Tunisia, Tunisia (Associated Press)-The political turmoil in Tunisia caused by economic paralysis and the surge in coronavirus infections has caused the country’s allies in the Middle East, Europe and the United States to wait and see whether its fragile democracy will survive.
European countries—especially those near Italy—are worried that if Tunisia falls further into chaos, there will be a large number of immigrants.
Authoritarian leaders from Egypt to Saudi Arabia want Tunisian President Keith Said to seize power this week to bring bad luck to Islamists in the region. But they are also worried about the rekindling of the Arab Spring, just like the uprising ignited in Tunisia a decade ago.
All over the world, pro-democracy activists want to know whether a country they see as a beacon is returning to dictatorship.
“The ball is now in the people’s court,” Egyptian activist el-Ghazaly Harb said in a Facebook post. “They can correct their path without giving up the peaceful democratic model, and we all hope that they can persevere to the end,” he said. “The answer is always Tunisia.”
Tunisia has only 12 million of the 1.3 billion people in Africa. As a country that designed democracy from scratch and won the Nobel Peace Prize after its basically bloodless revolution, it has great symbolic significance.
On Sunday, Said froze the national parliament and took over executive power without warning, saying that he must save a country that is suffering from a virus outbreak and economic recession.
Since then, he has opposed corrupt legislators and tycoons, and has strengthened military supervision of the pandemic. He and his assistants held a series of meetings with foreign allies, promising that his seizure of power was temporary.
But his next move is unclear.
The main victim of his decision-the Islamic Party Ennahdha-promised peaceful resistance.
Tunisian analysts do not expect an army-driven takeover like Egypt’s, nor a return to the authoritarian past, partly because people are no longer afraid to speak up. But the situation is turbulent, and new protests are expected on Saturday, when supporters and opponents of the president may start confrontations.
Pro-government voices in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates celebrate what they understand as a victory over political Islam, which they see as a threat to their rule.
Egypt is watching carefully. In 2011, it was the first large-scale protest against authoritarian rule that broke out in Tunisia. Since then, the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood has come to power, but in 2013 it was replaced by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
El-Sissi has embarked on economic reforms and brought some political stability to the most populous country in the Arab world, but his tenure has been compromised by the imprisonment of tens of thousands.
The main figures of the Brotherhood now face the death penalty or life imprisonment. The organization has been banned in Egypt and the UAE and is known as a “terrorist organization”. The organization itself has detained dozens of Emirati Islamists.
Some activists worry that Tunisia may follow a similar path, even though Said is an independent technical expert.
“Coups are not only initiated by the military; they can be started by civilians and completed by military officers,” said Shady Lewis Boutros, an Egyptian novelist and writer living in the UK, in a Facebook post.
Abdelrahman al-Rashed, who runs a Saudi-owned media group and has close ties to the royal family, said Said is saving the country from the chaos caused by the Arab Spring. In a column in the Arabic Ashraq al-Awsat newspaper, he wrote that the political turmoil in Tunisia marked the “demise of the authority of the Muslim Brotherhood”.
Ennahdha itself has distanced itself from more radical Islamists, and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi told the Associated Press this week that its critics are using it as a scapegoat for Tunisia. He pointed out that since the revolution, his party has played an important role in Parliament, paved the way for his return from exile in London for 22 years, and won the most seats in the last legislative election.
Some people question whether the Gulf countries have played a role in the current tensions in Tunisia. But the Tunisian political scientist Mohamed-Dhia Hammami played down this speculation, saying that Tunisians are more concerned with daily issues than discussions surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, Tunisia’s strategic importance to the EU cannot be overstated.
From 2014 to 20, the European Union invested 1.6 billion euros (US$1.9 billion) in Tunisia to build democracy and provide social and economic assistance. It has provided 330 million euros (392 million US dollars) to help the country recover from the effects of coronavirus restrictions. In May, the EU also agreed to provide another 600 million euros (712 million US dollars) in macro financial assistance.
Most importantly, Tunisia is a key partner in restricting the flow of African immigrants into the European Union. The 27 member states have hopeless differences on how to manage the arrival of Europeans seeking a better life, so the group has outsourced the challenge to other countries.
However, Tunisians are now one of the largest groups seeking asylum in Europe. The “Tunisia Corridor” is receiving increasing attention from Frontex, the European Union’s border and coast guard.
According to some NGOs, from 2019 to 2020, the number of people arriving in Italy from Tunisia increased by nearly 400% to more than 13,000. This includes periods when COVID-19 restrictions significantly reduce migration flows.
Said had a “frank discussion on irregular immigration” with senior EU officials in Brussels last month, and they agreed to cooperate more closely in the fight against smugglers and border management. The recent turmoil has intensified European concerns that things might get worse.
On Tuesday, the EU’s top diplomat called for the restoration of Tunisia’s constitutional order, but did not directly share any responsibility.
The US government is also paying close attention. In addition to supporting its democracy, the United States also helps fund Tunisia’s efforts to combat violent Islamic extremism.
A few hours after Said announced the news, he spoke with Secretary of State Anthony Brinken, who urged him to “adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights” and “maintain an open dialogue with all political figures and the Tunisian people.”
Tunisians themselves want jobs and opportunities, and these jobs and opportunities have been elusive since their revolution. Many people support the president-at least for now.
Although there is a risk of new large-scale riots, Hamami said that “Tunisia has a strong political force that can play a balancing role”, including trade unions. Unlike Egypt, the Tunisian army has almost no control over the economy.
Tunisian retired army brigadier general and security expert Omar Oudherni said that the people of Tunisia “will not remain silent on any tyrant.”
“Doing good deeds will be supported, and if (Said) wants to be dictatorial, the people will sweep him like other people,” he added.
Aya Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Lorne Cook from Brussels. Elaine Ganley contributed to this report in Paris.