Risky Business: Kais Saied’s Regional Alliances

Three weeks after President Kais Saied used Article 80 of the constitution to impose what can be called a ‘state of exceptionalism,’ Tunisians are waiting for a map that will chart an exit ramp off a road fraught with economic, political, social, and health crises. Their expectations are shared by the Biden Administration, which dispatched a high-level delegation to politely implore the president to appoint a prime minister and reinstate the parliament. In the meeting on August 14, Saied said that what he did was consistent with the Tunisian constitution and responds to the popular will to address ongoing crises and deal with corruption and bribery. He added that “[T]here is no cause for concern about the values ​​of freedom, justice and democracy that Tunisia shares with American society.”

In the short run, a measure of tension-filled ambiguity underscores Saied’s role as the ultimate decision maker, notwithstanding his rhetoric that he reflects the desires of the Tunisian people. But much sooner than later, he will have to confront a basic task that all populists face: how to move from disdaining to embracing politics. The gathering judicial campaign to pursue charges of corruption directed at politicians and the business class—much of which could unfold through special military courts—suggests that Saied wants to be a leader who telegraphs contempt for politics and a politician who also practices the mundane art of power.

Still, much remains to be done. To complete this metamorphosis, he must go beyond forging domestic alliances through some kind of viable, institutional arena he is yet to identify. Saied must also advance a regional diplomacy that will enhance his authority on the home front. Because Tunisia’s internal politics have become intertwined with its regional relations (and its interactions with the Gulf Arab countries in particular), the Tunisian president will probably look to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for support, and other Arab states such as Egypt, even as he defends the principle of Tunisian national sovereignty. While this regional policy is still being charted, its broad outlines are slowly emerging in ways that point to both risks and opportunities for the president—not to mention for the various outside players seeking to shape the course of events in Tunisia.

Tunis’s Entwining Domestic and Regional Relations

The linking of Tunisia’s domestic and foreign relations goes back at least to the hot summer of August 2013. In the wake of the July 3, 2013 coup in Egypt and rising concerns about a similar coup in Tunisia, the United States and France, with Algeria’s backing, pressured Rachid Ghannouchi, president of the Islamist Ennahda Party, and Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the secularly oriented Nidaa Tounes Party (and, later, Tunisian president), to reconcile. Their efforts then set the stage for a “National Dialogue” without which Tunisia’s transition would have probably collapsed. Their meeting, and the subsequent writing of a new constitution that provided the outlines of a power-sharing system channeled through a division of power between president and parliament, had the international community’s blessing. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the leaders of the National Dialogue in 2015 provided an additional impetus for Tunisia’s leaders to sustain the kind of political accommodation that had eluded the wider Arab world. The 2016 Carthage Agreement, which spelled out terms of the consensus-based system between President Essebsi and Ennahda, suggested that Tunisia was emerging—if fitfully—as an island of democracy in a sea of autocracies.

The 2016 Carthage Agreement, which spelled out terms of the consensus-based system between President Essebsi and Ennahda, suggested that Tunisia was emerging—if fitfully—as an island of democracy in a sea of autocracies. 

Indeed, Tunisia became host to a wide range of official and nongovernmental democracy assistance organizations hailing from western democracies. The basing of US Agency for International Development’s North Africa Bureau in Tunis, as well as the regional hub of the semi-official United States Institute of Peace, highlighted a partnership between Tunisia and the United States that sharply contrasted with Washington’s wider ties to Arab autocracies. The leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt began to view Tunisia as a threat not only because it was a democracy but principally because its governing coalition included Ennahda. From the vantage point of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo, the Ennahda Party was little more than an outpost of the Muslim Brotherhood and, worse, an ally of radical jihadist forces throughout the Maghreb. They thus saw Tunisia’s experiment in power sharing as a Trojan horse of Islamist expansionism that had to be corralled or perhaps stopped dead in its tracks.

The fact that Essebsi presided over this power-sharing arrangement shocked many Gulf leaders. Following the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections, they had expected Essebsi to spurn Ennahda. Some reports even suggested that UAE leaders encouraged Essebsi to pursue an “Egyptian model” coup in 2015, and once again in June 2018. Whether they in fact pushed for such drastic moves remains unclear. But it certainly has been the case over the last three years that the UAE tried to influence events in Tunisia by signaling its support for Ennahda’s chief rivals, such as Abir Moussi and her Free Destourian Party, and (along with Saudi Arabia) by using state linked media outlets to vilify Ghannouchi, thus fanning the flames of internal conflict over the very place of the movement in Tunisia’s divided political landscape.

This campaign heated up in tandem with the escalating civil war in Libya. The UAE’s support for the assault by the forces of Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar on Libya’s government, which Emirati leaders viewed as merely an outpost of a wider Islamist project supported by Qatar and Turkey, became increasingly entangled in Tunisia’s politics in 2020. Ghannouchi contributed to this development by taking several steps that badly misfired. These included calling the head of Libya’s government following its successful bid—backed by Turkish drones—to halt Haftar’s campaign. But it was Ghannouchi’s January 2020 visit to Ankara, where he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that boomeranged with dramatic effect. The visit intensified the efforts of Ghannouchi’s rivals to pass a no-confidence vote and thus force him to resign from his position as parliament speaker. Moreover, it provoked Kais Saied, who sharply assailed Ghannouchi for interfering in security matters that the president claimed were the prerogative of the executive.

Ghannouchi’s January 2020 visit to Turkey provoked Kais Saied, who sharply assailed the parliament speaker for interfering in security matters that the president claimed were the prerogative of the executive.

The Saied-Ghannouchi relationship deteriorated in early 2021 when then Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, backed by Ennahda, nominated 11 new ministers, a move that the president blocked by refusing to swear in the nominees. This executive-parliamentary standoff came to a head on July 25, when Saied dismissed the government. By that day, the president and former speaker of parliament were barely on speaking terms.

What Role for Outside Forces?

Ghannouchi did not help matters when he accused the UAE of orchestrating Saied’s power grab. Still, the precise role of outside forces remains unclear. Did they play a part in a coup de president? What role will the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey play in shaping whatever plan Saied envisions for restructuring the political system, or for addressing Tunisia’s dire economic crisis?

Regarding the coup, one report from Middle East Eye suggests that the UAE and Egypt helped to carry out Saied’s move to shutter the parliament and force Mechichi to resign. The article even reports that Mechichi was beaten up by Egyptian security forces, a claim that he has denied. Given their shared antipathy toward Mechichi’s government and Ennahda (and its longtime leader), it is very likely that Saied informed the leaders of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia of his impending move.

The role of Egypt is of particular interest: Saied paid an official visit to Cairo in April 2021, during which he and President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi emphasized their common strategic view on Libya and Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia over its dam on the Nile. Their cordial talks generated much controversy in Tunisia and also sparked concerns in Ennahda about possible cooperation between the Egyptian and Tunisian security forces. Moreover, in the days leading up to the July 25 coup, social media platforms in the Gulf were full of chatter about Tunis—thus, at the very least, signaling that the UAE and Saudi Arabia had Saied’s back. Indeed, following the coup, the leaders of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia affirmed support for Saied, while Gulf media outlets celebrated his move as a defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood. Saied himself has openly praised the support he has received from “brotherly and friendly” countries. His remarks suggest that he intends to solidify and even extend partnerships with Arab strongmen who are at the forefront of opposing democracy in the region—not to mention any notion of them sharing power with Islamist parties.

Opportunities and Risks

For Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Tunis, these partnerships could make political and strategic sense. They could enhance the regional clout of the leaders of all four countries in ways that could strengthen their hold on power at home. For Saied in particular, these relationships could compensate for his lack of any clear institutional allies, save perhaps the military and internal security forces. But Saied cannot ultimately rely on institutions that have very little experience in the political arena and whose loyalty will probably be conditioned on his ability to forge a viable political strategy that skirts the slippery slope of state repression and autocracy. Indeed, as one analyst has noted, the longer it takes for Saied to define an effective political and economic roadmap, the greater the chance he will lose political capital and popular support.

The possibility that his followers will lose patience must also concern Saied’s regional autocratic friends. If he stumbles and/or faces mounting protests that provoke a bloody crackdown, Saied will not look like a competent democrat or autocrat, but rather like a political novice who lacks the means or vision to move from populist hero to an effective leader. Such a scenario might rebound to the favor of Turkey and Qatar, that are not only regional rivals of Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia but also supporters of the very power-sharing system that Saied has assaulted. Ankara has already assailed Saied’s actions, while Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani issued a statement calling for an inclusive national dialogue. That Qatar has done so at the very moment that it is trying to set the stage for its first municipal elections offers an additional impetus for its leaders to encourage Saied to step away from the brink of either autocracy and/or escalating internal conflict.

But thus far, the signals from Saied and his most ardent supporters are not encouraging. Insisting that there is “no turning back,” he has defiantly rejected any national dialogue with what he calls “cancer cells,” which is shorthand for the political class he blames for the scourge of corruption he has promised to root out (i.e., Ennahda and other Islamist parties). Not a few secularly oriented leaders have signaled their support for banishing Ennahda from the political arena. Such sentiments have a wider echo in the realm of social media, which includes a semi-official Kais Saied web page that includes demonizing caricatures of Ghannouchi that would be familiar to any student of anti-Semitism. Calls for “cleansing” the system of Islamists have in fact generated warnings from liberal politicians and opinion makers that the widening net of repression, and in particular the call for revenge1 against Islamists, could ultimately undermine any effort by Saied to push for a workable reform of the constitution and electoral system that would maintain some semblance of democracy and inclusion. These admonitions underscore the very real possibility that Saied’s efforts could provoke internal strife, the likes of which would hardly emphasize Tunisia’s role as a reliable regional player.

Tunisia’s economic situation provides a further challenge for which Saied seems unprepared. Indeed, he is squeezed between the populist promises he has made to fight corruption and defend Tunisia’s struggling citizens and the pressure from the International Monetary Fund to make good on Tunis’s previous commitment to undertake market reforms in return for billions of dollars in loans. Without them, Tunisia cannot raise the foreign currency to finance its budget deficit, make payments on its $40 billion external debt, or pay its huge public sector bill—a frightful prospect given the ongoing struggle to revive the public health sector. It is noteworthy that with the military’s support, this sector succeeded in administering 500,000 COVID-19 vaccinations in one day; nevertheless, this victory, which was made possible in part by donations from Gulf states, could be short-lived if Saied and his advisors avoid making difficult economic choices.

Saied is squeezed between the populist promises he has made to fight corruption and defend Tunisia’s struggling citizens and the pressure from the International Monetary Fund to make good on Tunis’s previous commitments.

There is some murmuring in Tunis about the possibility of defaulting on its foreign loans. The seismic economic shocks such a drastic move would generate might be cushioned by a massive inflow of Gulf loans or donations to Tunis, a prospect that could be on the horizon but is far from guaranteed. Yet by itself, such support would not amount to a viable economic policy. Instead, it could signal that Saied, a leader who has promised to restore the people’s dignity and defend national sovereignty, is turning Tunisia into little more than a vassal state of Arab oil autocracies. As Hamma Hammami, leader of the Tunisian Workers’ Party put it, “[M]edia in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are speaking about Tunisia as if it’s their own.”

A Precarious Moment

Given his previous and surely dangerous pledge to repudiate the political system he inherited when he became president in 2019, Saied has few if any good options. He has already rejected the Biden Administration’s efforts to nudge him toward announcing a political roadmap. Moreover, given the White House’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan, he has good reason to conclude that he can ignore Washington. He could throw in his hat with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, but that scenario carries risks for him and his Gulf partners. To complicate matters, Saied must still contend with the very wobbly effort in Libya to install a new interim government. The UAE, among other Gulf states including Qatar, is backing the Libyan effort. But Tunisia, which proudly hosted some of the talks that set the stage for Libya’s government, is now engulfed in a domestic struggle which will limit its ability to shape events next door. If this is a precarious moment for all the key parties, Saied must bear at least some of the responsibility for assuming the mantle of a hero, one whose charismatic populism provides a useful tool for rallying discontent but which offers little guidance for how to create a sustainable vision that will move his country forward.

1 Source is in French.