Two governments did bold, brave things last week. One of them quit and called a new election even though it had a viable majority in parliament. The other arrested the leaders of a neo-fascist party on charges of heading a criminal gang. And you can’t help wondering if things would have turned out a lot better if a couple of other governments had had the courage to do the same thing.
Last Saturday, the Tunisian government that has been in power since the country’s first free election in 2011 announced that it would resign. Ennahda, the leading party in the ruling coalition, had not tried to impose its Islamic values on the whole population, and it had brought non-Islamic parties into the coalition, but the situation in the country was starting to feel like Egypt. So Ennahda quit.
Like any post-revolutionary government, Ennahda faced a huge economic challenge, and its inevitable failure to create enough jobs to meet the expectations of the young had eaten into its popular support. But what really brought it into a confrontation with the secular majority of the population was two assassinations of high-profile opposition leaders.
Nobody thinks that Ennahda was involved in the killings of Chokri Belaid last February and Mohammed Brahmi in May (both with the same pistol). At worst, people think that the government was not severe enough in cracking down on the Salafists, Islamist radicals who are widely suspected of responsibility for the murders.
With many of its former voters suffering from the dire state of the economy, Ennahda will probably not win the next election (which is to be organised by a caretaker government). But Tunisia will still be a democracy, Ennahda will still be a legal party, and there will not be thousands killed by the army in the streets. Unlike Egypt.
You can find some excuses for why Egypt stumbled back into a military dictatorship last July. The Muslim Brotherhood overplayed its hand and made secular Egyptians feel that they were under attack. The army had been running the country for decades, and wanted to protect its many privileges. But if President Mohammed Morsi had had the wisdom to do what Ennahda has done, even at the last moment, Egypt would still be a democracy today.
And now to Greece, where the ruling coalition of centre-right and left-wing parties has taken decisive action against Europe’s most violent political movement, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn Party, over the past two weeks. The sweep culminated in an anti-terrorism operation early last Saturday morning in which police stormed the homes of party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and five other Golden Dawn members of parliament.
Only three years ago Golden Dawn was a tiny fringe party that ranted about “subhuman foreigners” stealing Greek jobs and polluting the Greek gene pool, and got less than 1 percent of the vote in the 2010 election. Then came the debt crisis that has plunged Greece into poverty – and in last year’s election it got 7 percent of the vote.
Waving Greek flags and the party’s logo (which looks quite like a swastika), Golden Dawn’s bully-boys took over the streets, attacking immigrants, gays and leftists. It had the support of some senior police officers, and its members were arming themselves for some final confrontation. But Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government moved first.
Golden Dawn’s members openly admire Adolf Hitler, but the only reason they even know his name is that the German state failed to take similar action against his National Socialist (Nazi) party in the last years before Hitler took power in 1933.
Like Golden Dawn, the Nazis’ share of the national vote jumped sevenfold after the onset of the economic crisis in 1929. but they were still a small minority in Germany, and their violence against their opponents and the Jews gave the state ample reason to act against them.
It didn’t, and as Germany’s economic situation worsened the Nazis’ support grew further. In the 1933 election they got one-third of the vote, and Hitler was appointed Chancellor. That was the end of German democracy and much else besides.
Greece is not a great power, so what happens there matters much less, but without this prompt action it could have ended up the same way. It’s a lot easier to be wise after the fact, but it is the job of politicians to be wise before the fact. Some pass the test; others do not.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.