Tunisian Democracy and Sinister Agendas from Abroad

Tunisian Prime Minister (and presidential candidate) Youssef Chahed

by Giorgio Cafiero and Dr. Khalid al-Jaber

Tunisia’s presidential campaign is in full swing, with an election set for September 15. This election will be held two months earlier than originally planned because of the sudden death of former President Beji Caid Essebsi—the “late maestro of Tunisian politics”—in July. For a host of reasons, this month’s election will be unpredictable, competitive, and unprecedented. The process and the outcome will heavily impact the future of the only Arab country to emerge from the Arab Spring (which in Tunisia became known as the “Jasmine Revolution”) under democratic governance.

Tunisia’s election will be the Arab world’s second presidential election in five years that could be considered democratic—the first being Tunisia’s 2014 presidential election. Notwithstanding misinformed analysts suggesting otherwise, Tunisians are acutely aware of how much is at stake. The fact that, since last year’s municipal elections, voter registration has increased by roughly one-third highlights this point.

The presidential election will take place against the backdrop of major challenges posed by the fragile Tunisian economy and the grave threats of violent extremism. Since former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011, the Maghrebi country has struggled to protect itself from the menace of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS or IS)-affiliated groups. With an economy that is dependent on tourism for income, attacks targeting tourists have taken a major toll, and Tunisia is still recovering from these brutal episodes.

Like many other Arab states, Tunisia is grappling with high unemployment rates, which have surpassed 30 percent in some cities while averaging at 15.2 percent nationwide, marking an increase from the pre-revolution level of 12 percent. Unquestionably, as many citizens living in the non-coastal parts of Tunisia are upset over unemployment and the lack of economic development, the overall level of public dissatisfaction is high.

As Tunisians move forward with their country’s democratic experiment, they are not naïve about the extent to which reactionary and counter-revolutionary forces, both internal and external, have vested interests in reversing the Jasmine Revolution.

Agendas of Gulf States

Regardless of how the remainder of this campaign and the election unfold, Tunisia’s emerging democracy will continue to face major tests. One challenge that Tunisian officials must address pertains to the role of Gulf monarchies and their agendas in the North African country. Under Essebsi’s leadership, Tunisia, in contrast with other Arab/African states, sought to avoid Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members’ attempts to bestow Tunisia with economic and security investments in return for Tunis’ compliance with such Arabian sheikdoms’ ambitions in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

In the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), such plans have included trying to mobilize certain Tunisian elites to reduce the influence that Islamist movements and figures play in Tunisia’s democratic system. Although they do not represent a majority of Tunisians, some secular elites have supported the UAE’s efforts (both in Tunisia and elsewhere) to counter Qatar’s clout.

Tunisia began to move into Qatar’s geopolitical orbit after Doha began increasing its investments in the North African state under its 2011-2014 “Troika” government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party. After Ennahda conceded power in 2014, following electoral loses, Tunisia drifted away from Doha and began to veer closer to the UAE. Some Tunisian voices maintain that this growing closeness to Abu Dhabi caused the Emiratis to take actions aimed at reversing the Jasmine Revolution, which then provided an opening for Tunisian Islamists to regroup.

On January 14, former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki (who served from 2011 to 2014) stated in an interview with Al-Khobar (an Algerian newspaper) that Abu Dhabi sought to prevent the country’s Arab Spring revolution. He even accused the UAE of having animosity for Tunisians and plotting terrorism against the North African country. “It is clear that there is a geopolitical design to see the Arab Spring fail, the very Arab spring that was undermined by sectarian strife and wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen; and through a military coup in Egypt,” declared Marzouki. The former president also said, “We reaffirm that we sense the existence of a conspiracy against Tunisia aiming to destabilize it, and the UAE operations room is behind it.”

Among Tunisians, Marzouki has been far from alone in terms of viewing the UAE as a threat to Tunisia’s democratic experiment. In the summer of 2018, there were protests in Tunis resulting from anger over what Le Monde Afrique reported to be a coup attempt. Those in the capital demonstrating demanded that foreign interference end in Tunisia and that Abu Dhabi’s ambassador be expelled. According to the French newspaper, Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem was responsible for this plot, planned in coordination with Emirati intelligence services.

Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Tounes party have shared power through the 2016 Carthage Pact, which has left Abu Dhabi uncomfortable. From the perspective of the UAE’s leadership, the rise of Ennahda in post-2011 Tunisia has been a threat given that Emirati leaders perceive Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups such as Ennahda to be extremists. Moreover, Tunisia’s decision to embrace a neutral stance in relation to the blockade of Qatar has further strained Abu Dhabi-Tunis relations.

Thus, within the context of the UAE’s support for Egypt’s military-led government that came to power in the coup of 2013, as well as Abu Dhabi’s sponsorship of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing military campaign to usurp control of Tripoli, Tunisians worry about how the UAE—along with its allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt—may target their country’s democracy. Tunisians, including Marzouki, have also expressed concern about the UAE-Saudi Arabia-Egypt bloc’s designs for neighboring Algeria, where the country is undergoing a sensitive transition to the post-Abdelaziz Bouteflika period.

Indeed, for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, their post-2011 interventions in North Africa have been heavily geared toward establishing Emirati/Saudi hegemony in the region and thwarting Sunni Islamist actors—such as Ennahda—from ascending to power and establishing alternative political models that challenge the Arab world’s status quo order.

Despite the fact that Tunisia is widely understood to have been the country that triggered region-wide revolts in 2011—which made Arab Gulf monarchs view the Jasmine Revolution as extremely threatening—GCC states have been far less visibly involved in post-Arab Spring Tunisia compared to other countries such as Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Nonetheless, there has been involvement from the Gulf states in Tunisia’s political arena following the fall of Ben Ali. Such involvement has put a degree of pressure on Tunisia, especially as the GCC crisis has served to exacerbate ideological fissures in the region. Yet it is to the credit of the Tunisians that they have, at least thus far, been remarkably successfully in terms of fortressing their country from the antagonistic agendas pursued by Gulf states.

A major test for Tunisia will be to elect leadership that remains capable of continuing this success in terms of maintaining stability that could otherwise be threatened by excessive GCC political interference.

Khalid al-Jaber is the director of the MENA Institute for Research in Washington DC.

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.