European Democracy Hub

On July 25, 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied partly suspended parliament and sacked the country’s prime minister. Expressing his intention to change the constitution and create a new political system, the president consolidated power in his own hands, drafting a long and opaque road map for a return to democratic rule. Although Saied claims to be working to establish a more democratic and inclusive system, his moves so far look classically authoritarian.

The EU expressed its disagreement with this course of events but has been cautious in its policy response. The union’s member states, moreover, did not react in a unified manner. European criticism of Tunisia’s democratic backsliding is mounting, but without noticeable effect so far. Yet the dramatic crisis for Tunisian democracy reflects a range of weaknesses in the EU’s commitment to the country since the political breakthrough of 2011. To have any hope of helping preserve the Arab Spring’s only successful democratic transition, the EU needs to significantly upgrade its support to Tunisia by unifying its message, maintaining diplomatic pressure, and considering the risks of applying sanctions.

What Went Wrong?

Under the dictatorship that lasted for most of Tunisia’s postcolonial period, the country was often described in European corridors as a close partner next door whose main problem was its lack of democracy. With the fall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, the EU made Tunisia a privileged partner, giving the country among “the highest levels of EU support per capita in the world.” For a time, Tunis and Brussels appeared to be closely in step with each other, but the euphoria of 2011 gave way to stagnant cooperation, and the two partners could not upgrade their relationship further. Negotiations for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), an initiative that was supposed to bring Tunisia closer than ever to the EU, stalled. Meanwhile, EU support for democratization was substantial but had its limits, as the events of the summer of 2021 eventually showed.

Four issues explain why Brussels has proved so weak in protecting a system it has often praised as a model. First, the EU increasingly has prioritized controlling migration to the detriment of supporting democracy. European diplomats often praise Tunisian democracy and the importance of the country as a democratic partner. But many in Tunis have the impression that this talk of democratization is a cover for implementing harsher migration policies. While the EU portrays fighting informal migration as a joint priority for Europeans and Tunisians alike, this is really a European priority, not a Tunisian one. Many Tunisians would like to move to Europe, but the Tunisian authorities are working against their demands by closing down informal migration routes. Many Europeans would like Tunis to police the EU’s southern borders, seemingly regardless of the country’s political system.

Youssef Cherif
Youssef Cherif is the director of Columbia Global Centers | Tunis. He is a regular political analyst of North Africa for several international media outlets and think tanks.

The second factor relates to how the EU has secured its democratization policy in Tunisia. The EU has not acted decisively to safeguard the democratic achievements that it helped spearhead. Compared to other cases in Eastern and Central Europe, where the EU was highly attentive to the threats posed by Russia, Brussels has barely responded to the negative external influences in Tunisia stemming from tensions between the competing geopolitical axis of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt on one side and that of Turkey and Qatar on the other. As these states have undermined democracy in Tunisia over the last decade, rarely has the EU exerted any pressure or condemned their actions. Weak seeds produce withered flowers.

The third issue relates to the nature of the DCFTA talks. Europeans pressured Tunisia to move forward with this trade agreement as a condition for an improved relationship. But internal politics and deep suspicions about the proposal held Tunisia back. Political instability led to frequent changes in Tunis’s priorities and repeated shuffles in the country’s negotiating team, with discussions sometimes backtracking on previously agreed-upon points because of a lack of organization from the Tunisian side. At the same time, Tunisian civil society groups were virtually unanimous in decrying the DCFTA as a risk to the country’s political and economic sovereignty. Yet neither Tunis nor Brussels came up with an alternative, leaving the process of deepened integration pending and the diplomatic relationship fragile and lacking trust.

The fourth and most immediate weakness in the EU’s diplomatic policy toward Tunisia occurred during the coronavirus pandemic. Between June and July 2021, thousands of Tunisians died, and the country’s healthcare system approached the brink of collapse. The country lacked everything from masks and oxygen tanks to vaccine kits. As Tunisia was sinking, many European leaders looked away. Much of the rapid and immediate aid came from the country’s Arab neighbors first, not from Europeans, though France did send some assistance around this time. But it was only after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt pledged emergency assistance that more Europeans started sending substantial amounts of aid. Though they offered much more aid than the Arab states before and after Tunisia’s dire summer, the EU’s slowness to act during those fateful summer weeks had dramatic consequences for its diplomatic influence in Tunisia.

Why Did Europe React So Mildly to Tunisia’s Democratic Erosion?

On top of these shortcomings, the EU’s and its member states’ reactions to Saied’s July 2021 quasi-coup were tepid and uncertain. The EU’s reluctance to call the power grab a coup or to unequivocally criticize the move is understandable: Tunisians had come to dislike the country’s political class so strongly that defending the fallen government or the suspended parliament would have backfired against the union. Saied has been popular since his election as president in October 2019, and the fact that his seizing of power this summer coincided with the arrival of much-needed vaccine doses and other medical aid added to his popularity. Many Tunisians have seen him as the country’s savior. Moreover, Tunisia’s dire economic conditions during the 2010s and the president’s propaganda machine made the country’s previous rulers appear to be the source of all the country’s woes. Any European condemnation of Saied could have been spun as support for Ennahda, the largest party in the country’s frozen parliament.

Still, Europeans’ mild reactions to Tunisia’s democratic erosion also appear to reflect a lack of interest in defending the country’s democracy. The EU was slow to send any envoy. The first high-level European official to visit the country and meet the president was Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. He visited Tunisia on September 10, a month and a half after Saied’s unilateral move. By comparison, the Saudi foreign minister visited Tunis on July 30, his Egyptian counterpart came on August 3, and the Emirati envoy arrived on August 7. No high-level envoys from any EU member states visited Tunisia during this early period either. Between the July power grab and early December 2021, there was no recorded call between Saied and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. This slow response contrasts with the agility Europeans displayed in recent crises that affected the Balkans and the Caucasus, other priority regions for European democracy support.

Not even the national legislatures of EU member states have seemed to prioritize the safeguarding of Tunisia’s democracy, even though Saied’s most direct attack was against the parliament and its members. In the immediate aftermath of Saied’s power grab, there were no visible demonstrations of support for the Tunisian parliament: there were no special sessions in the French or Italian parliaments and no visits by parliamentary groups to Tunisia, for instance. As for the European Parliament, apart from a few disparate comments from some of its members, it ignored Tunisia until the week of October 18 when it finally discussed and adopted a document warning Tunisian leaders against any authoritarian turn. This slow movement also shows the paucity of the networks that Tunisian parliamentarians had built inside European democracies. The Tunisian parliament’s leadership has been more interested in deepening ties with authoritarian regimes in Qatar and Turkey—Ennahda’s natural allies—than with Europe’s democratic parliaments. So when the tide turned against them domestically, they did not find much support in Europe.

But while the EU’s reaction was slow and mild at first, it has gradually become more critical. Borrell and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, have pressed Saied to provide a road map to get Tunisia back on its democratic track. Members of the European Parliament are increasing their criticism as well. On October 21, the European Parliament adopted a strongly worded document calling for a return to democracy in Tunisia and warning against foreign (namely Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian) interference.

As for individual EU member states, the reactions to the potential collapse of Tunisian democracy have been mixed. Officials in Rome and Paris have displayed less alarm, whereas Berlin appears to be more concerned.

Italy, which shares the Strait of Sicily with Tunisia, has prioritized stability. A significant portion of Italy’s natural gas comes though Tunisia via an Algerian pipeline, and Tunisia also has the easiest route for migrants to take to reach Italy. Furthermore, hundreds of Italian companies operate in the country. Yet Italy has rarely commented on issues related to human rights and democracy in Tunisia, either before 2011 or after this summer. When news broke that 600 migrants had left by boat for Italy within twenty-four hours after Saied’s power grab, the speaker of Tunisia’s parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, spoke to Corriere della Sera, a top Italian newspaper, warning about waves of migration if democratic order in Tunisia is not restored. Alarm bells in Rome began ringing. The Tunisian authorities were quick to indicate to their Italian counterparts that they were in control of the situation and they employed massive surveillance operations on the coast. As of December 2021, no Italian envoys have been sent to Tunisia, and Saied has had only one phone call with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and none with President Sergio Mattarella. Italian leaders appear to see democracy in Tunisia as a secondary consideration as long as stability is maintained and Italy’s national interests are not harmed.

France’s position is slightly different. France is Tunisia’s top trade partner. In 2011, the French government felt that its interests in the country were threatened. Moreover, Paris was concerned with the instability that plagued Tunisia through the 2010s, occasionally translating into outbound migration and terrorism. Some of the bloodiest terrorist attacks that have rocked France in recent years are the work of Tunisian nationals, such as the 2016 Nice attack. Furthermore, France, as a strong geopolitical partner of Egypt and the UAE, did not approve of Tunisia’s rapprochement with Turkey and Qatar under Ennahda. Saied’s move, which sidelined Ennahda, signaled an end to this era and weakened a competitor of France; the French statements were consequently more sympathetic than, say, those of Germany. Phone calls between Saied and French President Emmanuel Macron were rather friendly, and France sent two ministers to participate in joint activities in Tunisia in September, as if to signal a return to business as usual. Nonetheless, toward the end of 2021, Paris began to voice some discontent. The International Francophonie Summit, which had been scheduled to take place in Tunisia in November, was postponed. And France has not mobilized large amounts of aid funding to help get Tunisia out of its economic slump. Paris would like to see a political road map and have a stable interlocutor in Tunis.

It is, however, Germany that has been the most concerned among European states about democracy in Tunisia. Berlin invested considerably in the Tunisian transition. Hence, when Saied staged his power grab, German officials issued angry statements, criticizing Saied and defending democratic rule. During her only call with Saied on September 29, Germany’s outgoing long-time chancellor, Angela Merkel, reiterated this point. And when the German foreign minister of state at the Federal Foreign Office visited Tunis in mid-October, he also stressed the need for Tunisia to consolidate its democratic institutions. Yet Germany’s September 2021 election somewhat diluted its foreign policy activism and influence and has kept Berlin a bit removed from Tunisian politics for now.

What Can the EU Do?

Europeans should act decisively on multiple fronts to try to encourage a return to democracy in Tunisia.

For starters, Europeans should do all they can to help alleviate Tunisia’s economic woes. The EU should immediately make funds available for this purpose. Brussels should strive to expand assistance projects in traditionally marginalized areas away from Tunis and Tunisia’s coastal areas, since the latter locales already have been inundated with such projects. Europe should use its available expertise and new technologies to help Tunisia modernize its agricultural sector and build renewable energy infrastructure, fields that can offer Tunisia a comparative advantage and that can help quickly improve the country’s economic outlook. Because the Tunisian government has a track record of not being able to spend all the funds it receives in time, Europeans should prioritize working with parties other than the central authorities, including the country’s unions, civil society organizations, local councils, and private companies.

There are other steps Europe can take to help put Tunisia on a more solid economic footing. If and when normal politics resumes, Europeans should incentivize cooperation by cultivating more partnerships that pair European and Tunisian municipalities. This type of cooperation would improve local administrative work and facilitate locally focused development projects. European cities with the most Tunisian residents could be picked for such an endeavor, fostering additional investment and economic development. Furthermore, the EU must work on formulating an alternative to the DCFTA. In the wake of Saied’s power grab and the quasi-suspension of the constitution, it is time for a new framework that transparently considers ordinary Tunisians’ grievances and comments, while equally responding to European needs and demands.

Europe also ought to consider ways of helping spur political reforms in Tunisia. One way would be a joint Tunisian-EU project dedicated to giving Tunisia a modern and fully democratic parliament. The country’s frozen parliament was weak and underresourced. European models (especially ones from recently democratized states) may help. Avoiding the pitfalls of the previous parliament would help Tunisia build a more sustainable political future.

Looking beyond Tunisia’s borders, the EU and its member states should press regional authoritarian partners—including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as well as Qatar and Turkey—to stop meddling in Tunisian affairs. These countries have been undermining democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa for at least a decade, through their media and social media empires, their political and military proxies, or their own direct diplomatic and military involvement. Now that Tunisia is questioning the need for democracy and at the same time looking for outside investment, one of these two regional groupings will likely try to step in. The Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis continues to seek a rapprochement with Tunis. The EU needs to head off this threat to democracy.

Relatedly, over the long term, the EU should work on countering the conspiracy theories and misinformation circulating in Tunisia, which are often amplified by other regional powers jockeying for influence. Europeans should do so in consultation with Facebook, given that the social media giant is one of the main tools for spreading online misinformation and conspiracy theories in Tunisia. No healthy democracy can take root and function properly if conspiracy theories and misinformation continue to spread at this pace.

The EU and its member states are wondering how they can recalibrate their relationships with Tunisia over the medium term, especially if the country’s young democracy continues to be derailed. The question of sanctions is on the table, but it would be a risky route to take: Tunis could still find ways to get investment from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. China might even see the situation as a good opportunity to seek a geopolitical beachhead in North Africa. As Libya has proved, Europe’s allies can work with Europe’s foes if doing so suits their interests. Moreover, Saied’s popularity, the EU’s damaged image in Tunisia, and a strong sense of nationalism would make European sanctions counterproductive; for many Tunisians, such measures may look like imperialist aggression that would feed into the president’s populist narrative. EU leaders need to find creative ways to disburse funds, making sure that they do not support any dictatorial impulses in the country. The EU should not gamble with the prospect of standing by and letting Tunisia simply fall prey to populism and resurgent authoritarianism.

Youssef Cherif is the director of Columbia Global Centers | Tunis. He was previously the Al-Maidan project manager for Libya at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and an expert affiliated to the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies. He is a regular political analyst of North Africa for several international media outlets and think tanks.

This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.