Islamists not dead yet; big pro-government rally in Tunisia

It has been the conventional wisdom since Egypt's Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup that Islamists in the Middle East were on the run and losing power. They had lost in Egypt, were losing in Syria, were being held back in Libya, and were supposedly on the way out in Tunisia.

The rise of the secular opposition to the "moderate" Islamists in Tunisia appeared to presage a repeat of Egypt. But not so fast, say the Islamist supporters of the government.


Tens of thousands of Tunisians came out in a show of force for the country's Islamist-led government on Saturday, in one of the largest demonstrations since the 2011 revolution.

Supporters of the ruling Ennahda party crowded into Kasbah Square next to the prime minister's office in the capital, Tunis. Ennahda officials said more than 150,000 attended. Fireworks flashed overhead and red Tunisian flags fluttered over a sea of demonstrators.

"No to coups, yes to elections," the crowd shouted, in a reference to the army-backed ouster of Egypt's elected Islamist president last month.

The secular opposition is stepping up efforts to oust the transition government in the North African country. At the same time, security forces are struggling to fight off a spike in attacks by radical Islamist militants, whom the moderate Islamist Ennahda has condemned as terrorists.

The country, once considered a model among fledgling "Arab Spring" democracies, is facing its worst crisis since Tunisians toppled autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and set off a wave of uprisings across the region.

The opposition, angered by the assassination of two of its figures and emboldened by the backlash against deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, has been protesting daily.

Across the capital, around 10,000 opposition protesters rallied against the government. They vowed a mass march on Sunday and an even bigger rally on Wednesday to mark the death of politician Chokri Belaid, who was gunned down six months ago.

Ennahda party chief Rachid Ghannouchi joined the throngs of demonstrators at the pro-government rally and gave a defiant speech to wild cheers from the crowd.

"Tunisia is a candle whose revolution lit up the world but now they (the opposition) want to put it out by trying to set off a coup," Ghannouchi said.

"The counter-revolution will not succeed."

Kasbah Square was the site of major rallies in the days after Ben Ali was toppled in which demonstrators demanded a transitional Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution.

That assembly - which the opposition is demanding be dissolved - is eight months late delivering the draft but says it is only weeks away from finishing the job.

Tunisia is no Egypt. The Islamists are not as wildly unpopular as the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi were. And the economy is a little better in Tunisia than it is in the economic basket case of Egypt.

Still, the threat of extremists might tip the balance away from the government and into the hands of the military. If so, it will only prove that the more things change in the Middle East, the more they remain the same.