Tunisia must avoid foreign-policy cacophony and develop coherent policies that endorse its values.
By Amina El Abed*
Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s sole success story, is emerging from a long state-building process, trying to balance diametrically opposed political parties and movements. Yet once hailed for diplomacy and its voice of reason, Tunisia has become noticeably timid on the international scene and slow to develop positions on too many issues.
While Tunisia should not make waves with powerful neighbors, the country could lose face by aligning with policies that go against the values on which it built its international identity such as unequivocally supporting just causes and non-interference. Another challenge for the Tunisian government is message coherence. Tunisia’s internal stakeholders are immersed in perpetual disagreement on world issues, a foreign-policy cacophony. Understanding and selecting building blocks for its foreign policy are crucial, as the stakes are high for the small and struggling country with its state debt reaching 71 percent of GDP at the start of 2018. The pattern of hesitation and timidity is telling not only about the internal struggle but the lack of a vision for Tunisian foreign policy, which is troublesome, especially in the volatile Middle East.
The civil war in Syria is a case in point. Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Khemaies Jhinaoui held a press conference in August, reminding political parties that diplomacy was the prerogative of his office and the president. The announcement came after a delegation of National Assembly deputies traveled to Damascus to express support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without notifying the Tunisian government. Five days later, President Béji Caïd Essebsi also commented on the visit with contrived playfulness, that the delegation had yet to inform the foreign affairs minister about the purpose or outcome of their visit. With the government downplaying the gravity of such interference, the incident garnered little attention.
Internal struggles like these may be the biggest threat to Tunisian diplomacy. The country is weakened by mismanagement, insecurity and economic threats, public mistrust and political amateurism. Tunisian political forces draw strength from outside sources, and every party has its own external policy. Such partisan diplomacy prevents Tunisia from relaying a coherent message to the world about its policies, confides a senior official with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the government struggles to contain the confusion. Parties disregard the national interest to serve their own agendas, the official explains, with party leaders receiving ambassadors and discussing issues without the government’s knowledge.
Tunisia went from one extreme to another. Before the Arab Spring, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali perceived the opposition’s foreign ties as openings for external forces that might threaten the stability of his reign. Preoccupied with security, Ben Ali seldom traveled outside of the country, reducing Tunisia’s profile on regional or international affairs. Small countries have greater impact when they coordinate and converge on foreign-policy messaging, limiting potential interference without crushing varying points of view. Today, however, Tunisia has a myriad of internal actors with divergent ideological tendencies that feed polarization. “The slightest world issue is imported into the country,” says Abdallah Labidi, a former diplomat. “It starts a debate and quickly becomes a quarrel between political actors.”
Interference in Tunisian affairs is on the rise as political parties construct their own networks with foreign embassies. Tunisia, lodged between Algeria with its natural resources and Libya in raging crisis, is also about 150 kilometers from Europe through the Strait of Sicily. Meetings with foreign representatives without notifying authorities once would have triggered investigations, but are now a common occurrence. Some party representatives outline stances opposed to national foreign policy, voicing them before official policies are public – bound to confuse the international community. In the ongoing Qatar–Gulf Cooperation Council crisis, for example, Tunisia opts for neutrality while the Ennahdha Party voices support for Qatar.
Some confusion is understandable in the aftermath of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, and the country confronts concerns as they emerge, trying to establish occasional alliances. On paper, the government out of habit enumerates diplomacy principles put in place decades ago: positive neutrality, noninterference, respect of international legality and primacy of national interests. Tunisia must also establish a sound foreign-policy framework for the long term.
Another diplomat who requested anonymity suggests the country has no plan for five years from now because of fragmentation: “it is too difficult to make such plans.” Molding a coherent narrative ended when Tunisia’s two major political parties formed a coalition in 2014 even while sporting paradoxical ideologies: Nidaa Tounes, the liberal party created by the president, feeds on glorification of the nationalist era, from 1956 to 1987 when Habib Bourguiba led Tunisia, and unfulfilled promises to restore the country’s prestige. Ennahdha, on the other hand, supports new regional order and closer ties with Turkey and Qatar while incorporating religious ideology into politics. Such aspirations were somewhat tamed following Ennahdha’s 2016 announcement that it was parting ways with political Islam to become a national democratic party – an announcement greeted with skepticism inside and outside of Tunisia. Together, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha make up 63 percent of the parliament of 217 seats, made up of 15 parties and three independent lists.
Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president’s son and leader of Nidaa Tounes, stated in an interview that a coalition with the Islamist party was in Tunisia’s best interest. But the alliance is problematic for development of sound foreign policy. Ennahdha’s external relationships do not necessarily correspond with official positions, and ideological interests among Islamist movements transcend borders.
Libya offers a prime example of the challenges. The Tunisian government works to position itself as a mediator among three factions competing for dominance over its eastern neighbor. But forces cultivating ties with their favorite factions undermine efforts to appear neutral. Islamist groups of Libya cultivate ties with Tunisian Islamic groups, mainly Ennahdha. Furthermore, Ennahdha’s ongoing support of parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East clashes with the country’s principles of positive neutrality and noninterference. For former diplomat Labidi, sanctioning Ennahdha for defying those principles would be improper, if not counterproductive: After all, “the hungry cannot be positively neutral.”
Amid ongoing ideological debate, the coalition is in the unenviable position of failing to take an explicit position on most issues. The foreign affairs minister may occasionally express exasperation with Ennahdha, but a source concedes that for determining actual positions, the office must “keep Ennahdha satisfied – not full satisfaction, but we have to take that into consideration.”
In December 2017, the Tunisian diaspora in Germany held an impromptu election of its representative following the resignation of the Nidaa Tounes candidate. As expected, Ennahdha chose not to run, instead supporting Nidaa Tounes’ candidate as representative for both parties. Voters shunned the elections, and the liberal candidate lost to revolutionary activist Yassine Ayari. Nidaa Tounes leadership, alarmed by the erosion of its electoral base, expressed the need to review its alliance with Ennahdha, which rejected any responsibility for the defeat. Signs of trouble for this relationship could usher in a reshaping of Tunisian foreign policy. The divide within Nidaa Tounes, instability of Liberal parties in general, makes that goal difficult enough without Ennahdha. Amidst the quarrels and disorganization, the Islamist party may have opted to let the divide play out and afterward reshape foreign policy in tune with Ennahdha’s ideology.
Tunisia held its first municipal elections since 2011 in early May, a long time coming as dissatisfaction peaked with management of local governance by unelected special councils. Voters could sanction the parties that have failed them. Indeed, preliminary results suggest that Tunisians sent a strong message to parties they once trusted: With an alarming 35 percent participation rate, the majority voted for independent lists, a possible sign of ending a marriage to which Tunisians never gave their blessing.
*Amina El Abed is an expert on public diplomacy, governmental communication and Tunisian foreign affairs. She is currently director of communications for OXCON Frontier Markets and Fragile States Consulting.