A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.


Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.


Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.


A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  – the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.


Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.

French presidential candidate addresses Tunisian voters

French presidential candidate Francois Hollande

As France prepares to vote, the Tunisian uprising continues to play a role. While right wing candidates play up fear over rising immigration from North Africa, the Socialist candidate, Francois Hollande, is courting the Tunisian vote. In an interview yesterday with the magazine 216 (the magazine “for Tunisians abroad), Hollande explained how if he is elected he will increase support for the restitution of Ben Ali’s assets:

Justice must be done and political action must be there to serve the cause of justice. The financial crisis does not justify everything and does not undermine the fight against corruption. This fight will be at the heart of our international activities.

Regarding French support for foreign dictators, including Ben Ali and his family:

I was shocked, like many French people, by the reception, over the past five years,  of now overthrown dictators in Paris. This does not correspond to the values of France, democracy, freedom, respect for fundamental rights. There is no reason to support draconian and dictatorial regimes. That is why the left has urged the French government to support the Revolution and the Tunisian Arab Spring, from its onset. The silence of France had lasted too long.

For more from Hollande on Tunisia and the Arab Spring see his interview with French radio station “France Info” last January.

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.