Can Tunisia survive foreign attempts to derail its democracy?

Can Tunisia survive foreign attempts to derail its democracy?
Comment: Saudi Arabia and UAE have continuously sought to undermine Tunisia's relatively successful reformist path, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
6 min read
04 Oct, 2019
Tunisia's second presidential elections symbolise another step in the country's promising democratic transition [AFP]
Tunisia's second presidential elections since the Arab Spring are upon us, and symbolise another step in the country's promising democratic transition. The first round took place on September 15, and the run off is scheduled for October 13.

In addition, Tunisians go to the polls this Sunday to vote in legislative elections.

But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fear that a successful transformation in Tunisia could threaten their own regional interests. As a result, they have continuously sought to undermine its relatively successful reformist path.

Commonly referred to as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Tunisia's protests in 2011 that forced autocrat Zine al Abadine Ben Ali from power inspired revolutionaries across the Middle East and North Africa to seek change in their own countries.

Despite concerns that issues such as economic woes and a degree of public disenfranchisement with the process have blighted Tunisia's reformist path, the country is still often considered a relatively successful case of a transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to reverse regionwide democratic transitions since the Arab Spring, using their financial prowess to empower reactionary and authoritarian political actors.

In Egypt they bankrolled the July 2013 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Morsi, helping consolidate a military dictatorship led by Abdelfattah al-Sisi. Additionally they have supported Sudan's Military Transitional Council and Libya's rogue warlord Khalifa Haftar with similar designs in both countries.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to reverse regionwide democratic transitions since the Arab Spring
Both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi apparently fear that greater democratic transformations would not only undermine their regional geopolitical influence, but trigger reformist calls within their own borders. Both have sought to stem the growth of political Islam, which could also upset a traditional regional status quo that ensures their survival.

In the case of Tunisia's democratic transition, they fear further democratic successes in the country could inspire people elsewhere to follow the same democratic path, as was the case in 2011.

Both states also fear that democratic success in Tunisia would drive the country closer to Turkey and Qatar, given that both  supported the Tunisian revolution. In addition, Qatar increased its investment in Tunisia following the revolution, largely to boost its fragile economy, indicating an increased alignment between Doha and post-revolution Tunis.

The Arab Spring saw the initial success of Tunisia's Ennahda party, a soft Islamist faction which was outlawed under Ben Ali's regime, and was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood upon its foundations in the 1980s. Despite initial concerns Ennahda was drifting towards more conservative stances, in 2016 an Ennahda founder Rached Ghannouchi announced the party had rebranded itself as "democratic Islam".

Yet the UAE along with Saudi Arabia has sought to weaken Ennahda's influence in Tunisia, seeing it as a promising example of Islamist democrats, who would welcome relations with Turkey and Qatar.

Prior to the first presidential elections in 2014, they backed the Nidaa Tounes party, which contained remnants from the old regime.

As Nidaa Tounes ran on a secular, nationalist and anti-Islamist agenda, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh saw them as prime candidates for their vision. Both Gulf states had financed Nidaa Tounes, also gifting vehicles to leading party figures. As Christopher Davidson writes in his book, 'Shadow Wars', there was wide suspicion that UAE had supported anti-Ennahda protests in Tunisia prior to the 2014 elections.

Tounes' electoral success in 2014 resulted in an uneasy ruling coalition with Ennahda. UAE and Saudi Arabia's efforts had paid off, and given a greater foothold to further influence Tunisian politics.

Emirati officials reportedly sought to persuade former President Beji Caid Essebsi to attempt to seize power from Ennahda, replicating Egypt's authoritarian counterrevolution. Essebsi reportedly refused, leaving Emirati ambitions unfulfilled.

A potential obstacle to such counterrevolutionary ambitions in Tunisia, is that the military does not having dominating government influence as it does in Egypt, making it difficult for them to facilitate a coup.

The UAE has also arguably sought to destabilise Tunisia, to punish it for pursuing an independent democratic transition. Former caretaker President Moncef Marzouki, who contested the 2019 elections, also indicated this, claiming in an interview with the Algerian Al-Khobar newspaper that the UAE had supported "corrupt media, terrorism" and used "corrupt money" to disrupt Tunisia's democratic transition.

Furthermore, the UAE sparked a diplomatic row with Tunis after temporarily banning Tunisian women from Emirates Airways in December 2017. Some Tunisian activists suspect that the UAE had a hidden hand in protests that erupted the following month against governmental economic failures.

It's important also to remember the context of the ongoing 2017 blockade on Qatar, and UAE's attempts to punish other countries for not toeing the same line, most notably Somalia.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are clearly not ready to give up on their vision for Tunisia. Despite some obvious setbacks, they still sought to influence the ongoing presidential elections. Abdelfattah Morou, a candidate for Ennahda, was offered Emirati money to distance himself from the party, Mehdi el Behi heard from a source in the Political Party Advisor's Council.
To secure Tunisia's thus far promising transformation, the world and Europe in particular should support its progress
Furthermore, a broadcast from the Saudi state-owned Al Arabiya channel, a week before the parliamentary election, blamed the killing of two Tunisian politicians on Ennahda. With no proof, and therefore a clear act of disinformation, it was evidently an attempt to make Ennahda lose popularity.
El Behi also pointed out a case of 35 journalists in Tunisia regularly receiving money to criticise Ennahda.

While there are clearly rifts emerging within the Saudi-Emirati alliance, particularly over their differences in Yemen, their alliance will conceivably remain intact as they both have a mutual foreign policy aim of undermining regional democracy.

It is likely that the UAE and Saudi Arabia will still not end their pursuit to block Tunisia's democracy, particularly in the context of ongoing election cycles. As many anti-democratic laws from the Ben Ali era remain in place, the UAE and Saudi Arabia still have room to weild such influence. They could still seek to support political figures who continue to uphold corruption.

Revolutions in Algeria and Sudan this year, along with a new wave of anti-Sisi protests in Egypt in September, could add a further sense of urgency to their counterrevolutionary activities, in Tunisia and beyond.
It is likely that the UAE and Saudi Arabia will still not end their pursuit to block Tunisia's democracy, particularly in the context of ongoing election cycles
El Behi says however that after 2014, Tunisia is now better equipped to withstand such external assaults, and that the results of the first round of the presidential elections prove the electorate are more aware of such outside interference.

To consolidate Tunisia's independence from such interference, he added "We need to set laws and rules forbidding all political parties from having direct contact with any external governments without the knowledge of our foreign ministry."

To secure Tunisia's thus far promising transformation, the world and Europe in particular should support its progress. Not only to counter Emirati and Saudi ambitions there and give Tunisians the chance to influence their own destiny, but to ensure that it acts as a bulwark against such corruption and counterrevolution elsewhere in the region.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.