Why Tunisia's coup is a triumph for Abu Dhabi's worldview
On the 25th of July, Tunisian President Kais Saied froze the country’s democratically elected parliament.
He sacked Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi around the same time as his dismissal of both Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartaji and acting Justice Minister Hasna Ben Slimane.
Saied also deprived lawmakers of parliamentary immunity. Military forces have prevented the country’s parliamentary speaker from entering the parliament building in Bardo Square and they’ve surrounded the Prime Minister’s office.
"Although the current situation could move in various directions, Tunisian democracy faces what is unquestionably a major crisis"
Ennahda and other groups call this a “coup”. The Tunisian president dismisses that accusation. Regardless of whatever term one uses, there is no denying that Saied is now vastly more powerful than he was only several days ago.
This autogolpe or 'self-coup' - defined as “when authorities use extraconstitutional means to remain in office or seize more power—rather than a traditional coup d’état, which is when a government is overthrown and replaced” - may have extremely serious consequences for Tunisia’s future.
Although the current situation could move in various directions, Tunisian democracy faces what is unquestionably a major crisis. There are good reasons to worry about a new era of strongman rule and authoritarianism in Tunisia, which until recently was frequently described as the Arab Spring’s sole success story.
The executive authorities that Saied currently possesses give him power on the levels of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba.
Although many Tunisians took to the streets to cheer Saied’s power grab, we do not yet know Ennahda and other parties’ longer-term strategies for responding if the crisis continues, nor how much political and social volatility will be unleashed across the country. Another open question is, how much loyalty will Saied command from the 'Deep State' and for how long?
Regional geopolitical competition for Tunisia
Despite these uncertainties within Tunisia, various actors in the Arab world are seeing Saied’s power grab differently. Ultimately, this autogolpe serves to reinforce ideological and ideational divisions in the region.
On one side, Qatar and Turkey mostly welcomed the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago and quickly embraced opportunities to invest in working relationships with democratically elected Islamist parties in countries such as Tunisia. Predictably, Doha and Ankara did not praise Saied’s power grab. On the contrary, Qatar has called for dialogue while Turkey has expressed concerns about Tunisian democracy.
On the other side, the UAE and some other Arab states are fundamentally opposed to democratic openings in the region. These powers share views of the Muslim Brotherhood and basically any Islamist organisation as being “terrorist” groups which must be removed from the Arab world. Unsurprisingly, media outlets from the region’s counter-revolutionary states have been praising Saied for his power grab.
“Tunisia revolts against the Brotherhood” was a headline in the Saudi and Emirati newspapers Okaz and Al-Bayan. One UAE-based network, 20FourMedia, hailed Saied’s “brave decision to save Tunisia”. According to the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, “Saied has taken a set of extraordinary decisions…to stop the confusion the country is in as a result of the practices of the Brotherhood Ennahda movement which controls the legislative authority in the country”.
Abu Dhabi believes Ennahda has spent years seeking to “proliferate political Islam across the region through alliances with Emirati rivals, Qatar and Turkey,” as Anna Jacobs, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, explained. Given that Ennahda was Tunisia’s largest political party, this autogolpe was positive news for the states that saw the Tunisian group - and a democratic system in Tunisia that gave it legitimacy - as a threat to their interests.
Just as Abu Dhabi and Riyadh backed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup in 2013 and Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity in 2014, these two Arab capitals now have Saied’s back. Egypt’s government will also stand by him.
Notably, for all the tensions in Emirati-Saudi relations that have built up in recent years, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s reactions to Saied’s power grab highlight how the two Gulf powerhouses remain very much on the same page when it comes to opposing democratic development, pluralism, and political Islam in the region.
"For the Emiratis, as kind of the patron of the counter-revolution, it was always very important to make sure that Tunisia does not succeed in terms of bringing about a pluralistic system"
“From Riyadh’s perspective, helping demonize Ennahda through its propaganda-and-disinformation operation is a no brainer,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an NGO based in Geneva, in an interview with The New Arab. “These things don’t cost much money and the bulk of the work has been done by others anyway”.
In Libya, Haftar expressed his support for the Tunisian president too. “What the comments from Haftar and others show is a notable achievement in the way of storytelling,” explained Harchaoui. “The message that is successfully projected is one that depicts Tunisia’s Ennahda as the source of all evil in the embattled North African country”.
Successful Emirati messaging
The UAE has long sought to pull Tunisia closer to its orbit of influence - and further away from Qatar and Turkey’s. By cultivating relations with Tunisia’s media sector, private businesses, financial institutions, and liberal/secular political Tunisian groups that are ideologically and firmly opposed to Islamism, the Emiratis have gained their share of influence in the North African country. These gains did not come about overnight, but instead took years to build up.
Politicians like the Free Destourian Party’s leader Abir Moussi, who is a former Ben Ali regime official, have contributed to an environment that capitalises on anti-Ennahda sentiments in Tunisia. Such UAE-aligned figures depict Ennahda as a Muslim Brotherhood-linked “terrorist” group that functions as an agent of Al Jazeera or the Qatari/Turkish governments.
The 25 July power grab came after Tunisia started moving closer to the Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian bloc during Saied’s presidency which began in 2019.
“For the Emiratis, as kind of the patron of the counter-revolution, it was always very important to make sure that Tunisia does not succeed in terms of bringing about a pluralistic system whereby Islamists play an important role in politics,” Dr Andreas Krieg, an Assistant Professor at King's College London's School of Security Studies, told The New Arab.
In various Arab countries, the Emiratis have worked to “create mobilization, the foundation for protests…built around existing grievances” that can be directed against a “scapegoat” which in Tunisia’s case is Ennahda, according to Dr Krieg.
A win for Abu Dhabi
For the leadership in Abu Dhabi, Saied’s power grab was a victory for its worldview and the UAE’s clout in the Maghreb. “As long as Saied maintains the same anti-Ennahda discourse, the UAE-linked voices and outlets will carry on applauding him,” said Harchaoui.
"Given that Ennahda was Tunisia's largest political party, this autogolpe was positive news for the states that saw the group - and a democratic system in Tunisia that gave it legitimacy - as a threat to their interests"
But how much financial support can the Tunisian leader count on from the Emiratis? “This is all about perception and storytelling, as I don’t expect the UAE will lend or give a substantial amount of money in the way it did to Cairo in 2013-2015”.
Even after the historic al-Ula summit of January 2021 brought about the lifting of the blockade of Qatar, the regional divisions and agendas which resulted in the Gulf crisis remain highly relevant to the Arab world’s political developments.
At the heart of this tension are not questions about how Arab monarchies manage intra-GCC relations. Instead, they are more fundamentally about worldviews and visions for the Arab region’s political future.
“Importantly, the US and other Western powers will likely not pressure Saeid,” predicts Harchaoui. “That will make this Tunisian crisis an appreciable ideological victory for Abu Dhabi, as its worldview may be triumphing”.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero