What does the UAE want in Tunisia?

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

UAE involvement in Tunisia has increasingly been making headlines across the Magreb. Already involved in Libya, the UAE has been accused of supporting Tunisian President Beji Caid al-Sibsi during his presidential campaign, and is now accused of supporting his rival Mohsen Marzoug, who fell out with the President over the latter’s attempts to bolster his son’s position as a possible successor.

The latest feud between the two countries over Emirates’ Airlines temporary ban on Tunisian women travelling to the UAE only served to increase the harsh spotlight on UAE involvement in the country. So, what exactly does the UAE want of Tunisia that warrants such intervention in domestic policy?

Libya

The UAE is embroiled in Libya’s civil war, providing support for Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk against the government in Tripoli. Seen as part of a wider fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and perhaps, a bid for increased influence over the Arab world in general, the UAE has partnered with Egypt to bolster Haftar’s position.

However, Haftar has failed to extend his control over the rest of Libya with the civil war showing no sign of ending. Moreover, reports of Algerian involvement in the return of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi to the political scene threaten to upend the political scene such that Haftar may well find his importance decline significantly if Gaddafi can secure enough tribal support and capitalise on widespread war fatigue.

In a bid to put pressure on Tripoli and bolster Haftar, the UAE sought to woo Tunisia into taking a more active military role. With Haftar in the East and Tunisia in the West, the UAE sought to squeeze Tripoli into giving greater concessions.
However, the changing dynamic of the civil war brought about by the emergence of ISIS has caused much discomfort in Tunis, which continues to struggle with domestic economic woes. The pessimism and hopelessness that grips most of the country six years on from the revolution threatens to re-ignite tensions reminiscent of the build-up to the 2011 protests.

Moreover, the Tunisian regions that share a border with Libya are socio-economically neglected, providing a ripe breeding ground for extremist groups that promise pay and food not only for fighters but also for their families. The inability of the fighting forces in Libya to curb the rise of ISIS has caused both Tunisia and Algeria to adopt a policy of non-military interference. In other words, both countries seek to avoid giving ISIS a reason to target them.

With Algeria reportedly backing Saif-al Islam Gaddafi and facilitating negotiations with Libyan tribes to back his bid for leadership, Tunisia has found a viable and credible alternative to UAE-backed Haftar that does not carry with it the burden of having to deal with a terrorist backlash.

Curbing the Muslim Brotherhood

Sibsi’s rejection of UAE demands to play a more active role in Libya has caused much anger in Abu Dhabi. However, this has been compounded by Sibsi’s refusal to clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, with whom Sibsi has found reason to form a governing coalition.

Tunisia’s democracy, however flawed, continues to expose the stark contrast between democratically electing leaders and submitting to authoritarian regimes. The presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia, and the post Ben Ali diversity of parties that make up the Tunisian political system, remains the sole example of a successful democratic transition in a region that has seen Sisi overthrow Morsi in Egypt, and Syria, Libya and Yemen spiral into civil war. In other words, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a major ruling party remains the democratic ‘stain’ on the authoritarian blanket that covers the Middle East.

Having reportedly backed Sibsi’s bid for the Presidency and co-opted other parties to back him in the second round of the elections against Marzouki, the UAE has made no secret of its anger over Sibsi’s ‘betrayal’. As a result, the UAE has taken advantage of Sibsi’s inability to rein in the various factions that make up his Nida party and has sought to exacerbate these divisions by backing Sibsi’s onetime ally, and now rival, Mohsen Marzoug. Marzoug needs no encouragement to challenge Sibsi. With ambitions of his own and his public discontent over Hafedh Caid Sibsi’s manoeuvres to position himself as a successor to his father, the President, Marzoug also has the political clout within Nida to split Sibsi’s public vote. What the UAE appears to have missed is that such divisions merely open the door to the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood victory (via a puppet president).

However, Tunisian political dynamics remain unpredictable. Although Nida are traditionally strong in the Northern areas, and Nahda in the South, the divided central areas of Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, Kairouan and Kasserine remain up for grabs. With shock results in the 2014 presidential elections including Sidi Bouzid’s 4th placed Hechmi Hamdi and Jabha Chaabiya’s Hamma al-Hammami in 3rd place, there is a very real possibility that one of these two could well go on to unite the votes of the central areas. Such a feat would amount to a very real challenge to the established powers of Nida and Nahda, and throw the UAE game up in the air.

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Sami Hamdi is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Interest. An experienced geopolitical risk consultant, Sami assists blue-chip clients around the world in monitoring and advising on highly volatile business environments.

Sami has extensive experience in the MENA region having been a television reporter and talk-show host for over 10 years. He has reported on key events in the region including the Arab Spring, the fall of Morsi in Egypt, the Houthi crisis in Yemen, as well as the battle of influences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his freetime, Sami is a passionate and stubborn Arsenal fan, and loves travelling. Perhaps a bit too much…