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[OPINION] The power shift in Tunisia puts Turkey’s presence in Libya at risk

In this file photo, Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in Carthage, east of the capital Tunis, on December 25, 2019. Fethi Belaid / AFP

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has visited the African continent more frequently than any other non-African leader, has begun to interfere in the domestic affairs of Africa. Erdoğan called Tunisian President Kais Saied’s dissolution of the Tunisian Parliament a “smearing of democracy” and “a blow to the will of the people.” Al Jazeera reported that Saied told foreign minister Othman Jerandi that he rejected “all interference in any form” in Tunisian affairs, without directly mentioning Erdoğan. Tunisia, however, did summon the Turkish ambassador following Erdoğan’s comments. Of course Erdoğan, who once said that “democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off” cannot claim to be concerned with the threat to democracy; his concern lies rather with Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, Ennahda. The party’s co-founder and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi is also a close ally of Erdoğan’s regime, and the North African country is of strategic importance to Turkey’s military operations in Libya.

“I made contact with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, and the ambassador of Turkey was summoned. I informed them that Tunisia rejected President Erdogan’s statement and considered it interference in Tunisian affairs, that the relations of the two countries should be based on respect for the independence of the national decision and the choices of the Tunisian people alone, and that our country does not allow questioning of its democratic path,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Jerandi said in response to the Turkish government via Twitter on April 6.

Tunisia’s Ennahda, which came to power in 2011, is the only political party in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region that has managed to lead an elected government, with the single exception of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Tunisia is a predominantly secular country, and the AKP seized a big opportunity by establishing strong ties with the Ennahda-led Troika government in 2012 and 2013, following the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country from 1987 to 2011. During this period many Turkish diplomats, AKP leaders and pro-Erdoğan NGOs flocked to Tunisia. Turkey and Tunisia signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 2011 and established a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council in 2012. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Yunus Emre Institute began activities in the country. Turkey and Tunisia’s bilateral trade had reached over $1 billion by 2020. In addition to mining, energy, food and agriculture, defense has become Turkey’s primary area of export to Tunisia in recent years. The Tunisian Ministry of Defense signed a contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries for the purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2020. During this year alone, Tunisia ordered $240 million in UAVs from Turkey after rejecting a similar deal with Paris.

The days of glory were, however, short-lived for Ennahda as secular parties came to power in 2014 and the AKP then began addressing the issue of foreign policy with Tunisia in a more balanced manner. Erdoğan congratulated Beji Caid Essebsi, the founder of Nidaa Tounes, for his victory in the presidential election. Nidaa Tounes is the secular party that won both the presidential and the parliamentary election in 2014, and the election results changed the balance in Tunisian politics in favor of secularist parties.

Despite Turkey’s efforts to maintain good relations with Tunisian leaders, secularists in the country have grown increasingly critical of the Erdoğan government in recent years. AFP quoted Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche as saying on Feb. 25, 2015 that Turkey was facilitating the transit of fighters bound for neighboring Syria and Iraq, where thousands of its citizens have joined the ranks of jihadist groups. The Ennahda Party has long received criticism from secularists for accepting foreign funding. Moreover Ghannouchi, the party’s co-founder and speaker of the dissolved parliament, faced harsh criticism for not having informed the relevant Tunisian authorities of a visit to Turkey to meet with Erdoğan in January 2020.

Tunisia is currently grappling with its biggest political crisis in over a decade as 116 members of the Tunisian parliament held an online session on March 30 to cancel all decisions and decrees issued by Saied since July 25, 2021. Erdoğan is, meanwhile, backing Ghannouchi to keep Tunisian Islamists in the parliament. Erdoğan’s deteriorating relationship with Tunisia’s secular rulers has put Turkey’s investments in the North African country at risk. Tunisia imposed new customs duties on Turkish products in 2018 after Tunisia’s trade deficit with Turkey had doubled since 2010. The power shift in Tunisia has become an increasingly worrying matter for the Erdoğan regime, not only in that Turkish investments are at risk but also because it puts Turkey’s involvement in neighboring Libya at risk. Turkish forces backed the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya in the Second Libyan Civil War in January 2020 against the French and UAE-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar. Since Turkey prevented Haftar’s forces from entering Tripoli, Turkish military and economic activities have increased, especially in GNA-controlled areas that border Tunisia.

The Islamist Erdoğan has already lost two close allies in the MENA region: the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, who was toppled by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013; and Sudan’s Islamist leader Omar Al-Bashir, who was ousted by the Sudanese Armed Forces in April 2019. Erdoğan is trying hard to prevent a political ban on his ally Ghannouchi’s Ennahda in Tunisia since Ankara considers Tunisia an ally in the eastern Mediterranean against its rivals France, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Tunisia has also become an entry point for Turkey’s involvement in the Maghreb (also known as Northwest Africa) and West Africa. No matter how hard Erdoğan tries, it seems that he is likely to lose a political ally in Tunisia as he did in Egypt and Sudan.

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