The shockwaves of Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt are reverberating loudly in Tunis, where dueling between supporters of the leading Islamist party Ennahda and the secular opposition is aggravating a deeply polarized environment and provoking political unease at a critical moment in the country’s transition. As Tunisia’s nervous Islamists cautiously watch events unfold in Egypt, the threat to upsetting Tunisia’s democratic transition comes not from military interference, but rather through its perversion by brash and imprudent opportunists among Tunisia’s anti-Ennahda opposition. Hijacking popular resentment towards Tunisia’s own Islamists, Nidaa Tounes, the country’s largest secular opposition party, is seeking to harness the frenzy surrounding Morsi’s ouster in a reckless bid to unseat Ennahda in early elections.  

Nidaa Tounes—Ennadha’s presumed chief rival in upcoming elections—daringly called for the dissolution of the government and the ditching of the draft constitution. Borrowing rhetoric from Egypt’s opposition, Nidaa Tounes accused the Ennahda-led government of lacking “electoral legitimacy” at a press conference immediately following the military coup in Egypt and called on its opposition partners to urgently help it devise a roadmap to save the country from political crisis, beginning with new and immediate elections. With its secular allies in the Alliance for Tunisia and Popular Front coalitions, it promises to steer the country towards stability and rescue the economy under the stewardship of a National Salvation Congress. Yet one has to ask: Is Nidaa Tounes responding to the popular will of Tunisians, or is it simply attempting to dislodge its political opponents at a convenient moment of anxiety and insecurity? With little regard for the fragility of Tunisia’s democratic transition (the National Constituent Assembly is within a hair’s breadth of completing the draft constitution), Nidaa Tounes is placing a dangerous bet to score big against Ennahda at the polls, but is jeopardizing the very national stability they claim to guard in the process.

The timing of Nidaa Tounes’s call to dissolve government reveals its confidence that early elections will allow it to capitalize on Ennahda’s sagging popularity among ordinary Tunisians, who have grown frustrated and pessimistic about the country’s progress on important political and economic reforms. Capturing 40 percent of the seats in the interim assembly in the country’s first post-revolution elections, Ennahda has seen its esteem among voters steadily eroded since. Recent public opinion polling corroborates this. In a survey conducted by the Sigma Conseil Market Research Company in May 2013, data showed that more than 70 percent of Tunisians were dissatisfied with the Ennahda-led government. Compellingly, the poll results indicate that if elections were held immediately, Nidaa Tounes would come out ahead of Ennahda with a comfortable lead (of the 199 seats in the national assembly, survey results indicated Nidaa Tounes would capture 90, compared to just 68 for Ennahda). Instead of waiting to convince voters in elections slated for later this year that it should lead the transition, Nidaa Tounes has decided that now is the time to strike and is gambling big to propel it and its political allies to victory at the polls.

For its part, Ennahda has failed to develop a coherent economic agenda or vision for the country, and the timidity it has exhibited when it comes to confronting Salafi harassment of artists, journalists and educators raises serious questions regarding its credibility and commitment to protect freedom of expression. Beji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes founder and a former prime minister with an eye on Tunisia’s presidency, would lead voters to believe that Ennahda has replicated the Muslim Brotherhood’s majoritarian approach to politics. Deriding Ennahda’s Islamist-secularist coalition (known as the Troika) as “arrogant,” Essebsi accuses Ennahda of seeking to control all aspects of state—rhetoric similar to the opposition’s complaints about Brotherhood rule in Egypt. But the similarities between Ennahda and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are weak, and there is little evidence to suggest that Ennahda has taken anything but a consensus-based approach to governing among the country’s various political factions. The fact that Ennahda has pursued a largely pragmatic and moderate approach to governing should make observers skeptical of Nidaa Tounes’s message.

For starters, Ennahda has governed in a coalition alongside two secularist parties, Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties (Ettakatol in its French abbreviation) since elections in October 2011 when it failed to win it an outright majority—a stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s overwhelming electoral victory that allowed it to govern independent of coalition partners. Unlike Egypt, the powers of state in Tunisia are divided among the Troika’s leadership: Ennahda assumed the prime minister’s office and CPR and Ettakatol took the presidency and national assembly speakership, respectively. The resulting government represents a broad spectrum of moderate Islamists, Salafis, center-left secularists, and social democrats. On the critical issue of the draft constitution, Ennahda elected to leave the contentious issue of sharia out of the final version, counter to the desires of hard-liners and Salafi supporters. Unlike in the once Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, Tunisia’s government has responded proactively to popular unrest at times of national crisis. After the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February, arguably the greatest test to Tunisia’s post-revolution political durability, Ennahda demonstrated that it could share power with non-Islamists and appointed twelve technocrats in senior posts alongside its secular partners.

Tellingly, disagreement within Nidaa Tounes’s own opposition camp about whether to press for dissolving the government and the constitution affirms suspicions of the party’s shortsightedness. Leaders from Nidaa Tounes’s junior partner in its Alliance for Tunisia coalition have come out in opposition to the plan. Instead, they are calling for the completion of the transitional period and a vote on the draft constitution before scheduling elections, in direct contradiction to Nidaa Tounes. Aside from the obvious implications of beginning the painstaking work to draft another constitution, which the current assembly has spent over a year tediously negotiating, scrapping the constitution in favor of a new one will undoubtedly only prolong the political uncertainty and pessimism plaguing the country.

Nidaa Tounes and its allies would do well to recall that political uncertainty and pessimism accounts in part for its surging popularity. Tunisia’s struggling economy stands to take an enormous hit should the government be dissolved. At stake is a critical IMF loan worth $2billion intended to foster economic growth, a weak but vital tourism industry, and a host of other important factors, such as investor and consumer confidence and unemployment.

It is still unclear whether Nidaa Tounes’s calls will succeed in toppling the government. In response to pro-Morsi demonstrations led by Ennahda supporters, secular opponents have called for mass protest rallies on Tunisia’s July 25 National Day demanding a caretaker government to replace the Troika and have similarly launched a Tunisian version of the Tamarod (rebellion) campaign, which organizers claim has already solicited more than 250,000 signatures for a petition calling for the dissolution of the Ennahda-led government. Most worrisome are the hints of violence that underscore the tension; the leader of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution in Tunisia, a pro-Ennahda organization, warned Tunisians that the group would use violence if necessary to support the party’s legitimacy to govern. There is reason to worry about such violence manifesting; Ennahda’s caucus leader in the National Constituent Assembly, Sahbi Atig, shocked Tunisians when he told a group of pro-Morsi demonstrators in Tunis, “To those who trampled legitimacy, if you think of trampling legitimacy, it will trample you, whoever kills the will of the people will be killed in the streets of Tunisia.”

Recent events in Egypt demonstrate that anti-Islamist fury and anxiety can be a powerful tool for the voices of opposition. Yet, the path forward for Tunisia is riddled with unanswered questions regardless of who is in power, and a number of contentious political battles to negotiate an elections and political isolation law still lie ahead. Nidaa Tounes should ask itself if forcing premature elections is worth throwing Tunisia deeper into political uncertainty by leaving it without a government at such a crucial moment in its transition, and whether Tunisians will be satisfied with what takes its place. 

Brian Braun is the North Africa research intern with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.