The regional ramifications of Tunisia's political crisis
There has been much debate about whether a “coup” took place in Tunisia on 25 July.
Regardless of what word most appropriately or accurately describes what occurred, President Kais Saied now possesses power on par with former Tunisian autocrat Ben Ali.
It is still too early to know what this autogolpe will mean for Tunisia long-term, though there are legitimate questions about the country possibly returning to dictatorship.
Nonetheless, other North African countries have much at stake in terms of the outcome of this political crisis, with regional states paying close attention.
In the now frozen parliament, the dominant party was Ennahda, a Tunisian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The moderate Islamist group has maintained close ties to Qatar and Turkey.
"Regardless of what word most appropriately or accurately describes what occurred, President Kais Saied now possesses power on par with former Tunisian autocrat Ben Ali"
Saied, whose presidency began in 2019, was moving Tunis into greater alignment with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This division between the parliament and president contributed to a critical balance in Tunisia’s foreign policy.
Yet this equilibrium did not start with Saied. For Tunisia, maintaining a balanced position in the Gulf has long been important to the North African country, which has sought to deepen trade and investment ties with all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
Tunisia has opposed any scenario in which Tunis must “pick sides” in Gulf rivalries. Underscored by Tunisia’s response to the 2017-2021 blockade of Qatar and the Libyan civil war, the leadership in Tunis had gone to great pains to maintain neutrality in regional conflicts and disputes. For many decades, Tunis’ relations with Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh have all been important to the Tunisian leadership of the day.
But Saied’s power grab, which many in the Arab region interpreted as a move against the Muslim Brotherhood, has led to some experts believing that Tunis may move away from this generally neutral foreign policy.
Until the 25 July autogolpe, Tunisia was somewhat of a “grey area regarding key issues such as the Gulf rift and the Turkey-Egypt/Gulf standoff in Libya, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean,” as Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab.
“The tilt of power towards the President may create a different perception around Tunisia and cause a different Tunisian strategic course of action in the region.”
There is good reason to believe that Saied will continue bringing Tunisia into greater alignment with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo.
Although it is doubtful that the Emiratis or Saudis would put nearly as much money into Tunisia as they did into Egypt following the coup of July 2013, it is safe to bet that if Saied continues pushing anti-Ennahda narratives and cracks down on the Muslim Brotherhood-linked party, support from the UAE in various forms, especially media, will keep coming to Saied.
The main talking point from pro-government commentators in the UAE and Saudi Arabia is that Saied “saved” Tunisia from political Islam.
Libya will likely be the Arab country feeling the most heat from Tunisia’s crisis. It cannot be stressed enough how important the resolution of Tunisia’s political crisis is for preventing the political process in Libya from falling apart and spiralling back into violence.
Ever since the Arab Spring, Libya’s democratic development and security have been deeply intertwined with Tunisia’s own post-2011 democratic experiment, and it will remain so moving forward.
“Tunisia, despite all the imperfections of its political system, has always represented a sort of role model of peaceful democratic transition,” Ludovico Carlino, a principal analyst at London-based IHS Markit’s Country Risk and Forecasting team, told The New Arab.
“If this experiment will fail completely, it might have a negative impact on the perception of the Libyans that democratic elections can produce a functional government able to address people’s needs, and this is crucial as Libya is attempting with extreme difficulties to be ready for the December 2021 general elections.”
The impact of Saied’s autogolpe has already played out in polarising ways in Libya. “Politicians in the west, like Khaled Mishri, the head of the High State Council, close to the Muslim Brotherhood, immediately rejected Saied’s move describing it as a coup against elected bodies and ‘the disruption of democratic paths’, echoing the statements of Ennahda leader Ghannouchi,” explained Carlino.
“On the other side Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the LNA who tried to overthrow the GNA in Tripoli in 2019 welcomed the move describing it as an ‘intifada against the Muslim Brotherhood,’ and praised it as another step aimed at ‘eliminating the most important obstacle in the way of country’s development.’”
Some experts contend that Saied’s power grab could enable the Emiratis and their allies to take advantage and impact the situation on the ground across the border in Libya, especially if the violence re-escalates.
“[Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Riyadh] are now looking at Tripoli from both the East (via Haftar) and West via Tunisia that until now has been a lifeline for Tripoli,” explained Sami Hamdi, the head of International Interest. “With Saied taking control, the UAE and Egypt will expect to be able to reinforce their allies in Libya by harassing Tripoli via Tunisia in the West.”
"There is good reason to believe that Saied will continue bringing Tunisia into greater alignment with Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo"
But any major crisis in relations between Saied’s government and Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNU) is not inevitable, even if some tension builds up between the two.
“We can probably expect a cooling down in the bilateral relations as the Islamist party Ennahda was very supportive of the Government of National Accord (now GNU) given the ideological closeness of some the political elements in Tripoli, but I don’t expect a strong deterioration of this relationship,” said Carlino.
Of all North African countries, Egypt has been, by far, the most supportive of Saied’s autogolpe. Officialdom in Egypt are “genuinely happy” about the power grab, which Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, described as “a rhetorical, ideological and narrative triumph for Cairo”.
The Tunisian president’s plans for making a strong presidential system in his country and his fierce opposition to Ennahda are critical to the Cairo regime’s reasons for backing him.
Also, his visit to the Egyptian capital in April was no coincidence. Last month, Middle East Eye reported that “Egyptian security officials…have been advising Saied before the coup and directing operations as it was taking place…Sisi offered to give Saied all the support he needed for the coup and Saied took it”.
Since the 25 July power grab in Tunisia, the Egyptian government’s narratives about Saied’s recent actions have been framed in terms of security and stability. Major media outlets in Egypt have depicted Saied as a leader who has played an important role in the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood (specifically Ennahda).
Sisi and Saied share a hostility toward political Islam, naturally bringing them into alignment when it comes to Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated individuals and groups in Egypt and Tunisia. As experts have noted, having a staunchly anti-Islamist government in power in Tunisia could enable Egypt to strengthen its regional standing.
“Cairo favours leaders who uplift their countries from the 2010s era of instability and build an independent nation state willing to stand against Islamist groups both domestically and regionally,” said Soliman.
Egypt’s ability to gain regionally from Tunisia’s 25 July autogolpe might be most evident in Libya. As the Atlantic Council’s Dr. Alessia Melcangi explained, “Despite the different interests and threats, Egypt and Tunisia will probably agree on a common policy vis-a-vis the Libyan domestic political process, trying to marginalize the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood wing.”
Furthermore, according to Melcangi, a “future structural entente” between Cairo and Tunis is possible, and it could lead to the two Arab states having “geopolitical convergences” not only vis-à-vis Libya, but also in relation to the GERD dispute that involves Ethiopia and Sudan.
Officials in Algeria have major concerns about the implications of this autogolpe. Algeria has a history of being Tunisia’s ‘big brother’, making bilateral relations special for many decades. Today, Algiers worries about French, Egyptian, and Gulf influence threatening Algeria’s clout in Tunisia.
The agendas of Paris, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi in the Maghreb and Sahel unsettle Algeria’s government. Such fears have increased following Morocco’s decision to join the Abraham Accords in December 2020. This is especially so considering Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s visit last month to Rabat where he raised Israel’s concerns about Algeria’s regional role.
“Algiers will feel that the UAE-led axis is beginning to successfully surround it: Haftar and Saied to the East, Morocco to the West, France to the North, and rising Turkish and Russian powers in its own stomping ground. With domestic instability rife, Algiers will be concerned that an emboldened Abu Dhabi will begin to harass Algerian interests and agitate separatist trends,” said Hamdi.
Now Algeria has concerns about Saied’s backers in Egypt and the Gulf challenging its special relationship with Tunisia. Officials in Algiers fear a future in which these other Arab states and France marginalise the Algerian role in Tunisia and the region at large. Within this context, rumours that Tunisia’s president did not inform Algeria about his planned power grab in the lead up to 25 July raises questions about how much influence Algiers truly possesses in Tunisia.
At this juncture, it appears that Algeria is maintaining somewhat of a wait-and-see approach to Tunisia, particularly with respect to how Tunis-Abu Dhabi relations develop in the upcoming weeks and months. Whether Tunisia becomes a ‘proxy’ or ‘puppet’ state of the UAE, or it is simply the case that Abu Dhabi and Saied merely shared an interest in eliminating Ennahda from Tunisia’s political arena remains to be seen.
Algeria is hoping that Saied will be able to maintain autonomy from the UAE and continue Tunis’ foreign policy tradition of refusing to align with Abu Dhabi when Tunisia believes that doing so does not serve its national interests.
“Algiers has never sought loyalty from Tunisia and is not doing so with Saied,” said Hamdi. “Rather, Algiers seeks a display of Tunisian independence akin to [President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi] who enraged Abu Dhabi by taking their support then declining to act in their interests. Just as Essebsi respected the 'special relationship', Algiers wants assurances that whatever Saied does, he will do the same.”
"Tunisia has been a lynchpin for stability and security in the Maghreb. Therefore, any destabilisation of the country could have serious ramifications across North Africa"
As Algiers sees it, under ideal circumstances Saied and Ennahda will reach a compromise with a power-sharing agreement. This outcome may guarantee that the UAE and other Gulf states fail to pressure Tunis into adopting positions on foreign policy issues which clash with Algeria’s.
The Algerian leadership hopes that Saied’s autogolpe does not contribute to new geopolitical realities that would heighten Algeria’s sense of vulnerability to the agendas of the UAE and other actors which the Algerians worry will target their country down the line.
Morocco’s leadership has concerns about how the situation in Tunisia could possibly escalate, giving Rabat reason to pay quite a bit of attention to events unfolding in Tunis. The visit which Morocco’s chief diplomat paid to Saied in Tunis on 27 July, in which he provided the Tunisian president with a message of support from King Mohammed VI, underscored how Morocco’s government is closely following the situation in Tunisia.
There is pluralism in Morocco, where the government permits moderate Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Justice and Development Party (PJD) to exist within the country’s political system. But it is worth asking, how have such Islamist actors in Rabat responded to Saied’s autogolpe?
Morocco’s Prime Minister Saadeddine El Othmani, who is of the PJD, has refrained from commenting on Tunisia’s recent power grab, maintaining that this issue was the business of the ministry of foreign affairs.
Dr. Yasmina Abouzzohour, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, explained to The New Arab that “the PJD overall is being cautious of taking a stand, most likely because it is currently leading the government.”
Other Islamist actors in Morocco, however, are reacting differently. “The Mouvement de l'unicité et de la réforme (MUR) and Al Adl Wal Ihssane…criticized Kais Saied’s decision which they described as a coup d’etat,” said Dr. Abouzzohour.
The road ahead
Tunisia, which many spent the past decade hailing as the Arab Spring’s “sole success story”, is mired in serious political, economic, and health crises.
Yet a combination of the government’s failure to respond to Covid-19 in any effective manner, widespread corruption among elites, dismal economic conditions, and other factors led to Saied’s autogolpe being popular among many Tunisian citizens. The president’s internal support will be important to his future, as will regional and international backing.
Without Western governments or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) putting pressure on Saied, it seems safe to assume that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt will enhance their leverage in Tunis given the current circumstances. The growing influence of these countries, and possibly France too, in Tunisia will be of greater alarm to Algeria, where the leadership fears foreign plots aimed at destabilising the country.
Ultimately, all these states share an interest in Tunisia not falling to internal turmoil that fuels chaos within - and perhaps beyond - its borders. Indeed, Tunisia has been a lynchpin for stability and security in the Maghreb. Therefore, any destabilisation of the country could have serious ramifications across North Africa.
But given the various ambitions of regional actors - including GCC members, Egypt, and Turkey - their clashing interests vis-à-vis Tunisia (and by extension Libya) will probably result in North African states, as well as the wider Arab region, viewing Tunisia’s turmoil through very different lenses.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero