How betting on Tunisia's Kais Saied backfired on Europe
In July, the European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited Tunisia, hosted by the country’s authoritarian leader Kais Saied.
The trip came after the EU concluded a controversial €1 billion deal supposed to help stem irregular migration both from and to Tunisia.
It was supposedly the start of a political honeymoon between Europe and Tunisia's Kais Saied after the latter was regularly criticised by Western institutions since his authoritarian shift in 2019, and by the European parliament itself after arresting over thirty of his political opponents.
"It's important to understand that the European Parliament goes everywhere, even in strong authoritarian regimes. This is the first time we've ever been refused from a country"
But things changed, and fast. On 15 September, Tunisian authorities denied entry to five members of the European Parliament's foreign affairs (AFET) committee, who were due to start an official mission to the country before receiving a letter from Foreign Affairs Minister, Nabil Ammar, saying that the parliament's delegation would "not be authorised to enter national territory".
The five MEPs were set to meet with NGOs, trade unions, and opposition leaders, but had failed to secure meetings with the Tunisian government. The committee was shocked by the decision and said in a statement that "this decision was unprecedented since the 2011 revolution".
French MEP Emmanuel Maurel is still unable to explain what motivated this informal ban.
"I visited Tunisia on several occasions since 2019, I've always met with government officials, sometimes the president himself,” he told The New Arab.
“It's important to understand that the European Parliament goes everywhere, even in strong authoritarian regimes. This is the first time we've ever been refused from a country."
Tunisian Foreign Affairs Minister Nabil Ammar has said that the visit was not planned and he wasn't warned by European institutions.
Emmanuel Maurel denies this claim, arguing that this was an official visit from a European delegation and that the Tunisian government was warned several months before, but refused to meet with them.
"This visit had no aggressive intention whatsoever. The European Parliament has voted a certain number of financial aid packages to Tunisia but also, legitimately, expressed its worries when it comes to Tunisia's regime shift,” added Maurel.
“It's very sad for us, but also sad for the Tunisian people who are suffering from a very difficult economic crisis right now."
In recent months, Tunisia has been struggling with inflation, food shortages, and an economic crisis. The financial package from Europe materialised in a very difficult context for the government, which was betting on a loan from the IMF that Kais Saied eventually rejected due to what he termed the “diktats” of its conditions.
"It's difficult to analyse a regime that is purely irrational, impulsive, and ruled by one man only," explains Tunisian political author Hatem Nafti to TNA.
The opposition figure believes Kais Saied's hostility toward Europe resurfaced following Emmanuel Macron's 24 September speech when the French president announced that France would send technical support to "help Tunisia secure its borders".
"It's difficult to analyse a regime that is purely irrational, impulsive, and ruled by one man only"
In Tunisia, the statement led to massive outrage on social media, accusing the French government of interfering with Tunisia's sovereignty.
Nafti believes that social media outrage is important in Kais Saeid's decision-making, and that is what makes him unpredictable.
"Kais Saied is someone who deeply cares about what people say on social media. He is not former Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, who regularly dealt with Western countries when it comes to migration and economy in exchange for political support: Saied's personality is simply not the same,'' Nafti said.
After the revolution in 2011, several European countries admitted to supporting Ben Ali's authoritarian regime until the very last minute, trying to minimise the anger that led to the Arab Spring.
Ben Ali's relationship with Europe was built on stability and his regime was maintained by fear. Kais Saied is popular and his regime is built on the promises of sovereignty, fighting corruption, and economic prosperity – all pledges that he can not deliver on as the country faces a multifaceted crisis.
This makes Saied's reliance on social media reactions and online controversies critical to maintaining his tight grip on power. But this is not the only reason for tensions between Europe and Tunisia.
"The deal was deeply contradictory. Both parties had the same objective, fighting migration which leads to different interests. By pushing back migrants, Europe keeps them in Tunisia which Kais Saied clearly does not want," Nafti added.
This led to severe human rights abuses and, according to Libyan authorities, at least 27 black migrants died at the border.
Human Rights senior EU advocate Claudio Francavilla has slammed Europe's diplomatic double standards, saying in a recent article in Politico that "sacrificing migrants’ and refugees’ rights for short-term political gains is not only a morally bankrupt choice. It also contributes to a chain reaction that risks having a disastrous impact on the EU and its founding values".
For now, betting on Kais Saied hasn't worked out as planned for Europe. This week, Tunisia rejected an instalment of funds allocated to help the country patrol the Mediterranean Sea, accusing the EU of not following through on agreements and saying it “lacks respect”.
The EU deal could be exploited by Kais Saied's regime to ban more critical voices in international organisations from coming to Tunisia and assessing the human rights situation in the country, something that has happened before.
In February, the president expelled European Labour Union leader Esther Lynch from the country after she participated in a protest calling for the release of detained unionists, organised by Tunisia's major labour union, UGTT.
"The EU deal could be exploited by Kais Saied's regime to ban more critical voices in international organisations from coming to Tunisia and assessing the human rights situation in the country"
Last week, Human Rights Watch condemned yet again the EU deal with Tunisia in an official statement, calling Europe to "guarantee that Tunisia meets basic human rights benchmarks before sending a single Euro-cent to entities with a demonstrated poor human rights record".
Besides Germany, which expressed major concerns during negotiations of the deal, most European countries have seemed unbothered with Kais Saied's handling of the migrant crisis as there was no major criticism after this summer's deportations to the desert or after banning, now several, European delegations from entering the country to assess the repercussions of this deal.
If Europe accepts the new dynamics of this relationship with Tunisia, one can only fear for the human rights situation in the country.
Amine Snoussi is a political analyst and independent journalist based in Tunis.
Follow him on Twitter: @amin_snoussi