Why is post-revolution Tunisia friends with Assad?

Why is post-revolution Tunisia friends with Assad?
Comment: Government says restoration of diplomatic ties will aid Tunisians trapped by war - but opponents see the move as the antithesis of Tunisia's revolution, says Conor Sheils.
3 min read
10 Apr, 2015
Many believe Essebsi is a remnant of the Ben Ali regime [AFP]

Tunisia's post-revolution rulers are facing a backlash following the recent announcement that the North African country is set  to restore diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Last week Tunisia's foreign minister, Taieb Bakouch, said: "We will not have an ambassador there, but Tunisia will open a consulate or put in place a charge d'affaires, and a Syria ambassador is welcome to Tunisia, if Syria wishes so."

Government officials say the move will help Tunisia glean information on Tunisians fighting in Syria and eventually prevent them from carrying out attacks on Tunisian soil.

Unsurprisingly, the move has been met with disgust from Syrian opposition figures who see the move as an anti-revolutionary u-turn against their plight.

The Syrian National Coalition, a moderate group which claims to be a government in exile, called on Tunisia to reconsider its decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with the Syrian government.

"This is a wrong decision," Haitham al-Maleh, the head of the SNC's legal committee, told the Anadolu news agency. "Re-establishing relations is a dangerous thing that targets the revolutions in both Tunisian and Syria."

     Re-establishing relations... targets the revolutions in both Tunisia and Syria."

Haitham al-Maleh, Syrian National Coalition

This latest move will undoubtedly fuel suspicions in Tunisia that the government of Beji Caid Essebsi, dominated by his Nidaa Tounes party, is slowly turning its back on the hard-fought victories of the 2011 uprising which sparked the Arab Spring.

Some Tunisians are already questioning the possible future outcome of a stepped-up security state.

More than 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the Syrian war, with half of that figure being civilians.

Many Tunisians will see Essebsi's move as anti-revolutionary and a return to the policies of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Ali had much in common with Assad, not least his oppression of minorities and dissenting voices.

In July 2010, six months before the Arab Spring began, Ben Ali held talks with Assad to discuss "the excellent brotherly relations between Tunisia and Syria".

However less than 18 months later Ben Ali was gone and his successor Moncef Marzouki - a candidate favoured by the Islamist Enahdha party - had severed diplomatic ties with the Assad regime in response to its suppression and murder of Syrian civilians demanding change.

The move alienated had a knock-on effect for Tunisian fighters held in Syria's prisons - they now stood no chance of release in the absence of a diplomatic presence there.

The u-turn was argued partly on that basis: "We do not believe that our interests are served by cutting off relations with Syria," said Bakouch last week, adding that Tunisians in Syria had been "greatly harmed" by the cutting of ties.

Whether the move will aid Tunisians in Syria and help Tunisia track those fighting there remains to be seen.

Many of those who fought for Tunisia's freedom will undoubtedly balk at the image of Nida Tounes, seen by many as the remnants of the old regime, cooperating once more with the Assad government, the very antithesis of the Arab Spring.