By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Secular opponents of Tunisia's Islamist-led government are hoping to emulate their counterparts in Egypt, who have acclaimed an army coup against Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.
In 2011, Tunisians set the pace, rising up against their veteran leader and inspiring Egyptians to turf out their own, in popular revolts that touched off others across the Arab world.
Now Mursi's July 3 overthrow has energized Tunisian secular opposition groups who see a chance to topple their own freely elected Islamist-led government - but Tunisia's army has shown no sign it is ready to intervene as the Egyptian military did.
Young Tunisian activists have launched their version of Egypt's Tamarud protest movement, saying they have collected 200,000 signatures for a petition against Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party similar to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
They have called for mass protest rallies on July 25, Tunisia's national day, demanding a caretaker government that would curb the Islamists and fix the faltering economy.
One day after Mursi's ouster, Nida Touns, the main secular opposition, congratulated Egyptians on their "victory" and called for a national salvation government in Tunisia.
Its leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister, accused Islamists of seeking to control all aspects of the state and criticizing their economic and political management.
Nida Touns and several other opposition parties met on Tuesday to try to forge a common front.
"Tunisia does not seem immune to what happened in Egypt," said political analyst Youssef Ouaslati. "The (Muslim) Brothers in Tunisia may face a similar fate, especially in light of an unprecedented rapprochement between divergent political currents in the opposition to remove Islamists from power."
But even if the opposition unites and big crowds turn out on July 25, the government, which includes two secular parties, does not appear to be in imminent danger of collapse, given the reticence of Tunisia's military to meddle in politics.
In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the army refused to suppress the mostly peaceful demonstrations that ended President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's secular 23-year rule in January 2011.
But the Tunisian army stayed out of a political transition that involved elections won by Ennahda, which then shared power with some of its secular rivals. The army chief stepped down last month and his replacement was sworn in this week.
By contrast, Egypt's powerful military, which has supplied all the modern republic's presidents, took over from Mubarak, only turning over power a year ago when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mursi became the country's first freely elected leader.
Tunisia's secular president, Moncef Marzouki, condemned Mursi's overthrow, angering the interim authorities in Cairo.
The coalition government has already survived a major test this year when the February 6 assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid sparked the worst unrest since Ben Ali's fall.
Ennahda eventually defused popular anger by forming a new government that included a large number of independents.
The Islamist party's founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, spent 22 years in exile in Britain where he said he saw how different religions could operate in a pluralist political system.
His counterparts in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, were suppressed and often jailed under Mubarak.
Nevertheless, despite Ennahda's relative pragmatism and moderation, it has a tough task in governing a divided country where social tensions and economic hardship have grown - as have hardline Salafi Islamist groups feared by the opposition.
"This meeting is a turning point," Ouaslati, the analyst, said of this week's gathering of opposition parties, arguing that it could help mobilize Tunisians against the Islamist-led government and focus "popular anger against rising prices, unemployment and the spread of religious extremism".
Ahmed Sadik, a leader in Belaid's leftist Popular Front, threatened street action if opposition calls for a national salvation government went unheeded.
"If our opponents insist on ignoring our demand, we will go for it by imposing the will of popular pressure .. We are not afraid to go to the streets or even to be killed," Sadik said.
"There is an effect between Egypt and Tunisia. Here too the legitimacy of the Islamists is completely finished," he said.
Political analyst Sofian Ben Farhat said the Muslim Brotherhood's defeat in Egypt would reverberate elsewhere. "This is the fall of political Islam in Arab Spring countries after a catastrophic failure. Tunisia may be next," he said.
Ennahda and its coalition partners warned on Wednesday against the consequences of pushing Tunisia towards the unknown and urged people to draw the lesson of what happened in Egypt.
They can draw comfort from Western leaders who still see Tunisia as a model for democratic transition in the region.
French President Francois Hollande, visiting Tunis a week ago, said his hosts were "heading in the right direction", drawing a positive contrast with Libya, Egypt and Syria:
"In Libya the transition has been tainted by violence; in Egypt the transition was stopped after the removal of the elected president; and in Syria, desire for change led to war."
(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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