Tunisia Struggles to Project Foreign Policy Independence

One key achievement of Tunisia’s leaders is that they have managed to put diplomatic and strategic distance between their country’s rickety transition to democracy and the Arab world’s regional power struggles. This success stems partly from the uneasy realization that apart from the possible loss of economic support, domestic peace-making in Tunisia would suffer if inter-Arab disputes, such as the cold war between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia against Qatar, seeped into Tunisia’s politics.

Tunisia’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections could erode this position. Indeed, because all the key parties fear that their rivals are getting unfair or illegal advantages from outside actors, the temptation to mobilize voters and discredit opponents by lobbing allegations of external interference could grow. Rather than go down this polarizing road, Tunisia’s leaders could help steady the domestic political waters by reaffirming support for a policy of nonalignment. This would not require diplomatic complacency; instead, the presidential candidates could take the high road by championing a policy of constructive Arab solidarity dedicated to resolving regional disputes. Arab leaders could help Tunisia by affirming their respect for its sovereignty and the democratic path that the Tunisian people have chosen.

Gulf Arab States and the Emerging Democracy: 2011-2015

Since the events of 2011 in the Arab world, every elected government has wrestled with the temptation to reinforce its domestic position by courting different if not competing regional powers. Tunisia’s initial “Troika” government, headed by the Islamist Ennahda Party, led the way by pursuing a closer relationship with Qatar, thus repudiating the warm relations between Tunisia and the UAE that had prevailed under former President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali. But this development did not give Qatar the ideological clout that many of Ennahda’s rivals feared. Indeed, any idea that Doha could push President Moncef Marzouki’s government toward Islamism was belied by the vigorous arm-twisting that the United States, France, and Algeria used in the lead-up to the 2014 National Dialogue.

Tunisia’s initial “Troika” government, headed by the Islamist Ennahda Party, led the way by pursuing a closer relationship with Qatar, thus repudiating the warm relations between Tunisia and the UAE that had prevailed under former President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali.

In fact, the political agreement that issued from that dialogue effectively realigned Tunisia’s politics by facilitating the return of ancien regime leaders (such as the late President Beji Caid Essebsi, who passed away in July 2019) to the political arena. Alarmed that the UAE might try to reestablish its previously close relationship with Tunisia, in anticipation of the 2015 presidential vote and his own bid for the presidency, Marzouki warned that “outside powers” were interfering in the elections.

Marzouki offered no evidence to support this charge. Still, the alacrity with which secularly oriented politicians accused Qatar of backing Ennahda suggested that his concerns about interference from the Emirates (and Saudi Arabia) was not unreasonable. In an apparent bid to draw attention to such concerns, in May 2015 Marzouki gave a speech at the Doha Forum and praised Qatar for its support of Tunisia’s revolution. But the speech only further polarized the debate over Gulf Arab influence. Indeed, President Essebsi’s allies seemed to see Marzouki’s words as part of a campaign whose purpose was not to defend democracy, but rather to protect Qatar, which in 2015 remained the second largest direct foreign investor in Tunisia’s economy (with France in first place).

Soufian Ben Farhat, a journalist who had close connections to Essebsi, went on Nessma TV and accused “criminal Qatar” of helping to destroy Syria and Libya and partition Iraq. He then assailed Marzouki, declaring that, “We want to know how much [money] it took for Marzouki to make these … statements. A dictatorship for the sake of the nation is preferable to infiltration in the name of democracy and human rights.” But beyond this incendiary claim, Farhat tossed a much larger verbal bomb: during the early weeks of his presidency, he asserted, Emirati officials had offered Essebsi financial support on the condition that he would repeat the “Egyptian scenario.”

Quite apart from the veracity of this extraordinary claim, it is hard to discern what Farhat was trying to achieve by reporting that the UAE had pressed Essebsi to emulate the coup d’etat that had ended Egypt’s short-lived democratic experiment. But whatever his intentions, Farhat’s remarks put the president on the spot. After all, Essebsi’s domestic legitimacy rested in part on sustaining his image as a responsible national leader who could rise above the political fray at home and abroad. His efforts to assume this role had already suffered a major hit during the November/December 2014 presidential campaign, when reports that he had received two luxury armored cars from the UAE reinforced the hopes of his most ardent secular allies—and the fears of his Islamist opponents—that his presidency would presage a realignment of Tunisia toward the Emirates and its anti-Islamist allies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.

Essebsi’s domestic legitimacy rested in part on sustaining his image as a responsible national leader who could rise above the political fray at home and abroad.

However, Essebsi did not play the “UAE card” once he took office. Instead, he formed a power-sharing government that gave Ennahda a limited yet not insignificant place in the cabinet. Perturbed, the UAE reduced its already low levels of economic support to Tunisia, a decision clearly signaled by the barely perceptible role it played in the October 2016 “Tunisia 2020” international investment conference. These actions had the unintended effect of helping him to sustain his credentials as a national leader who spoke for Tunisian interests rather than those of any Gulf Arab state. The fact that Qatar remained the largest Arab investor in Tunisia despite mounting pressures from Arab Gulf states demonstrated that Essebsi could walk a domestic and diplomatic tightrope with considerable skill.

Navigating the Arab World’s Cold Wars: 2017-2019

The emergence in June 2017 of a regional cold war pitting the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Qatar complicated Essebsi’s balancing act. Indeed, their unprecedented decision to impose an economic embargo on Doha signaled that quite apart from the humanitarian disaster that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were visiting upon Yemen, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would not hesitate to use enormous economic and diplomatic pressure to reign in other Arab states that appeared insufficiently supportive of them.

The response of Tunisian leaders to these events underscored the conflicting internal pressures created by the new Gulf crisis. Embracing neutrality, Foreign Minister Khemaies al-Jhinaoui asserted that because “Tunisia stands at the same distance from all parties in the conflict,” it wanted a solution acceptable to all the protagonists. Eager to deflect any implication that their party backed Doha, Ennahda leaders echoed Jhinaoui. Thus, former prime minister Ali Laarayedh––a leader in Ennahda–– insisted in an interview with Al-Monitor that his party supported “every diplomatic effort to contain the crisis through dialogue.” Moreover, in strikingly direct terms, he warned that the “widening dispute” in the Gulf “would only disrupt national stability and security.”

By contrast, Ennahda’s rivals were less circumspect. Popular Front Member of Parliament Ayman al-Alawi avowed—rather unconvincingly—that while his party endorsed Ennahda’s call for nonalignment, the Islamist-oriented Ennahda is trying to cover for Qatar’s role in terrorism, because Tunisian-Qatari military and security cooperation relations. This blatant effort to leverage the Gulf crisis underscored the Popular Front’s political irrelevancy. Standing outside the government, its leaders felt free to score points against Ennahda by assailing Qatar. The more nuanced position of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes (Essebsi’s party) showed that their leaders grasped the risks that the Gulf crisis posed. These perils extended beyond the need to maintain political stability in the governing coalition. As economic analyst Moaz al-Joudi noted, Tunisia’s decision to avoid siding with any one camp reflected its resolve to defend its “fragile economy” by retaining economic ties not merely with Qatar—which had provided $1 billion in loans  that year—but also with Saudi Arabian businesses, which had invested widely in Tunisia.

Essebsi’s domestic legitimacy rested in part on sustaining his image as a responsible national leader who could rise above the political fray at home and abroad.

Similar economic and political concerns also impelled Tunisian leaders to forge a policy of neutrality regarding the internal conflict in Libya. This task was made doubly difficult by the support the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey provided to the two rival factions in Libya, with Doha and Ankara backing the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and Abu Dhabi supporting the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In a bid to avoid getting dragged into a vortex of intersecting forces, Essebsi had invited Haftar to meet with him. This invitation came in the context of his efforts to persuade Haftar to participate in talks with other Libyan factions, mediated by Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. But Haftar not only reportedly refused to meet with Essebsi, but he accused Tunisia of backing the Muslim Brotherhood and aligning with the GNA. The LNA’s subsequent assault on Tripoli—which as Tunisia’s foreign minister noted, threatened to send thousands of new refugees across the border into Tunisia—widened the already large fissure between the UAE and Essebsi’s government. Struggling to sustain Tunisia’s thankless policy of neutrality, in May 2019 Tunisian leaders from across the political spectrum demanded that all outside forces and parties cease arming their respective allies in Libya.

“Mr. Bone Saw Is Not Welcome”

All of these efforts to navigate the Arab world’s new cold wars have been complicated by the positive fact that Tunisia’s emerging democracy boasts vibrant civil society groups that have opposed the efforts of the UAE and Saudi Arabia to project their influence onto the wider Arab world. This kind of activism proved something of a shock to the UAE in 2017 when the Emirates imposed a full ban on Tunisian women flying there. The move was condemned by several political parties including Nidaa Tounes, women’s rights activists, and NGOs such as Aswat Nissa, which labeled the UAE’s move an “insult to Tunisia.” In response, President Essebsi declared that the rights of Tunisian women could not be violated “whatever the justification.” Underscoring its frustration, the Tunisian government banned all Emirates Airlines flights to and from Tunisia. Although the dispute was resolved, it highlighted the complex nexus between Tunisia’s democracy and its relations with Gulf autocracies.

That nexus became even more fraught following the October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who worked as a columnist for The Washington Post. By that time, Nidaa Tounes had been weakened by internal divisions, a dynamic that helped set the stage for the December 2018 split between Essebsi and Ennahda. These events may have given Essebsi an impetus to maintain ties with Riyadh, although from the start of his presidency he had pushed for closer relations. The first ever joint aerial drills conducted by the Tunisian and Saudi Arabian air forces—undertaken just days before Khashoggi’s murder—signaled Tunisia’s efforts to balance Qatar’s influence by expanding diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia. (Indeed, following his December 13, 2018 visit to Riyadh, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced that the kingdom had pledged some $830 million to Tunisia.) Underscoring these warming relations, in late November of that year, Essebsi not only sincerely welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to Tunis, but he bestowed upon him the “Grand Cordon of the Republic,” a gesture that MbS acknowledged when he stated that Essebsi was like “a father” to him.

The first ever joint aerial drills conducted by the Tunisian and Saudi Arabian air forces—undertaken just days before Khashoggi’s murder—signaled Tunisia’s efforts to balance Qatar’s influence by expanding diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia.

This stark version of realpolitik did not sit well with Tunisia’s civil society. Indeed, days before MbS’s state visit, some 12 NGOs took to the streets. The Journalists Syndicate made a splash by displaying a huge banner emblazoned with the image of MbS holding a chain saw under the words: “No to the Desecration of the Land of Revolutionary Tunisia.” Buttressing the protesters’ chants of “Mr. Bone Saw Is Not Welcome,” the Tunisian Bar Association filed a motion in an effort to block MbS’s visit.

Managing Domestic Struggles over Foreign Policy

It is difficult to know what to make of the internal battles provoked by MbS’s visit, particularly given the very open tensions at that point between Essebsi and Prime Minister Chahed, who some Nidaa Tounes officials argued had cozied up to Ennahda. But one thing is certain: with the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, the temptation to lob accusations of foreign interference could grow. Such a possibility was raised when Nabil Karoui, the co-owner of Nessma TV (and a prominent businessman with close ties to financial interests in both France and the Arab Gulf), declared his candidacy for the presidency. This move provoked opposition across the spectrum but especially from Ennahda, which feared that foreign money might be pouring into the pockets of its secular rivals. Essebsi’s decision not to veto an amendment of the electoral law that would have banned candidates with foreign funding from running in this and any future elections only heightened concerns about outside interference, but also communicated the readiness of opposition leaders to instrumentalize legal codes to protect their political interests.

The good news is that thus far, none of the many presidential candidates have gone down the risky path of wielding the “foreign meddling” accusation against rivals.

The good news is that thus far, none of the many presidential candidates have gone down the risky path of wielding the “foreign meddling” accusation against rivals. This may change as the race heats up. Ennahda’s candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, is a moderate who favors consensus and will very likely avoid politicizing foreign policy questions. Marzouki—given his continued and open hostility to the UAE and its “counter revolutionary” foreign policy—may take a very different position. Still, as Tunisia’s recent history shows, adhering to nonalignment not only offers the best path to reducing political tensions at home, but it also ensures that Tunisia will secure the widest mix of diplomatic and economic relations with Arab states possible. As Tunisia watches continued struggles for democratic change in Algeria and Sudan, its leaders will have to balance their hopes for democracy and human rights with the pragmatic exigencies of an independent foreign policy that protects Tunisia’s basic interests.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here

This is the second of two analysis papers on Tunisia following a visit by Dr. Brumberg to the country. The first, published by Arab Center Washington DC on August 2, 2019, looked at domestic politics and potential developments after the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Source is in Arabic.
Source is in Arabic.