be Tunisia, where there are increasingly vocal demands for the Al-Nahda Islamist party to go.

The history of the two countries over the last two centuries is replete with parallels and the situation there, in the wake of the revolutions, easily fits in with the tradition of an Egyptian-Tunisian singing duet.

The events of the past few months seem to suggest that we should expect a repeat performance in Tunisia. It is no mere coincidence that Rashid Ammar, the military commander who, on January 14th, 2011 chased out Ben Ali, thereby earning great popularity, stepped down at the time when the regime in Qatar changed and when the flywheel of anti-Islamism began to gather speed.

Yet the resignation and the rise of terrorist activities that followed and all the subsequent events do not necessarily mean that the following events will bring forth a military march similar to that in Egypt.

Tunisia faces a second revolution - Four scenarios

1) National referendum for the sake of armistice

Political contradictions between the prime minister and generals, the growth of terrorist activities, the polarization of society,  the discontent of most of the population with the new authorities – all this is predictable. Add the Egyptian crisis and Ramadan, and it is not surprising that emotions have erupted into the open. Even so, fear of a civil war makes each of the players behave in a more responsible and moderate way than their electorates. Before long we see the leader of Al-Nahda Rashid Ghannushi proposing a referendum to bring about national reconciliation.

2) Islamic "hawks" step up their control

Realizing the ineffectiveness of their rule, faced with discontent among large sections of the population and watching the developments in Egypt, the Islamist hawks might come up with the following scenario.

Gaining control over much of business (especially food imports) and the entire administration, it is necessary to neutralize and secure the loyalty of the military, the police and special services.

For two years, supporters of Al-Nahda were being appointed to the interior ministry. It is hard to say what share of the staff of the ministry and its subordinate agencies has been replaced but it is certainly considerable. Besides, one has to sort things out with the army. Although it is not as strong as the army in Egypt and has no political clout, it has one very popular General who needs to be removed. So he is removed.

Thereafter, if power cannot be retained peacefully, martial law might be introduced to fight the growing wave of terrorism and the issue of an end to the transitional period and elections could be put on hold. As an extra bonus, if secular political opponents continue to act against the government, jihadist groups could be unleashed to pacify them.

3) Military and secular forces unite for political upheaval  

Other assumptions allow the discussion of the opposite scenario. The Egyptian example, ineffectiveness and the crisis of Al-Nahda, popular discontent, the continuing transitional period, and controversial constitutional reforms – all this prompts certain actions by the secular forces. They might rely increasingly on the military and the security forces, most notably on Rashid Ammar.

The problem is that secular forces do not, however, have enough instruments or the political will. Whereas in Egypt the army decided everything, here one has to make do with the pressure of the street and endless negotiations with the authorities.

The events in February lend credence to this scenario. At the time, after the murder of one of the leaders of the Tunisian opposition, Shukri Belaid, the secular forces had a chance to topple the Islamists, including massive support of the people and the army, but something held them back. Perhaps it was their own indecision and fear of a possible violent outcome.

4). Bloody "free-for-all"

Lastly, the fourth scenario that synthesizes all the other three is a bloody free-for-all without any rules.

Political elites would be powerless in face of pressure from the street. The opposition would have to attempt to topple the regime. Al-Nahda would have to make common cause with the jihadists, ushering in a civil war.

Challenges facing Egypt and Tunisia

Whatever combination we get in the end, today we – the audience – must be clearly aware that we do not yet fully understand the meaning of the Arab awakening. We keep dancing around two antitheses: authoritarianism versus democracy and secularism versus Islamism.

Both prevent us from hearing the main theme. Whatever the regime these countries end up with, it will call itself democratic, but it will be so only up to a point, though perhaps to a greater extent than the regimes toppled in 2011.

Similarly, whatever regime is established, it will not be fully secular or fully Islamist because the former contradicts local traditions (one should not exaggerate the secularity of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes), while the latter is unacceptable for external partners. All the rest belongs to the fascinating realm of political cinematography.

The crux of the problem – the main theme – unfortunately has to do with far more mundane and complicated matters.

Both countries face, above all, formidable social and economic challenges. These need to be met in order to create a stable political system and avoid total anarchy. To gain an insight into these problems, it would not be inappropriate to apply Marxist methodology. What we are seeing today is class struggle coupled with anti-colonial struggle. The danger of this latest enlarged and renewed edition of colonialism is that it is intellectual colonialism.

The main resource flowing from the poor colonies to the rich mother countries is human brainpower. The resulting intellectual deficit prevents these countries from finding creative solutions to their acute social and economic problems. One other consequence is that the “musicians” playing on the stage have long outstayed their welcome: the political struggle in modern Tunisia (and, to some extent, in Egypt) is a struggle between old men, the old elite calling itself secular, and the old counter-elite calling itself Islamists. Both are far removed from the population, its real problems and from reality.