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Tunisian flag is raised up to the highest flagpole to mark the anniversary of Tunisia's independence in Tunis, Tunisia on 20 March 2017 [Amine Landoulsi/Anadolu Agency]

Gulf Rivalries Threaten Tunisian Democracy

Initially, Tunisia was the beacon of light in the fight for democracy following the 2011 Arab Spring. Now, the North African state faces turmoil that threatens the outcome of its democratic process. While many had hoped that Egypt would learn from the Tunisian experience, the clashes between the Tunisian President Kais Saied and parliament raise concerns that Tunisia will go the same way as Egypt in 2013.

However, it now seems that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s allies in the Gulf, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are interfering in Tunisia’s politics. Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have publically attacked the Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament Rashed AlGhanoushi and his Islamist Ennahda party. These attacks are not out of nowhere, for a number of years, Emirati and Saudi media outlets have pushed the narrative that the Ennahda party maintains links to global extremists.

The leadership of the UAE and Saudi Arabia appear threatened by the Tunisian experiment with democracy, and as such the Maghreb’s only democracy has come under pressure from the Gulf. Although western governments and societies praise Tunisia as the Arab world’s only successfully democratic post-Arab Spring country, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are concerned about the implications of Tunisia’s developments for them. Since the Arab Spring, these two Gulf states fret about any Arab country that has demonstrated that Islamists and secularists can peacefully coexist in a democratic system. Today, new internal and external factors are making Tunisian democracy increasingly more fragile.

External Pressures Lead to Internal Tensions

Earlier this month, the Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned in the wake of a political scandal in which critics, chiefly Ennahda, accused him of corruption. Ennahda also took issue with Fakhfakh’s decision to sideline the party’s ministers in the running of Tunisia’s government and economic decision-making. Currently, Fakhfakh leads a caretaker administration that will be in power until August 26, when President Saied will presumably nominate a successor. The president has appointed Hichem Mechichi, the former Minister of Interior, as caretaker prime minister, raising questions about the investigation of corruption.

While Tunisia’s political crisis continues with a fractured parliament, events in neighboring Libya further raise the temperature in Tunis. A successful counter-offensive by Turkish-backed forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) pushed UAE-backed forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar. Ennahda leader and Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi publicly supported Libya’s UN-recognized government. Ghannouchi’s congratulation of the pro-GNA forces infuriated pro-Haftar figures in Tunis.

The three-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis polarized Tunisia’s political landscape, with Qatar supporting the democratically elected governments whether it was Ennahda or another party, as in the current case where the president does not belong to an Islamist party. At the same time, the UAE and Saudi Arabia appear to be trying to undermine the Islamist parties who won representation democratically. Now the Libyan civil war has introduced a new disruptive factor into Tunisian politics. The Tunisian leadership finds itself under pressure from two sides: on one side, Turkey is urging Tunisia to take a more pro-GNA stance; and from the other side, the UAE seeks to undermine Tunisia’s democratic experiment and prevent Libya from following the so-called “Tunisian model”. President Saied has sought to keep Tunis neutral in the Libyan crisis, in line with Tunisia’s tradition of non-interference in the affairs of other Arab states. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that this supposed neutrality in Libya is fueling serious friction in Tunis, with different factions pushing the country to take a stance, either with the GNA and Turkey or Haftar and the UAE.

Will Tunisia’s Democracy Survive?

As Tunisia continues attempting to navigate the complex dynamics of Libya’s conflict, which threatens to escalate if Egypt carries out its threat to intervene militarily, it is also contending with the Emirati hand in the country that seeks to weaken Ennahda. With this Islamist party having worked to bring Tunisia into growing alignment with Ankara and Doha, it is easy to understand how Tunisia’s current foreign policy and domestic politics have upset the leadership in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Put simply, it is no exaggeration to state that the Emiratis and Saudis have shown an interest in seeing Tunisian democracy, at least in the form it has taken since 2011, fail. Therefore, it is a safe bet that the UAE and Saudi kingdom will continue their “information operations” to convince the Arab public that the Tunisian democratic experiment poses a danger. While there are in fact serious instances of Tunisian extremists who went to Libya and the Levant to join Islamic State as well as numerous domestic attacks since the Arab Spring, these are not necessarily connected to its democratic transition. The Emirati and Saudi message, however, is that Tunisia’s democratic transition is responsible for this terrorist menace.

Meanwhile, Turkey has its own agenda in the Maghreb, aimed at pushing back against the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt’s counterrevolutionary agendas. The rivalry between the Turkish-Qatari axis and the Emirati-Saudi-Egyptian bloc has played out most destructively in Libya. However, it now threatens to spill over into Tunisia. It remains to be seen how successful the Tunisians will be in fortifying their country’s democracy against this geopolitical and ideological competition. What is clear, however, is that if Tunisia’s fragile democracy should fail, the Arab world will have lost the only case of successful democratization that thus far has served as an inspiring example of a bright outcome to the Arab Spring revolts that shook the region almost a decade ago.


Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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