Like its surface area and population size, Tunisia’s geopolitical footprint is smaller than that of its neighbors across the region, i.e., Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Over the years, the country has nevertheless stood out for certain positions it has maintained regarding major issues of regional and international interest. Most notably: President Habib Bourguiba’s 1965 Jericho address. As the world’s leading Arab armies were preparing an offensive against Israel in efforts to restore Palestine’s territorial integrity, the Tunisian president pressed for a two-state solution. This stance was maintained until the evening of October 7, 2023 when the country’s current president Kais Saied changed footing, calling for the restoration of an Arab Palestine on its historic lands. But Tunis has similarly shifted gears in the face of other simmering conflicts, both regional (Palestine, Syria, Western Sahara) and far-flung (Vietnam). Indeed, Tunisian diplomacy’s deviation from long-held positions has managed to stun observers on numerous occasions. Whereas this drift away from the status quo may give an impression of wavering indecision, more often than not it is a reflection of internal considerations, strategies for alignment with international allies, or even the convictions of the country’s current president.

Kais Saied: Breaking with the status quo

When he came to power in 2019, Kais Saied found himself at the head of a country that was to occupy a provisional two-year seat within the United Nations Security Council. The crucial question at the time was the so-called « deal of the century » proposed by American President Donald Trump. During his inaugural speech, Saied decried the initiative although it had not yet been publicly released. Upon its unveiling, Saied denounced « the injustice of the century », evoking « high treason », a term he had employed previously during his electoral campaign in relation to the normalization of relations with Israel. One month later, however, President Saied himself dismissed Tunisia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Moncef Baâti. At the time, Baâti had been working with the Security Council on a resolution, initiated by the Palestinian Authority and sponsored by Indonesia, condemning Donald Trump’s proposal. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the presidency justified their decision on the grounds of a « grave error » committed by Baâti who had allegedly failed to confer with his administration.

In the wake of October 7, 2023, the president’s position on Palestinian has manifested more clearly. Several hours after « Operation Al Aqsa Flood », Carthage published a statement expressing full support for the Palestinian people, rejecting the term « Gaza envelope » and calling for Palestine’s complete sovereignty over its historical territory. This position, reiterated during a National Security Council meeting, constitutes a break with the two-state doctrine behind which Tunisia has stood since President Bourguiba’s Jericho speech in 1965. Saied’s position is furthermore motivated by religious reasons, specifically the fact that Jerusalem is Islam’s third holiest place and original site of the qibla.

President Kais Saied standing with Giorgia Meloni, Ursula von der Leyen and Mark Rutte. June 2023. Credit: Office of the Presidency

Beyond the topic of Palestine, Saied has broken away from the country’s diplomatic neutrality in relation to two other regional issues. During a visit to Egypt in April 2021, Saied communicated his support for Cairo in the conflict spurred by the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In August 2022, on the occasion of the eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 8) which was held in Tunis, President Saied received Polisario Front leader Ibrahim Ghali with honors befitting a head of state. This deviation from Tunis’ « positive neutrality » concerning the question of Sahrawi sovereignty was perceived by Rabat as a personal jab. Diplomatic relations between Tunisia and Morocco have suffered ever since.

Beji Caid Essebsi: The Coalition era

Several months after he assumed power at Carthage, Beji Caid Essebsi engaged the country in an international coalition against ISIS. Tunisia did not, in the meantime, enter into the coalition headed by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis in Yemen. This positioning was counterbalanced by Tunis’ alignment with Riyadh on another key issue. On March 2, 2016, the Arab Interior Ministers’ Council classified Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The resolution was an initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which would soon come to face its greatest crisis: the boycotting and isolation of Qatar, which it accused of endorsing terrorism and maintaining positive ties with Iran.

Contrary to Cairo, Tunis succeeded in maintaining good relations with Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, despite the fact that the latter two were the epicenter of anti-Qatar hostilities. This in-between positioning most certainly intensified the Emirates’ retaliation measures against Tunisia. Under the leadership of Mohamed Ben Zayed, the UAE was vehement in its opposition against the Muslim Brotherhood, and endorsed Beji Caid Essebsi’s candidacy which it regarded as an opportunity to dismantle Ennahda in Tunisia. However, the coalition formed by Tunisia’s Islamic party and ruling party Nidaa Tounes prompted a violent reaction. Having activated a visa requirement and suspended several bilateral cooperation programs, the UAE decided to ban—without prior notice—Tunisian women from boarding Emirates aircrafts. In response, Tunis barred the airline from entry into its airspace. After a week-long conflict, tensions subsided and diplomatic relations resumed.

Moncef Marzouki hands over power over to Beji Caid Essebsi. December 2014. Credit: Office of the Presidency

Internationally, Caid Essebsi strengthened Tunisia’s ties with the West, gaining his country the status of major non-NATO ally in 2015.

Moncef Marzouki: « Revolutionary » diplomacy

Upon his election by the National Constituent Assembly in December 2011, Moncef Marzouki framed his diplomatic actions within the context of the Arab Spring, affirming his support for peoples standing up against the region’s authoritarian regimes. In February 2012, having broken diplomatic ties with Damascus, Tunis hosted the first meeting of the Friends of Syria group. Contrary to what has often been said, Marzouki opposed any foreign military intervention in Syria.

More generally, owing to his alliance with Ennahda and support for the Arab Spring, Marzouki brought Tunisia into the pro-Muslim Brotherhood axis of countries which included Turkey, Qatar and Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt. This support provoked growing hostility from the other side which opposed the Muslim Brotherhood: Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Egypt beginning in July 2013.

As for Palestine, Ennahda’s proximity to Hamas (both offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood) enabled Tunis to declare its firm support for Gaza’s governing body.

Ben Ali: Caution around Iraq War, support for Oslo Accords

When he toppled Bourguiba, Ben Ali had no idea how the world balance would change indefinitely with the fall of the Soviet Bloc and US hegemony. The first conflict to illustrate this new world order was the Gulf War. Tunisia’s new strongman was destined to play a singular role as he straddled two opposing sides. Ben Ali denounced the invasion of Kuwait, but avoided integrating into the international coalition. He then enforced the embargo against the regime of Saddam Hussein, while denouncing the military invasion by US allies. Although this balancing act provoked tensions with Riyadh and Washington, it gained him the sympathy of Tunisians, even among the non-Islamist opposition. Ben Ali used this « national unity » to the benefit of his merciless campaign of repression against Ennahda. Another conflict would serve to justify his actions: the « black decade » which soon began in neighboring Algeria. However, this strategy became less effective during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Tunisia’s secular opposition refused to act as a guarantor for Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime under the guise of « national unity ».

The situation for Palestine changed dramatically with the signing of the Oslo I Agreement in 1993. The creation of a Palestinian authority resulted in the departure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Tunis and its relocation to Ramallah. Tunisia subsequently opened a contact office in Tel Aviv whose mission was undermined by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Benjamin Netanyahu’s arrival to power. In Tunis, the Palestinian cause was exploited by the regime as an outlet for public anger. Although protests were permitted, they were generally orchestrated by the ruling party, a reality which caused friction with opposition parties intent on organizing autonomous demonstrations.

Bourguiba: Pro-West inclinations, Palestinians welcome

Even before Tunisia’s independence, Habib Bourguiba chose to align his country with the West. He thus pushed the Neo-Destour party to support the Allies (including the occupying power, France) against the Axis powers during the Second World War. Taking power in 1956, Tunisia’s « supreme combatant » pursued this trajectory, directly opposing the pan-Arabism of Egypt’s Abdel Nasser who had supported Bourguiba’s rival, Salah Ben Youssef. Speaking in Jericho in 1965, Bourguiba argued in favor of recognition for the state of Israel and two-state solution as per the UN’s proposal in 1948. Bourguibist propaganda regarded this proposal as a manifestation of « the policy of incremental changes » that Tunisia implemented throughout its independence process. After the War of 1967 and the beginning of the end of pan-Arabism, Bourguiba continued to side with the West on certain issues, in particular the Vietnam War. While most developing nations opposed American intervention in Vietnam, Tunisia supported the US and suppressed protest movements.

Following the Camp David Accords and Egypt’s normalization of relations with Israel, the Arab League moved its headquarters in Cairo to Tunis. Tunisia also agreed to receive PLO leadership driven from Lebanon in the midst of a civil war. On October 1, 1985, an Israeli airstrike attacked PLO headquarters in Hammam-Chatt, in the southern suburbs of Tunis, resulting in the death of 68 victims, including 18 Tunisians. « Operation Wooden Leg » was hailed by American president Ronald Reagan as a « legitimate response to terror ». Furious, Bourguiba threatened to break diplomatic relations with the United States if Washington vetoed Resolution 573 condemning Israel’s act of aggression. Ultimately, the text was adopted owing to US abstention.