Why Italy is concerned about a prolonged political crisis in Tunisia

Tunisian flag
7 min read
09 August, 2021
Analysis: While it is still too early to know the ultimate consequences of Kais Saied's power grab, Italy is the EU country with the highest stakes in Tunisia's political crisis.

Italy is likely the European Union (EU) member with the highest stakes in Tunisia’s political crisis. Officials in Rome fear the various ways in which tensions in Tunisia could threaten Italy’s vital economic and security interests.

South of Sicily is the Isole Pelagie - an Italian archipelago. Its largest island, Lampedusa, is located 62 miles from Tunisia’s coast.

This southern Italian island is a common arrival port for people seeking to reach the EU by sea. The conditions that many face attempting to arrive in Italy from Tunisia and Libya are extremely dangerous.

During the first half of this year, at least 1,146 people lost their lives attempting the treacherous journey across the southern Mediterranean.

Within a span of 24 hours following President Kais Saied’s autogolpe, at least 600 Tunisians arrived in Lampedusa.

"Italy is likely the European Union member with the highest stakes in Tunisia's political crisis"

Italy wants Tunisia secure and stable

“Rome fears a collapse of public order” in Tunisia, Dr Karim Mezran, a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The New Arab.

“This fear is compounded by many factors - from a surge of refugees from the coasts of Tunisia to potential infiltration of gang members and extremists to the eventual need to provide humanitarian relief.”

Rome’s top concerns in relation to Tunisia pertain to migration and irregular departures from the North African country to Italy.

“The spillover of the destabilisation of Tunisia would be disastrous, given the unclear situation in Libya and, more in general, the fluid situation in the Mediterranean Basin and North Africa in particular,” Dr Umberto Profazio, an Associate Fellow at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation, told The New Arab.

“It will also have serious repercussions on the flow of migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route, which would prove particularly challenging for Italy.”

Even prior to last month’s power grab by the president, Italy was concerned about migration issues stemming from Tunisia and Libya.

Why Italy is concerned about Tunisia's political crisis
In July, Kais Saied invoked emergency powers and suspended parliament for 30 days. [Getty]

In May, Italy’s Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese joined EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson on a visit to Tunisia where they met with Saied and the then-prime minister.

Lamorgese vowed Italy’s support to the Tunisian economy through investments and the creation of jobs for young Tunisians.

Italy’s business interests in Tunisia are a key factor too. Italian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are numerous in the Tunisian economy. Protecting their assets and personnel is a high priority for Italy.

“Tunisia plays an important role for many Italian companies that have outsourced part of their production processes in this country,” the International Crisis Group’s Riccardo Fabiani told The New Arab.

“Again, stability and the openness of Tunisia, both democratically and economically, are important for Rome.”

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Italy's national security

The Italian government’s concerns about terrorism and extremism are highly relevant to Rome’s perspective on Tunisia.

Since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, extremist organisations such as Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), Jund al-Khalifah, Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s Tunisian branch, Okba Ibn Nafaa, have spilled blood in Tunisia on numerous occasions.

Tunisians have also contributed to the strength of extremist groups elsewhere in the Arab world. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in the Middle East in 2014, Tunisians in disturbingly high numbers joined the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria, and/or Libya.

If the North African country undergoes any period of instability, there are valid concerns about such ultra-violent factions exploiting the situation. Like all countries in the region, Italy does not want to see Tunisia become a hotspot for such extremist groups at any point down the line.

“The issue of illegal immigration is closely linked with that of our national security,” explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.

“Islamist terrorists mainly move through these channels, so it is clear that when the numbers of people trying to reach Italy from Tunisia have doubled in a month, this represents a threat to our country,” she told TNA.

"Within a span of 24 hours following President Kais Saied’s autogolpe, at least 600 Tunisians arrived in Lampedusa"

The Libya connection

The crises in Tunisia and Libya are deeply intertwined. Tunisia’s turmoil could potentially impact Libya, another North African country where Rome has high stakes.

The Tunisian-Libyan border is porous, and armed extremists have repeatedly attacked Tunisian security forces in various places such as the Chaambi Mountains.

Moreover, the prospects for stability and democracy in Tunisia are linked to those for peace and democratic development in neighbouring Libya.

By virtue of many factors ranging from economic interests to security dilemmas and migration challenges, Italy has vested interests in Libya stabilising and entering a new period of peace.

This point alone gives Rome ample reason to see stability in Tunisia serving the interests of Italy and the rest of Europe.

Italy and France's intersecting and conflicting interests

In North Africa, there has long been a rivalry between Italy and France. In recent years, these two European countries have had major disagreements over Libya. But it appears that Rome and Paris’ interests currently overlap when it comes to Tunisia.

Notably, when Donald Trump was in office and the US took a mostly hands-off approach to Libya, Italy and France’s rivalry played out with Rome backing the UN-recognised government in Tripoli and Paris backing General Khalifa Haftar’s side.

With Biden in the White House, some analysts think that both Italy and France believe that there is credible leadership in Washington, which has arguably put Rome and Paris into more alignment vis-à-vis Tunisia.

Migrants Tunisia
During the first half of this year, at least 1,146 people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean. [Getty]

“So far we have seen no divergences between Rome and Paris,” said Fabiani.

“In the past, we know that Italy and France have been at odds over Tunisia - for example, at the time of [former leader] Ben Ali's medical coup, which Rome supported against Paris - and more recently over Libya. But in this case [of Tunisia], their positions seem closely aligned, also thanks to the US's leadership on this issue.”

Ultimately, both the Italians and French see a fragile or destabilised Tunisia as boding poorly for all of Europe.

Within this context, it is possible that Rome and Paris will not butt heads in Tunisia, unlike elsewhere in Africa where Italian and French officials have viewed situations very differently.

Covid-19

Italy is likely to prioritise helping Tunisia grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic as the delta variant hits the country hard. It is difficult to overstate just how badly the pandemic has hurt the democratic political system born out of the Arab Spring.

Although that system was the Arab region’s most democratic, earning the North African country much respect internationally, it is also the same system that has left only seven per cent of the Tunisian population fully vaccinated, with the country’s health situation deteriorating.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently raised the alarm about the “extremely concerning” surge in Covid-19 cases.

“Intensive care units are almost full with some hospitals experiencing shortages of oxygen, which is crucial for Covid-19 patients suffering breathing difficulties,” reported the Financial Times a few days before Saied's autogolpe.

“There are many concerns in Rome. And it is no coincidence that [on 1 August] it was decided to send 1.5 million doses of the vaccine to Tunis,” said Dr Saini Fasanotti.

“We know that one of the triggers of the protests was precisely the very heavy health crisis in which Tunisia finds itself due to Covid-19. In this way, Italy is trying to alleviate the suffering, and therefore the political tensions, of the population.”

"The spillover of the destabilisation of Tunisia would be disastrous, given the unclear situation in Libya"

A new national dialogue

It is too early to know the ultimate consequences of Saied’s power grab. Yet it is a safe bet that Italy sees itself as having no choice but to try to help Tunisia maintain relative peace and stability amid a period of uncertainty.

Rome will want to see the various parties in Tunisia reach a settlement that enables the country to avoid any worsening of its current political problems.

“Italy is trying to stop escalations in the Tunisian chessboard by supporting a new national dialogue to repair the broken system,” Giuseppe Dentice, the head of the MENA Desk at the Center for International Studies and teaching assistant at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, told The New Arab.

“The goal is always the same: preventing the Tunisian crisis from becoming an Italian headache, particularly in terms of irregular migration.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero