By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - The Islamist-led government of Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring popular uprisings, on Thursday criticized the Egyptian army's removal of elected president Mohamed Mursi as "a coup against legitimacy" and urged Cairo to guarantee his safety.
Mursi rose to power after autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a 2011 uprising inspired by the popular revolution against dictatorship in Tunisia a few weeks before. Moderate Islamists were subsequently elected to govern Tunisia.
"Military intervention is totally unacceptable and we call on Egypt to ensure that Mursi is physically protected," said President Moncef Marzouki. "We view what is happening in Egypt with concern - the arrests of journalists and politicians.".
Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party denounced also what it called a "coup against legitimacy" in Egypt. "Ennahda rejects what happened and believes legitimacy is represented by President Mursi and no one else," Ennahda said in a statement.
It said it feared that "this coup will fuel violence and extremism" and induce despair in the value of democracy.
Mursi was ousted after mass protests exceeding the size of those that toppled Mubarak. Critics said Mursi fell because his Muslim Brotherhood, despite a limited electoral mandate, focused on seizing total control of the state rather than tackling myriad problems of economic breakdown and poor governance.
Western leaders were unhappy about the undemocratic way in which Mursi was removed from office. But they had grown concerned about Mursi's authoritarian and sectarian drift, at odds with Egypt's political and social diversity, and they tempered their criticism of Mursi's overthrow.
At a joint news conference with Marzouki, visiting French President Francois Hollande declined to speak of a coup in Egypt, saying merely that "the democratic process has stopped and must return".
Mursi's downfall heartened Tunisia's secular opposition. Its biggest party, Nida Touns, congratulated "the victory of the Egyptian people" and called on Thursday for the creation of a "national salvation" government in Tunis composed of technocrats - resembling what is now planned in Egypt.
Tunisian secularists accuse Ennahda of incompetence in dealing with a severe economic downturn, including high unemployment, since the 2011 revolution, and of being soft on Islamist militant groups. Ennahda denies the charges.
The role of Islam has grown in Tunisian society and been enshrined in a new constitution since Ennahda's election in 2011. But religious-secular divisions are seen as less severe than in Egypt and Nida Touns' call for non-party government was unlikely to be heeded.
Last March, Ennahda responded to opposition pressure and street protests by appointing independent ministers to deflect accusations that it aimed - like Egypt's Brotherhood - to dominate all state institutions and stifle social freedoms.
Ennahda now co-governs with two secular parties.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)