Regional players Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and France have shown interest in the political situation, and the immediate effects will most likely be felt in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Tunisia’s ongoing political crisis devolved into what is being called a "civil coup,” when President Kais Saied suspended parliament for 30 days, lifted the immunity of the deputies and gathered all legislative and executive powers under his authority on July 25, leaving the country in a period of uncertainty.
The state of crisis in the country, increasing tensions between political groups and finally, the president’s latest decisions are connected to dynamics and competition both within and outside the country.
The UAE factor
Viewing the Arab revolutions as a threat to its regime’s security, the UAE made serious efforts to prevent democratisation in the region, especially seen in the 2013 Egyptian coup.
The Abu Dhabi administration, supported by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and to a lesser extent, France and the US, in its counter-revolutionary policies, appears to be willing to implement a strategy in Tunisia similar to the one in Egypt; many signs point to the UAE intervening in Tunisia to balance the government close to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. With this intervention, the UAE also may be aiming to lure Tunisia to its side.
In the Egyptian context, the Tunisian president’s visit to Cairo on April 9 — months before President Kais Saied’s decisions — further raises eyebrows regarding Egypt’s connection with his moves. Egypt is the key facilitator of UAE’s policies in North Africa and the Mediterranean, so Abu Dhabi may have pressured Egypt to play a role in the developments in Tunisia.
EU’s security concerns
Tunisia is of great geopolitical and economic importance, particularly for European Union countries on the Mediterranean. This became especially apparent after the power vacuum in Libya after 2011 had turned it into a hub for immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries aiming to cross illegally to Europe.
Countries like Italy, Malta, Greece and France have undertaken a great cost in Tunisia in order to ensure coastal security and prevent uncontrolled migration flows. Potential internal turmoil may make Tunisia a new hub for reaching the shore of neighbouring EU countries, thus broadening the crisis from the Mediterranean to all EU members.
It is also very unlikely that the Tunisian economy will be able to withstand the combination of the economic bottleneck created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the suspension of the political process and the relegation of democratic values. The loss of a dynamic and active market goes against the interests of French and Italian companies with serious investments in the country. This scenario may cause these countries to deactivate their possible investments and puts their ongoing projects at risk.
Competition for regional influence
Although Turkey does not consider Tunisia a stage in the struggle for regional influence, the UAE and France are uneasy with the regional balance of power developing in favour of Turkey.
What happened in Tunisia has a critical importance for Turkey, which was the foremost defender of the democratic transformation wave during the Arab revolutions. Ankara continues to support Tunisia politically, economically and militarily and is opposed to the recent backtracking in democratic transition.
Turkey, however, did not react harshly as to keep dialogue channels open with all actors in Tunisia. A recent phone call between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Tunisian counterpart indicates Ankara’s constructive approach to the crisis.
Turkey, which is trying to establish an alliance with Tunisia in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, approved the export of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to the country last year, showing the weight Ankara gives to Tunisia in its broader foreign policy objectives in the region.
Before the agreements with Turkey, Tunisia had rejected a similar arms import agreement with France. Paris wants to balance Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and the Libyan crisis, and may consider the events in Tunisia as an opportunity to balance Turkey by supporting local actors. Therefore, as in the Libyan crisis, France may engage in destabilising attempts by contradicting general EU policies in Tunisia.
Turkey and Tunisia have common interests in Libya and want to end instability in the country by supporting the Government of National Unity (GNU). At this point, the continuation of the cooperation between the two countries largely depends on the willingness of the political actors in Tunisia.
Tunisia has hosted political negotiations since the beginning of the Libyan crisis and is a role model for its war-torn neighbour, which has entered a political reconciliation process.
Internal turmoil in Tunisia would give leverage to local and international actors like France and the UAE, which prioritise military engagements within Libya. This will drag both Libya and the region into instability.
Similarly, cooperation between Tunis and Ankara is vital in the context of the eastern Mediterranean. For Turkey, Tunisia is a potential ally in the equation, which has both economic and political aspects.
A Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004, allowed for a gradual increase in commercial activities, and there appears to be a strong willingness for both parties to increase trade as was recently seen with new agreements in the field of defence and military equipment. The trade volume between the two riparian countries over the Mediterranean covers different sectors such as energy, mining, agriculture and food and reached $1 billion in 2020.
However, Turkey will continue to play constructive roles in realising democratic transformations in the Middle East and ensuring stability in the countries of the region, and will continue to stand by the peoples of the region against the attempts of actors trying to undermine these processes.
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