The recent thaw in relations seems to be a positive step for these former regional adversaries toward deepening ties, but unresolved political conflicts may continue to fester.
Debates are swirling within Tunisia and across the region about President Kais Saied’s decision to fire the prime minister and shut down Parliament as well as the implications of this decision for Tunisia’s experiment with democracy. Many Tunisians are applauding Saied’s move as a means to fix Tunisia’s political stalemate and economic deterioration, while others view it as a slippery slope on the path toward dictatorship. Supporters view Saied’s shutting down the Parliament and stripping members of parliament of their immunity as an attempt to weed out corruption, others see it is as an aggressive attack on the political party system and Saied’s political rivals, including the powerful Islamist-affiliated Ennahda Party and its leader, Speaker of the Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi.
Beyond the immediate political dilemmas, Tunisia is also experiencing a public health and economic crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the country hard: Less than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated and the death toll has been extremely high for a small population — more than 20,000. Experts argue that the government response has been mishandled since the onset of the pandemic, and the vaccination rollout continues to stall. The mismanagement of the government’s public health response to the pandemic was cited as a key reason for Saied’s decision to fire the prime minister and close Parliament. Moreover, Tunisia is negotiating another International Monetary Fund loan in efforts to deal with the significant currency devaluation, rising national debt (91% of gross domestic product) and unemployment, and rising costs of essential staples like food and fuel. Tunisia’s economy contracted by 8.8% in 2020 and foreign direct investment, along with tourism, continues to decline.
The immediate hope for proponents of political pluralism is that Saied will soon announce a road map and new government. However, Saied’s positions offer little cause for confidence. Tunisian political scientist Mohamed-Dhia Hammami wrote, “Despite Saïed’s sometimes enigmatic or incoherent political views, his past statements make very clear his disdain for parties, his support for radical decentralization, and his desire for a presidential system. How he will act on these ideas – and whether his actions will alleviate or deepen Tunisia’s crisis – remains to be seen.”
There are also broader regional implications of Saied’s decision, notably for Tunisia’s two main Gulf partners, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. These Tunisian implications are central to the most pressing debates happening in the Middle East and North Africa, notably surrounding: the legacy of the 2011 Arab Spring protests; how to address the worsening political and economic malaise in the region; what the role is of Islamist parties; and whether there is a future for political pluralism in the Middle East.
Saied Invokes Article 80
On July 25, Saied invoked Article 80 of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, which allows the president to take extraordinary measures for 30 days if there is an “imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state.” According to the constitution, this 30-day “state of exception” can only be invoked after consultation with the head of government and speaker of parliament. The decision was cited as a response to anti-government protests, some of which turned violent and targeted Ennahda offices.
Even as Saied justified his decision through Article 80, some reports indicated that neither the prime minister nor the speaker of parliament was consulted in any way about this decision. The problem is that the Constitutional Court that was mandated by the constitution to adjudicate such matters has not yet been formed due to the country’s continuous political stalemate and intensifying divisions. Therefore, the judicial branch is unable to examine whether the article has been properly applied or, more fundamentally, check the power of the president in this situation.
Saied fired the prime minister, shut down the Parliament, stripped members of parliament of their immunity, and took on the duties of the public prosecutor. This enabled Saied to assume control over all three branches of government, and members of Ennahda, the leading political party in Parliament and one of Saied’s main rivals, and other members of parliament called the move a coup. The day after, Saied announced a 30-day curfew in the country and several members of parliament were arrested. It has been three weeks since this state of exception was announced, and Saied has yet to issue a road map on how he plans to move forward, and a new government has not been formed. Ennahda and other political actors have called for a national dialogue, but Saied rejected this idea.
The Tunisian General Labor Union, one of the country’s most powerful political actors, which has played a role in past street protests, is drafting a road map for the president and has urged him to appoint a new prime minister as soon as possible to battle Tunisia’s urgent economic and public health crisis. The Arab League issued a statement urging “Tunisia to quickly get through the current turbulent phase, restore stability and calm and the state’s ability to work effectively to respond to the aspirations and requirements of the people.” The United Nations asked all parties in Tunisia “to exercise restraint, refrain from violence and ensure that the situation remains calm.” On August 13, the U.S. deputy national security advisor, Jonathan Finer, met with Saied to share a statement from President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “reaffirming his personal support, and that of the Biden-Harris Administration, for the Tunisian people and urging a swift return to the path of Tunisia’s parliamentary democracy.”
Saied’s drastic move did not take place within a vacuum. Tunisia’s political system had become frozen by dysfunction, and the economy had been deteriorating, prompting major anti-government protests, some violent. Chatham House expert and Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines à Tunis Director Laryssa Chomiak argued in a recent webinar that these protests were historically more economically focused but turned increasingly political around 2018, when they began targeting issues like rising police violence. The dire impact of the coronavirus pandemic on public health and the economy exacerbated Tunisia’s underlying structural problems related to governance, corruption, and economic mismanagement.
Academics have conducted polls in Tunisia to try and capture citizens’ views on the developments, including a survey of 3,198 Tunisians conducted by Al Qatiba, an online magazine, and Insights Tunisia. When asked, “How do you describe the application of Article 80?” over 60% of respondents chose “a step toward the correction of the path of the revolution, democracy, and the fight against corruption in the Parliament.” Less than 40% chose “a coup against the Parliament, the constitution, and step toward individual rule and dictatorship.” Of the respondents, 57.9% said they were comfortable with the president’s decision, while 36.7% said they were not. When asked whether they agreed with the statement that Ennahda bears the primary responsibility for “the deterioration of the overall situation,” 75% agreed and around 23% disagreed. The results were more evenly divided on questions like, “Are you worried about democracy and freedom?,” 42% answered yes, 52% responded no, and 6% said they didn’t know. Furthermore, when asked about the statement, “The extension of the exceptional period beyond 30 days is a step toward dictatorship,” 45% agreed and around 52% disagreed. The survey results were also pretty evenly divided over whether Tunisians preferred a presidential system (46.6%) or parliamentary system (50.6%).
While online surveys are very limited, and might reflect urban-centered results that do not register accurate levels of political support for Ennahda, these results echo much of what many Tunisian analysts have argued: Saied’s decision is supported by most of the Tunisian public, many of whom are fed up with the country’s political and economic woes. Furthermore, even though Ennahda continues to do well in elections, many Tunisians blame the party, which has been a key member in nearly every government since the 2011 revolution, for much of the country’s problems. However, this survey also suggests that much will depend on whether Saied extends the state of exception past 30 days and what road map he is able to come up with to address the political, economic, and public health crises in Tunisia.
Gulf Proxy Battles in Tunisia
Tunisia’s main economic partners are European and Gulf countries. Tunisia’s top sources of foreign direct investment are France, Qatar, the UAE, Germany, and Italy. The United States has been a significant player on the assistance front, committing $1.4 billion to Tunisia since the January 2011 revolution and hundreds of millions in critically needed loan guarantees since 2012.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring protests led to the ouster of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, the UAE and Qatar have supported different actors in the country. Using soft power projection tools, including investment, aid, and diplomatic support, to varying degrees both countries have pursued their strategic interests in the small, but strategic, North African country.
Tunisia, to a much lesser extent than neighboring Libya, became a key site of proxy battles for political influence between Gulf states like the UAE and Qatar, divided over very different perceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties more generally. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and, for the UAE in particular, pushing back the political influence of Islamists and Islamist-associated political parties across the Middle East and North Africa is a strategic priority closely aligned with fighting extremism in the region. For Qatar, which has a history of transnational connections with the Muslim Brotherhood network, Islamist parties are strategic allies that can also be effective political players, as demonstrated by their electoral successes across the Middle East and North Africa after the 2011 protests.
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was increasingly perceived as an ally of Ennahda who was intentionally marginalizing the president. One day after Saied’s decision to sack Mechichi, Al Jazeera’s office in Tunis was stormed by 20 plainclothes police and shut down. The move was criticized as an attack on press freedom. It could also be perceived as a warning shot against Ennahda, which is often criticized for its ties with Qatar and Turkey. Qatar’s investments in Tunisia have increased over the years since the 2011 Arab Spring protests ushered in a period of electoral successes for Ennahda.
Saied worked to balance relations among Tunisia’s key Gulf partners. He visited Qatar in late 2020 to discuss deepening the Tunisia-Qatar relationship. The Qatari emir was the first head of state to visit Saied after he was elected in October 2019. But Saied also visited and hosted Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian officials. His tensions with Ennahda appear more rooted in Tunisia’s domestic political divisions than wider regional conflict lines over Islamism, although that reality is unlikely to dampen the efforts of various regional players to shape ongoing developments to their liking. His decision to sack the government seems to stem much more from political expediency and a desire to marginalize political opponents and Parliament as a whole, which he views as rife with corruption and an obstacle to economic and political progress.
Many analysts have noted the varying reactions from regional media outlets. Much of Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian media praised Saied’s decision as an important blow to Ennahda and, by extension, political Islam in the region. In The Washington Post, Claire Parker highlighted the headline from Saudi Arabia’s Okaz: “Tunisia revolts against the Brotherhood”; Emirati news outlet 24Media’s description of the move as “a brave decision to save Tunisia”; and the suggestion from Egypt’s Al-Ahram that the events were a “loss for the last Brotherhood stronghold in the region.”
There are ferocious propaganda battles over Tunisian politics and political Islam among Gulf media outlets and across social media, many of which are the subject of several academic studies on misinformation and manipulation on key platforms like Twitter. For example, regarding social media reactions to Saied’s decision, Marc Owen Jones analyzed 12,000 tweets from 6,800 Twitter users under the hashtag “Tunisians revolt against the brotherhood.” He found that the majority of users tweeting this hashtag were based in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and that the top 10 accounts engaging with the hashtag were all social media influencers based in the two Gulf countries.
Official responses from the Gulf governments varied. The Saudi and Tunisian foreign ministers spoke the day after Saied’s decision, and the Saudi foreign minister called for security and stability. Abu Dhabi was more directly supportive of Saied’s decision. The UAE’s diplomatic advisor and former minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, traveled to Tunis shortly after Saied invoked Article 80 and met with the president. Gargash affirmed that, “We support the Tunisian state and president in this positive agenda.” Given Qatar’s closer ties with Ennahda, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani struck a somewhat different tone, calling for dialogue and stressing “the importance of fixing foundations of the state of institutions and establishing the rule of law in Tunisia.”
Implications for Gulf States
It is difficult to know what Saied will do next, making it hard to predict how this will impact regional dynamics. No doubt, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt welcomed these political developments as a way to marginalize Ennahda, which they perceive as a powerful Islamist party in the region. If Saied decides to extend the state of exception and set up a presidential system that significantly marginalizes the Parliament, and by extension powerful political parties like Ennahda, the UAE would likely be willing to offer Tunisia more desperately needed financial support as well as greater diplomatic support for Saied’s controversial decision.
Even if Gulf states have different strategic interests and espouse contrasting ideas on how to achieve their goals, their official responses to the events in Tunisia suggest a preference for stability and security – something that is still an open-ended question without any road map or indication of how Saied looks to move forward. Gulf actors will be following the situation closely and, regardless of the outcome, will keep sending coronavirus vaccines and offer more humanitarian support. Any longer-term shifts in investment strategies on the part of Gulf states like the UAE and Qatar will depend on what Saied does next.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a consultant with the Shaikh Group’s Track II “Dialogue for Mutual Security in the Middle East” initiative.
The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung held a workshop in November 2021 on Shia communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
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