Tunisia, Battlefield of The Gulf Countries

The crisis in the Arab world is partly caused by the policies of certain Persian Gulf principalities, among them the United Arab Emirates (UAE) whose central role is little known. And among the regions in which these countries maintain a proactive foreign policy, the least well-known would appear to be Tunisia, where, since 2011, the rulers of the monarchic federation have been carrying on an intense struggle against Qatar, political Islam and by extension, against democracy itself.

September 2015. Beji Caid Essebsi in Dubai offers his condolences to Emirati Vice-President Mohamed Ben Rachid Al-Maktoub on the death of his son.

Since 1995, Saudi Arabia has been trying to overthrow the ruling clan in Doha, considered too independent with respect to Riyadh and at times even hostile to its policies. The creation of Al-Jazira TV, the opening of its frontiers and airways to many Arab revolutionaries, and especially its intermittent support of Iran and Hezbollah have made Qatar a potential rival of Saudi Arabia.

The UAE is also very critical of Qatar. Both countries are small fry compared to the two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their ambitious, authoritarian rulers are at daggers drawn for reasons which are personal, political and historical.

The Democratic Argument

When the Arab Spring erupted at the beginning of 2011, the United States under the Obama presidency quickly sided with the forces of change. Qatar and Turkey, two of the USA’s major allies, both close to the Muslim Brotherhood and many revolutionary Arab movements, took the same approach. Whereas Saudi Arabia and the UAE chose the opposite tack (except in Syria and Libya, for different reasons). In both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, order and stability are considered preferable to democracy. And yet these countries’ rulers make no attempt to produce an ideological critique of this political system. On the contrary, they claim to favor of democracy while implying that their peoples are simply not ready for it yet. This argument, perpetually used in every country and at every period, is associated with a concrete reason less often voiced: the clans in power might lose their privileges if democracy were established and their opponents took power by way of the ballot box.

Neither the Turks nor the Qatari are much more democratic than the Saudis or the Emirati, but they regard democracy as the best way for their allies to take power and therefore as a tool to serve their own interests. So they pretend to favor the establishment of the rule of law in Arab countries because it chances to please their Western allies. Hence the Turkish-Qatari alliance indirectly favored the introduction of democracy in 2011.

However, the multiple wars that broke out in the Arab world, its economic difficulties, the metastasis of terrorism and the mass migrations towards Europe have led many Western capitals to reconsider their priorities: the security of Europe now takes precedence over the democratization of Arab countries. The Brexit vote, the general rise of right-wing populism and Donald Trump’s accession to the White House in January 2017 have merely hastened the process.

Consequently, the Turks and the Qataris, up to then the vanguard of a Western policy promoting democracy in the Arab world, suddenly found themselves shoved into the background. And the Saudis and the Emiratis, previously marginalized, were now the center stage, practically kingmakers in Washington and actively courted by Paris and London. Today, the forces of authoritarian stability seem to far outweigh those in favor of democracy.

The Libyan Precedent

While Saudi Arabia concentrated most of its efforts on its immediate geographic surroundings (Syria and ISIS to the North, Iran to the East, Yemen to the South and Egypt to the West), the Emirati went further afield. The Arab Spring gave them the opportunity to develop a new foreign policy, proactive, ambitious and somewhat reminiscent of the one adopted by Qatar only two decades ago.

So, since 2011, the UAE has been targeting Qatar and its chief allies Turkey and the Islamist political parties. However, Turkey is a major regional power and Abu Dhabi has avoided confronting it directly. It is political Islam, the weakest link in the alliance, which bears the brunt of that undeclared war, especially in North Africa.

But the collateral victim of this battle is democracy. In Morocco and Algeria, the system has thus far remained solid enough to avoid any interference from the EAU and Qatar. Their duel has, on the other hand, led to the establishment of a dictatorship in Egypt and the disintegration of Libya. Which leaves only Tunisia.

In Libya, both the Emirati and the Qatari were deeply implicated in the 2011 war against the Jamahiriya, cooperating with NATO to bring down the regime. Tunisia was the obligatory pathway to Tripoli and both countries used it to ship arms and munitions. But the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the electoral victory of Ennahda in Tunisia in October 2011, the death of Muammar Gaddafi that same month and the triumph of The Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco a month later meant two things: Qatar was making progress in North Africa and Muammar Gaddafi, the common enemy who had obliged Abu Dhabi and Doha to join forces, was out of the picture. By the end of 2011, the rivalry between the two countries was in full swing. Egypt and Libya were important prizes: winning the one meant losing the other. And winning Tunisia had a symbolic value since the Arab Spring had begun there and because it was a key element in the Libyan affair.

Tunisia Held Hostage by the UAE

The UAE’s strategy in Tunisia may be summed up in three key points: first, blocking Qatar’s progress there and by extension that of Ennahda, the party of political Islam. The Lybian affair constitutes the third point: the UAE is massively involved there, economically, politically and militarily, against Doha, Ankara and political Islam.

Thus from early in 2011, the Emirati—and Saudi—media empires came down heavily on Ennahda and the Qatari and Turkish influence in Tunisia. This campaign aimed at the Tunisian public resembled a similar campaign developed by the Russians—and the Emirati—aimed at US voters in the 2016 presidential election and which has come to be known as “fake news.” A counter-attack has been mounted by both the traditional and social media close to Qatar. But since that tiny principality was trying, at least until 2017, to avoid drawing the ire of Riyadh, its response was weak and rarely reached audiences outside Doha’s sphere of influence.

These attacks and counter-attacks do not only concern Tunisia. They reach right around the Arab world as well as the think-tank networks and influential media in Washington and London, and to a lesser extent in Europe. In less than a decade, Emiratis, Saudis and Qataris have succeeded in creating strong, effective support networks. The result has been the creation of a global dichotomy. In the eyes of those sympathetic to Doha, criticizing Qatar is tantamount to slamming democracy and promoting dictatorship. If your sympathies lie with Abu Dhabi, those who denigrate the emirates are Qatari supporters and are against stability. Defending the role of political Islam is synonymous, in Doha’s view, with defending democracy and equivalent to encouraging terrorism for the Emirati camp. This approach, similar to that used by Israel accusing all its critics of antisemitism, has been very effective in discrediting both sides.

In Tunisia it has contributed to delegitimizing many political players.

Qatar is said, moreover, to have provided financial backing for Ennahda and former president Moncef Marzouki’s Congrès pour la République (CPR) as early as 2011. And if we are to believe several local and international sources, the UAE financed Nidaa Tounès between 2013 and 2014. This Emirati aid is alleged to have been aimed at ejecting Ennahda from the government. If this scenario had been successful, it would have represented an umpteenth victory for the Emirates. Ennahda was runner-up in the 2014 general election and its eviction from the government would have paralyzed the political process and signified the complete failure of the democratic transition and the Tunisian model.

It is not insignificant that the Emirati foreign minister’s first official visit to Tunis since 2011 took place only a few months after the inauguration as president of Beji Caïd Essebsi, the founder of Nidaa Tounès. He, however, preferred to ally himself with Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, to form a cabinet “of consensus.” Which was not to the liking of the Emirati, and pressures were soon brought to bear: Tunisians were denied travel visas, expatriate workers in the UAE were unable to renew their residence permits, investment projects were canceled, a hostile media campaign was launched, etc. The latest means of pressure was the December 2017 ban against Tunisian women using the Dubai airport in transit.

Swaying the Tunisian Vote

As the May 2018 local elections draw near, rumors are again rampant concerning the Emirati backing of certain Tunisian political parties, especially Machrouu Tounes, a major spin-off from Nidaa Tounes, and Afek Tounes a liberal party which already has seats in parliament. There is no concrete proof of these accusations, but both these parties regularly campaign against Ennahda, Qatar and Turkey. They have tried several times to have the election postponed and their leaders claim to favor a strong presidential regime.

Added to these rumors are various “leaks” consisting of documents supposedly of Emirati origin, but whose authenticity is not always certain. They are “disclosed” by electronic media supported by Qatar and relayed by Tunisian media close to Ennahda. The Emirati would seem to be on the defensive here, yet a set of accusations recently brought against Ennahda and the CPR probably originate with them. In other words, the Gulf crisis which broke out in June 2017 has been felt in Tunis.

Take for example this document posted on Qatari sites during the summer of 2017 and signed by the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), a think tank closely connected with the Abu Dhabi power structure and which advocates an Emirati Strategy for Tunisia, to be based on a media campaign, social destabilization and support for certain political parties. The document has not appeared on the EPC website, but neither has its existence been officially denied, even though the woman in charge of the EPC claims it is a fake. But supporters of Ennahda and the CPR has seized the opportunity to cry conspiracy, accusing their opponents—cited in the document—of being in the pay of the Emirates.

A few weeks later, the spokesperson for Khalifa Haftar’s army in Libya, closely allied with the Emirates, gave a press conference in which he accused Qatar of financing terrorist groups in Libya by way of a Tunisian bank and presented documents in support of his claim. The anti-Qatari camp quickly seized on the accusation to point the finger at Ennhada and the CPR, because this activity was alleged to have taken place at the time of the coalition known as the Troika (2011–2014), when both parties had control over certain parts of the State machinery.

Until now Tunisia has been spared the fate of other countries where the proxy war between Qatar and the UAE has been raging. The democracy which has emerged there is still unequaled in the region and enormous progress in this area has been made.

However the country has been shaken by the economic crisis, and leading politicians’ mutual accusations of illegitimacy or of being in the pay of foreign powers have undermined it even more.

Even if the conflict between Qatar and the UAE is not directly responsible for this situation, it has certainly made matters worse.

Moreover, in an international context which is hardly favorable for democracy, Tunisia finds itself having to deal alone with the intrusions of those two countries, whose media campaigns are poisoning the general atmosphere. Only a few weeks away from the May election, it is generally felt in Tunisia that the end of an era is nigh.