Far more than any of its European neighbors, the Italian government has defended Tunisia following the president’s remarks targeting sub-Saharan migrants. On March 1, even as the government continued to elicit condemnations and prompt debate, Giorgia Meloni called her Tunisian counterpart Najla Bouden to assure her of Italy’s support.
Italy’s unwavering support
The head of an extreme right coalition, Italy’s prime minister holds the issue of immigration at the top of her priorities. With Tunisia as the main point of departure for migrants arriving to the Italian peninsula, the existence of a power strong enough to contain the flow of humans—even at the cost of the state of law—is Rome’s ideal partner. This explains Italy’s intensive lobbying work in Tunisia’s favor. In this context, Meloni advocated for the Tunisian cause before the United Arab Emirates, but also and more surprisingly, before Israel. A few hours before the European Parliament’s vote on a motion condemning Tunisia’s drift towards authoritarianism, Meloni, president of Italy’s Council of Ministers, reiterated her support for the ruling power before the Italian Senate. Notably, not a single Italian deputy of the European Parliament voted against the resolution condemning the Tunisian government.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Tajani went so far as to assert that his country should help Tunisia to avoid favoring « the Muslim Brotherhood ». A statement which curiously did not irritate those close to the ruling power, who are generally quick to invoke national sovereignty whenever any criticism is directed at the regime. It is worth recalling that Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi warned Italy about the looming issues of migration and terrorism in the wake of July 25, 2021. It is perhaps the significant increase in the number of migrants arriving to Italy’s shores in recent years that has compelled Rome to take action.
Macron follows suit
The situation is slightly different on the other side of the Alps. A number of European parliamentarians from the extreme right National Rally party (formerly called the National Front), including its president Jordan Bardella, rejected the motion. Former minister and deputy from the extreme right Thierry Mariani has become a pro-Saied social media star ever since a video showing him defending the current regime went viral. Although less exaggerated, support for Saied within the executive branch has also been explicit. After having stated that he supported « his friend » Kais Saied and that he wished for the process underway since July 25, 2021 to « run its full course », Emmanuel Macron reiterated his support last week. Following the summit of the European Council in Brussels, the French president expressed his converging views with the president of the Italian council.
The two parties hope that Tunisia will sign an agreement with the International Monetary Fund in order to avoid economic collapse and to put an end to « the migratory pressure on Italy and the European Union ». Macron did not mention the authoritarianism pointed out by his party’s deputies. Like Italy, France hopes above all for the country’s political and economic stability in addition to cooperation on migration issues. The presidential majority in France is neoliberal and thus very much in line with the International Monetary Fund in its recommendations for Tunisia. This explains Paris’ insistence on the conclusion of an accord with the Washington-based institution. In an interview with TAP, the French ambassador to Tunisia, André Parant, announced that his country had mobilized a sum of 250 million euros for Tunisia, on the condition that an agreement be signed with the IMF. Following recent leaks in the press, this same ambassador, along with his Italian counterpart and their two predecessors, were evoked in an investigation into conspiracy against state security. While several public figures are accused of having been involved with these diplomats, the latter have neither suffered any consequences nor faced any public reprimand by their governments.
Across the Atlantic, for the State Department as for members of Congress, it is the issue of liberties and human rights violations that has taken center stage. Last week, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf left Tunisia without having had the occasion to meet Kais Saied. In an interview with Diwan FM, the American diplomat considered Tunisia to be straying from the democratic process. And yet the existence of a strong regime with a marginalized opposition does not necessarily upset Washington, familiar as it is with the difficulties faced by the leaders of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary decade to implement the IMF’s requested « reforms ». Moreover, during a hearing before Senate last year, the new American ambassador to Tunisia expressedhis intention to lobby for the normalization of Tunisia’s diplomatic ties with Israel. On this point as well, the chances of success are slim under a democratic regime.
Since July 25, 2021, US authorities have hoped for help from Arab countries in opposition with the Muslim Brotherhood (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt…), much like what happened after Abdelfattah Sissi’s coup d’état in 2013. Two months after July 25, an official of Tunisia’s Central Bank indicated that the country was engaged in discussions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE for financing that has yet to materialize. Surprisingly, it is Qatar—who reputedly maintains ties with the Brotherhood—that has shown itself eager to help Tunisia. In February 2022, the Defense Committee for Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi accused the oil-monarchy of spying on behalf of Ennahdha via telecommunications operator Ooredoo. One month later, Saied received the manager of the company, disavowing the Committee which served as his alibi for dissolving the Superior Judicial Council. An undoubtedly favorable move in the eyes of Qatar which has proposed help to Tunisia, although no real steps have been taken in this direction. The only country to have loaned money to Tunisia—twice—is Algeria. Since 2021, Abdelmadjid Tebboune has not let up support for his Tunisian counterpart, with whom he shares similar ideas on the issue of liberties. The Algerian president recently proclaimed Tunisia to be the victim of a plot since the TICAD crisis last August when Kais Saied received the president of the Polisario Front as a head of state. The episode has put Tunis-Rabat relations under pressure, and shoved Tunisia out if its neutral stance on the Western Sahara issue.
Some close to the regime, particularly Arab nationalist groups, are urging Saied to turn away from the West in favor of regional or international powers. While these political forces do not hide their proximity to the Islamic regime, the cake-cutting controversy proved that Tehran is not ready to let go of Ennahdha. Moreover, the rapprochement of Iran and Saudi Arabia reshuffles the deck for the entire region.
When it comes to Russia, Saied’s circles are pushing him to look east. A visit from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Serguei Lavrov, was announced for February but never took place. Tunisia, we recall, voted for two resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even if Moscow supports illiberal regimes and intends to strengthen its influence on the African continent, such a vote perceived as hostile is unlikely to improve relations with Tunis.
With the same double objective of presenting an alternative model to Western democracy and expanding its influence in Africa, China is also a partner-in-the-works from the standpoint of regime supporters. One month after his power grab and just as Western countries began to voice their criticisms, Kais Saied received Terry He, head of the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in North Africa.
Following Tunisia’s controversy concerning sub-Saharan migrants and ruling party’s crackdown against opponents, China has denounced foreign interference in Tunisian affairs. In December 2022, Saied received an official invitation to visit China. The Xi Jinping regime might in fact represent a breath of fresh air for a country under pressure from the West.
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