The current Tunisian government has to move from a mere opposition party to a governing regime, a task that is now further complicated by domestic issues, regional instability, and the weakness of its security apparatus.
When the French Air Force began bombarding jihadist positions in northern Mali, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry expressed its opposition to the move. However, a more supportive stance was voiced later by Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem. This change in attitude and reports of contradictory views from other members of the government prompt a deeper look at the current regime’s foreign policy agenda and the impact the current crisis in Mali is having on the ruling establishment.
Historically, Tunisia’s foreign policy foundations were set by the country’s first President Habib Bourguiba. After independence from France, Tunisia’s diplomacy gained international respect and credibility. Notable diplomatic achievements include the election of Mongi Slim as the first African to hold President of the UN’s General Assembly and the hosting of the Arab League’s headquarters up to 1991 in Tunisia. Under Bourguiba, the country’s moderate credentials were boosted by joining the non-aligned movement and the development of close ties with the West.
Under Ben Ali, the Bourgubist pro-western stance continued to dominate the country’s foreign policy agenda, and somewhat deepened following the country’s economic liberalization. The country’s economy grew at an average rate of nearly 5% over the last decade. The stability of the country was based on a bargain between an authoritarian government that ensured large segments of the population benefited from social and economic gains; however, this broke down because the Ben Ali regime’s strategy did not provide enough employment for young, educated segments of the population, Mohamed Bouazizi being the perfect example.
The new government faces revolution-related disruptions as well as the effects of the Libyan conflict. Though a minority, Salafists have proliferated after the revolution and are routinely clash with other political groups. The ruling Ennahda party has been accused of pandering to the Salafists and using them to intimidate society. Dissatisfaction with the new government has increased since Ben Ali was deposed two years ago. Regional disparities, and a lack of employment (the same issues that brought down Ben Ali) continue to fuel protest actions against the Government.
Under the current regime, Tunisia’s foreign policy has witnessed a rapprochement with GCC countries, notably Qatar. This partially explained by ideological affinities on both sides, as well as the current government’s need of attracting foreign investors. Moreover, the visit of President Marzouki to France to mend diplomatic relations (France was a staunch supporter of the Ben Ali regime and is Tunisia’s biggest economic partner) indicates the primacy of economic issues for the post-revolutionary government.
How does this fit in with the conflict in Mali?
Tunisia’s response appears to be building on in its traditional foreign policy of non-alignment and preference for political solutions. However, an intervention in Mali raises the specter of political instability within Tunisian borders on three levels.
Firstly, via domestic jihadists, who have proliferated in the post-revolutionary climate. Such groups, could carry attacks against Western interests in the country, or against the regime if it is seen to be cooperating with the enemy. Furthermore, such attacks would not be reassuring to any potential foreign investors.
Secondly, there is as the risk of the country becoming a ‘corridor’ for weapons and jihadists from Libya operating in the region. Armed groups have been active on the border with Algeria even prior to the intervention, but the conflict in Mali is likely increase Tunisia’s exposure despite its distance from Mali.
Finally, reports indicate a number of Tunisian jihadists are fighting in Mali, and as revealed by the recent attack in Algeria where 11 militants out of 30 were Tunisian. The presence of active Tunisian jihadist groups in the conflict could have a ‘blow-back’ effect on the country. The Algerian jihadists that fought in Afghanistan and their role in the turmoil of the 1990s provide a good lesson. Additionally, the context of widespread dissatisfaction with the current ruling regime amplifies this risk. The government’s inability to deliver on its promises after two years in power could create a large pool of disenfranchised youths ripe for recruitment by the jihadists.
As many parties brought to power with the wave of the Arab spring, the current Tunisian government has to move from a mere opposition party to a governing regime, a task that is now further complicated by domestic issues, regional instability, and the weakness of its security apparatus. Not only does this renders its position vis-a-vis the intervention in Mali incomprehensible, it also highlights the importance of the tiny nation in the Maghreb’s current climate of instability.
Photo credit: Keith Roper