Tunisia’s new government: 5 things we’ve learned about Tunisian foreign policy

Foreign policy has been a back drop in the Tunisian political landscape since the January 14 uprising against Ben Ali. Never a major international player, Tunisia spent 2011 getting its domestic business in order. However, as the new government gets down to business, international relations are once again returning as an important part of Tunisian politics, but their importance is as much domestic as anything else.

What are the keys to understanding Tunisia’s new foreign policy?

1) It’s rule by committee + 1

Tunisia’s troika, composed of the three major parties in Tunisia’s post-elections coalition, delegated foreign policy responsibility across two branches of government. The president sets foreign policy in consultation with the foreign minister, who is appointed by the prime minister.

Some observers think that Marzouki, whose party finished second in the October elections, sacrificed his party in order to give himself the power of the presidency. This stood in contrast with Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jafaar, who will lead the process of drafting the constitution as speaker of the Constituent Assembly.

Nonetheless Marzouki seems keen on pushing Tunisia’s foreign policy agenda. In the past week, Marzouki has made headlines in two areas. On Saturday, February 4, Marzouki announced the withdrawal of the Tunisian ambassador to Syria and this week, he will visit Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania in an effort to restart the moribund Maghreb Union.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, has played a lower profile, mostly meeting with counterparts of Tunisia’s allies, after outcries of nepotism failed to derail his nomination in December (he is Rached Ghannouchi’s son-in-law). Neither Abdessalem nor Prime Minister Jebali have publicly challenged Marzouki’s course yet and the foreign ministry has not played a high profile in the new government’s direction.

Perhaps driving Jebali’s and Abdessalem’s relative absence from the foreign policy spotlight is Rached Ghannouchi’s continuing presence. Despite not holding a position in the government (he was neither elected nor appointed to a government position), it is widely known the Ghannouchi calls the shots in Ennahdha, including on foreign policy. Widespread rumors say that he instigated the calls for the recall of Tunisia’s ambassador to Syria this week.

2) Proximity matters – Maghreb version

Libya: Tunisian foreign policy concerns are dominated by the continuing instability of its neighbor, Libya. Economic ties between Libya and Tunisia were increasingly close prior to the Libyan uprising, with Tunisia being the beneficiary of favorable trade relations (including oil imports), Libyan tourism, remittances and foreign direct investment. [See also this excellent report from the African Development Bank showing the significance of Libyan trade with Tunisia.]

Following the start of the uprising against Ghaddafi, Tunisia opened its doors and its stores to Libyans, on both sides. Tens of thousands of refugees flooded across the border and Tunisia began shipping tons of food and water supplies to those stuck in Libya. On the other hand, Libya began exporting weapons and paramilitaries to Tunisia. The continued instability in Libya has forced Tunisian authorities to close its border on several occasions, effectively closing off trade from this important market. An issue which has dragged on for months has been the incarceration of Libya’s former prime minister. Tunisia has so far refused to extradite him to the Libyan authorities, who have repeatedly ask that he be returned to Libya.

What marks Tunisian relations with Libya is strict pragmatism. Throughout the NATO bombardment and uprising against Ghaddafi, Tunisia remained an engaged, but nonetheless neutral, observer. While Western governments fear the next government in Libya, Tunisians hope that, just as under Ghaddafi in the last decade, there will be no bumps in this important strategic relationship. The number one concern that could up-end this otherwise beneficial relationship is the vast number of arms that appear to be pouring out of the country.

North Africa: Since the new new government was formed, Tunisian authorities have expressed their desire to re-start talks on the integration of Maghreb. The Maghreb Union has been inactive since 1994 due to disagreements between Algeria and Morocco. Marzouki’s visit follows a visit by Ennahdha’s de-facto leader, Rached Ghannouchi, in November 2011. Tunisia’s educated population and solid infrastructure could benefit from greater trade with its neighbors, though it is unclear that it could have any role in unlocking the stalemate between Algeria and Morocco. Regardless, as noted, Marzouki will visit three countries in the region this week.

The move attempts to show Marzouki as a statesman, as well as project Tunisia’s power in the region. Tunisia may hope to benefit from popular goodwill among Maghreb populations as a way to kick start its diplomacy.

On the domestic front, Marzouki’s move will show that despite Tunisia’s newly important relationship with countries like Qatar, regional ties remain important.

3) Proximity matters – or does it? – Arab Spring version

It’s safe to say that Tunisia, unlike other countries in the region, has not been transfixed with the Arab Spring. While Tunisians feel (justifiably) proud of their role in kickstarting the Arab revolutions of 2011/2012, other uprisings have not galvanized the Tunisian population. There are two reasons for this relative ambivalence:

1) Tunisia, if you haven’t noticed, has been dealing with its own issues. From the economic crisis to the elections to the constant protests and sitins, Tunisia has been getting its house in order. It has hardly had time to focus on Egypt, let alone countries like Bahrain or Yemen.

2) The violence, anarchy, and destruction that has characterized other Arab revolutions was virtually absent in Tunisia. Despite a period of several months when there were virtually no police on the streets, Tunisian society stayed together. Unlike Americans or Europeans (or Gulf Arabs) I speak with, Tunisians I know do not identify their country with these other uprisings.

One departure from this relative ambivalence to the Arab Spring, has been the Syrian uprising. The recall of Tunisia’s ambassador to Syria on Saturday caused an uproar among Tunisian opposition parties and has sparked protests on the internet. As in many other parts of the Arab world, views on Syria are divided. Many see the uprising as a conspiracy by Qatar and its Western allies to bring war back to the Middle East. Others see the bloodletting as symptomatic of the same kind of Arab dictator Tunisia deposed just one year ago.

The debate over Syria, however, is much more domestic than it is geopolitical. Opposition parties see an opportunity to confront Ennahdha. They see the government’s actions as a payback to Qatar for supporting Tunisia (and Ennahdha) since the revolution. A common theme among civil society opponents of Ennahdha is to claim that Tunisia went from being subservient to France under Ben Ali to being subservient to Qatar under Ennahdha. This plays into widespread anxieties in Tunisia over foreign interference into their sovereignty (a common theme throughout the Arab world).

4) Europe can only be ignored for so long

Tunisian relations with Europe have been frayed since the January uprising. Ben Ali’s close relations with Europe, particularly France, have caused Tunisians of all political stripes to question its “special” relationship with its former colonial ruler. In the meantime, Tunisians are frustrated by what they consider to be increased Islamaphobia in Europe. Even among Francophone Tunisians, recent comments by French officials regarding civilizations that are not worth anything have caused an uproar, as a perceived slight against Islamic/Arab culture.

Nonetheless, critical issues tie Tunisia with Europe – immigration and trade. Tunisia exports close to 70 percent of its products to Europe. Europe invests heavily in Tunisia, with over 3,000 French companies alone operating in Tunisia. Additionally, Algerian gaz reaches Italy through a pipeline that links Tunisia’s Cap Bon peninsula with Sicily.

Although Europeans are often seen placing greater importance on the issue of Tunisian (part of a wider trend in North Africa) immigration to Europe, Tunisians as well have long relied on Europe as a destination for higher studies or short periods of training.

Despite these links, post-Ben Ali Tunisia has drifted further and further from Europe. This estrangement is based partly on European support for Ben Ali, but also on Ennahdha leaders disdain for the French. As Tunisia’s debate over language shows, there is a strong trend in the country to look away from Europe. While this may be part of Ennahdha’s long-term plan, in the short-term, this is simply unrealistic. In the past year, Tunisia has been promised billions of dollars in aid from the World Bank, joined the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and signed onto multi-million dollar deals with European investors.

It may take some time, and learning on both sides of the Mediterranean, but economic ties will continue to bind Tunisia to its northern neighbors.

…..and finally…..

5) The Gulf doesn’t matter

Despite the constant refrain that Qatar and other countries in the Persian Gulf will dominate Tunisian foreign policy, little evidence suggests that Tunisia’s foreign policy posture will change dramatically. As Tunisia Live reported, the visit of Qatar’s emir to Tunisia to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Tunisia’s uprising caused an uproar in some circles in Tunisia. And, it is undoubtedly true that Qatar has played up its image as a supporter of Arab revolutions. However, there is little proof that beyond support in international arenas (such as the Arab League or the UN) Qatari support will change Tunisia’s foreign policy outlook.

Gulf support was seen by some as critical to Ennahdha’s organization and ultimate victory in the October elections. Ennahdha leaders have called for greater investment from the Gulf in Tunisia – including Islamic tourism. This is unlikely to amount to much. Oil rich countries will undoubtedly look at investment opportunities in Tunisia. Reports that Qatar will help Tunisia float its currency surfaced late last year. Nonetheless, Tunisia’s strategic position on the Mediterranean makes it unlikely that Gulf investment could supplant European investment in the country.

Some observers see the Gulf as an exporter of culture. Many see the rise of Salafism in Tunisia as an import from the Gulf. While it’s true that Tunisians may be influenced by Gulf-based conservative television stations, Salafism in Tunisia grew up in as much in the jails of Ben Ali’s prisons as it has in any petro-state. That said, there is an undeniable strain in Tunisian society that look much more toward Saudi Arabia than to its Mediterranean neighbors. That, however, is an abstraction at this point. The reality is that Tunisian culture is as close to Qatari culture as Russian culture is to Portuguese culture.

It is possible that over time Tunisia will orient itself eastwards, but this will take time and significant exogenous changes (such as a major collapse of the European economy). In other words, I’ll believe it when I see it.