Tunisia: Battleground for the Gulf Media

The political controversies between the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda and its opponents have only known a short lull with the coronavirus crisis. And the foreign policy initiatives taken by the party’s leader Rached Ghannouchi have triggered hot debates, especially in parliament. This wrangling has not gone unnoticed by Saudi, Emirati and Qatari media which have reported it … each in their own way.

Heated debate in the APR on the situation in Libya, 3 June 2020
Fethi Belaid/AFP

Since the beginning of 2020, Rached Ghannouchi, president of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) as well as chairman of Ennahda, has been the target of attacks from his opponents and the focus of the Gulf media. It all began on 11 January when Tunisians discovered his visit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, the day after the cabinet formed by Ennahda had failed to get parliamentary approval. Later Ghannouchi justified his trip by claiming it was taken in his role as party leader and not as president of the ARP (yet it was in the latter capacity that the Turkish press agency Anadolu had presented him) and that the timing of the trip was due only to the Turkish president’s busy schedule. However, at January 15 session of the ARP, some opposition MPs demanded that Ghannouchi provide a serious expla-nation while the Free Destourian Party, with a lot of shouting and placard-waving, simply demanded his resignation. A commotion which did not go unnoticed by Al-Haddath, a branch of the Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya, which ran a portion of it on its YouTube channel.

While this episode was quickly overshadowed by other events—the vote of confidence for a new govern-ment in February followed by the Covid-19 crisis—two more recent episodes have again caused the Gulf media to focus on Tunisia, in keeping with the by now traditional split between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on the one hand, and Qatar on the other. The first of these, which keeps chugging along, deals with the challenge to the legitimacy of the present Parliament and a call for a Third Republic, launched by a tiny minority of the opposition. The other, weightier issue, deals with the touchy Libyan situation which fuels the proxy war raging between the Gulf states.

Al-Arabiya Tunisia vs. Al-Jazira Tunisia

No sooner was the lockdown lifted on 7 May, than two prominent political figures stepped into the breach, diagnosing the flagrant failure of the current political regime and calling for the dissolution of Parliament and the founding of a Third Republic. One of these is Mohsen Marzouk, advisory minister from January to July 2015 to President Beji Caid Essebsi (2014–2019), and former general secretary of Nidaa Tounes, the party founded by the latter. When the party came apart in 2016 due to the scheming of the president’s son, Marzouk created his own party, Machrou Tounes, and intended to run for president in 2019—an election won by Kais Saied—before stepping down in favour of former defence minister, Abdelkrim Zbidi. In the legislative election, his party only managed to elect four MPs.

The other prominent politician, who called for a “departure sit-in” in front of the ARP on 1 June (with reference to the summer 2013 protests which brought about the “departure” of the troika, a three-part alli-ance led by Ennahda since 2011) and who called for another one 14 June, is Fatma Miseddi, formerly a Nidaa Tounes MP who no longer has any official function.

Despite their modest political impact, these initiatives were played up by the Saudi channel Al-Arabiya and its Emirati counterpart, Sky-News Arabia. The former provided Mseddi with a platform, relaying in her Facebook Live video, in particular on its Al-Arabiya Tunisia page, with no contextual explanation and no dissenting voice to challenge her, even when the former MP spoke of a conspiracy to thwart the “hirak” she had tried to launch—the police had encircled the ARP and her 14 June sit-in had been something of a fiasco.

As for Mohsen Marzouk, he was interviewed live from Abu Dhabi for his viewpoint on current events in Tunisia and on Turkish policies in Libya, referring in particular to a “Turkish colonial operation” in that country. Other equally obscure members of a “14 June Movement” or a “Patriotic Salvation Front” found in SkyNews Arabia a handy amplifier for their voices which have little impact on the domestic sce-ne.

Not surprisingly, Al-Jazira’s treatment of these performances was quite different since they were hardly mentioned, when they were not implicitly made fun of. On the Facebook page Al-Jazira Tunisia, a single video running less than a minute reported the gathering of a handful of protestors in the vicinity of the ARP on 1 June, with two close-ups of placards held high, containing many spelling mistakes in Arabic and calling for the establishment of an American-type senate. The absence of any off-screen commentary was all the more eloquent. On its website, the Qatari channel also aired comments from different political play-ers who spoke of “an Egyptian-Emirati incitement” to overthrow a duly elected Parliament, with pride of place given to Noureddine Bhiri, current leader of the Ennahda parliamentary group in the ARP and for-mer Minister of Justice (2011–2013).

One session, two titles

A further escalation occurred on 19 May when Rached Ghannouchi made a phone call to Faiez Sarraj, head of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to congratulate him on the recapture by his troops of the air force base at Al-Watiyya. As the Libyan question is the object of countless tensions and multiple meddling, the Gulf channels were naturally Johnny on the spot, here again with two quite differ-ent stories.

This time, Ghannouchi’s initiative was not taken lightly. On the evening of 23 May, in his traditional speech marking the eve of Ed el-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), President Kais Saied put his foot down, re-minded listeners that “there was only one Tunisian government, only one president at home and abroad.” Everyone understood this as a reprimand aimed at Ghannouchi, all the more so as foreign policy is one of the Presidents of the Republic (few) constitutional prerogatives. On 3 June, the ARP in turn discussed the Libyan affair. On the agenda was a motion (tabled by the FDP) dealing with a ban on foreign interventions in Libya and the establishment of a “logistic base” to this end (as requested by Turkey), plus a debate on “parliamentary diplomacy.”

Strangely (or perhaps not), on Al-Arabiya, the object of the session became, in the live comments by the channel’s correspondents, “to call into question Rached Ghannouchi’s phone call to Sarraj”, or better still, “a parliamentary session turns into a kangaroo court with Ennahda in the dock” on SkyNews Arabia. Be-sides which, both channels again stirred up hope that Ghannouchi would soon lose the Assembly’s confi-dence. Yet for such a motion to be included on the ARP’s agenda at all would require 73 signatures, and then 109 votes or an outright majority to be passed, a prospect which is most unlikely.

Veteran of the Ben Ali regime as guest star

The same hope is also nurtured by Abir Moussi. She is president of the Free Destourian Party (16 MPs in the ARP) and sworn enemy of the Islamist party which she calls by various insulting names (“the brotherhood,” “the terrorists,”” les daechiens”1) but never by its official name, Ennahda. Moussi has recently become a welcome guest on the Saudi news channel: over the last two weeks one third of the videos posted on Al Arabiya Tunisia’s Facebook page have been devoted to the interviews she has given the channel, her parliamentary speeches or other recent declarations. Even the video she posted to confirm the death of her father and exploit his demise politi-cally has appeared there.

On 15 June, she gave a 25-minute interview to Al-Hadath, in particular to outline her motion to classify the “Brotherhood” as a terrorist organisation. Never once during the in-terview is she really questioned or contradicted. Her presence on SkyNews Arabia is just as prominent, where her speeches in Parliament are transmitted in full, especially during that session on Libya, when the agenda was scrapped and which amounted to a regular indictment of the Islamist party. Other Mps from her party have also been guests on the same channel.

It is worth noting that Moussi’s political background is never mentioned on either of these channels and yet she was an active collaborator of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime and was appointed deputy general secretary of his party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (DCR) just one year before the latter was obliged to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia.

Abir Moussi is not alone in her position and ironically enough the fact she can sit in the ARP is due to Ennahda’s refusal to vote in favour of a legislative decree that would have banned former leaders of the DCR from standing for Parliament or the Presidency. But what makes her special is that she makes no bones about where she comes from, refusing in particular to describe Ben Ali as a dictator and having taken for her party a logo which is reminiscent of that used by the DCR.

Needless to say, none of these speeches of hers has been relayed on Al-Jazira which never misses an oppor-tunity to remind its listeners of Abir Moussi’s dark past when she has to be mentioned at all. Better still, the Qatari channel explains the failure of the motion on Libya to pass the ARP using the same arguments as and its allies, presenting the motion as an FDP initiative and omitting the fact that the parties in the governmental majority, like the Democratic Current, all voted in favour of the final version of that motion, despite their open hostility towards the FDP.

The same story in Egypt

And, of course, what holds for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, holds for Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s Egypt. Without bothering to dress it up as news, Cairo has its editorialists add their voices to the anti-Ennahda and pro-Moussi chorus. Here top honours probably go to channel Sada Al-Balad’s anchor-man, who de-scribed the stillborn protest of 14 June as a “revolution by the proud Tunisian people against the Brother-hood and Ennahda,” reminding his audience that it is a “terrorist organisation,” accompanied together by a spate of stills showing Ghannouchi alongside Mohammed Badie, Egyptian leader of the Muslim Brother-hood, put to death in 2015, Youssef Al-Qaradawi, one of the Brotherhood’s a theological authorities, Qata-ri emir Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani, and Turkish President Erdogan.

While Tunisian social network users (who are not necessarily fans of the Islamists) reacted to the Egyptian channel’s broadcasts with warnings against the “propaganda” of the Sisi regime, the videos from the Gulf channels were mostly shown on the pages of the parties and politicians whom they promote.

This is not the first time that Tunisia has served as an arena for the disputes between the Gulf countries, whether these are confined to the media, as here, or more deeply, involve real political and economic is-sues, pitting the champions of “order and stability” against the backers of political Islam. Considering the importance of the Libyan affair, which Tunisian diplomacy has thus far been unable to turn to its ad-vantage, the battle is far from over.

1French play on words, associating “daech” the familiar Arabic name for ISIS, with “chiens” (dogs).