Tunisian President Kais Saied recently visited Washington to attend the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The summit was Saied’s latest effort to exercise his diplomatic muscle—and make his case for U.S. support in securing a critical IMF loan package. But like many of his previous diplomatic engagements, Saied’s public statements struck many as pontifical and discursive, failing to win over the U.S. administration or media.
Saied came to power in October 2019. The former constitutional law professor had little to no political experience, but he was running against a deeply polarizing media mogul who spent significant parts of the presidential campaign period incarcerated on charges of embezzlement and money laundering. In Tunisia’s two-tier electoral system, Saied advanced to the runoff after garnering only 18 percent of the popular vote in the first round. At the time, many Tunisians voiced frustration with the existing political class and parties, which were seen as self-serving, corrupt, and ineffective. Saied ran as a political outsider without ties to the political establishment and was therefore perceived as uncorrupted, but his presidential platform was incoherent and focused heavily on a promise to devolve political power from the federal level to local government. No comprehensive foreign policy or economic plan was presented. Nevertheless, Saied won the presidential election with nearly 73 percent of the popular vote.
During his presidential candidacy, Saied’s rhetoric was focused on domestic issues, emphasizing his role as a man of the people and promising to do “what the people want.” While Saied never expressed a coherent foreign policy, he made a few public remarks that shed light on his external priorities. One campaign theme that has carried over into his presidency is his focus on Tunisia’s traditional partners: the Arab world, North Africa, and the Mediterranean nations. Nevertheless, he was careful to emphasize in a 2019 interview, “I will not align with any axis. I will align with the will of the [Tunisian] people.” He went on to state that “we will not bow our heads to anyone except for God,” emphasizing his anti-imperialist views.
In the years since his election, Saied has done little to address structural problems in the Tunisian economy, root out the crony capitalism that stifles entrepreneurship and deters foreign direct investment, or reform inefficient and excessively bureaucratic systems of government. Instead, Saied has concentrated his political capital on reforming the constitution to consolidate power in the executive branch, diminish the independence and authority of the parliament, and circumscribe the power of the judiciary. This lurch toward autocracy culminated in Saied’s bloodless takeover of July 25, 2021, and its codification by referendum exactly one year later.
Saied’s autocratic rise has overshadowed his foreign policy (or lack thereof). Saied is rumored to be uncomfortable away from his home and fastidious about where he sleeps at night, which may help explain why he hasn’t taken many international trips.1 According to open-source reporting, Saied has only traveled abroad seven times since taking office, although he has hosted foreign dignitaries in Tunis. He rarely speaks about issues related to Tunisia’s foreign policy but often makes reference to foreign interference in Tunisia’s domestic affairs. Tunisia is also in the midst of negotiating a much-needed loan from the IMF, with a staff-level agreement announced in mid-October; the loan is seen as the last chance for the country to avoid an economic collapse. Some have argued that Saied has shown little interest in international affairs, including the IMF negotiation.
So, what do we know of Saied’s worldview and Tunisia’s foreign policy under this political outsider? The answer is, unfortunately, very little. Instead, we are left to infer or interpret Saied’s foreign policy based on whom he talks to, where, and when.
Much like his (very limited) approach on the campaign trail, Saied’s foreign policy objectives are close to home. He is far more comfortable engaging on issues in Tunisia’s backyard than venturing outside of the Maghreb. While he is reticent to involve Tunisia in external disputes, Saied has spent much of his foreign policy capital on the Libyan conflict. And while he regularly issues tirades against imperialism, more often than not the target of Saied’s ire is not the West but rather domestic actors whom he calls “traitors” to Tunisia, accusing them of accepting foreign funding or doing the bidding of unnamed foreign powers.
Saied’s first foreign trip was to Algeria in February 2020 to meet President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. As Tunisia’s economy has careened toward crisis, Algeria has become an increasingly critical partner. Tebboune’s government provided Tunisia with around 260 million euros ($300 million) in loans prior to his visit to Tunis in December 2021. Algeria and Tunisia were already tied together by a shared border, trade, and investment, but the relationship between Tebboune and Saied seems to also rest on a shared worldview—suspicious of international actors and their motives, defiantly self-reliant even in the face of insurmountable economic challenges, reluctant to engage in military adventurism but eager to be seen as a regional problem-solver and leader, and steadfastly committed to a strong executive office that sets the direction for the country. Saied was one of only a handful of heads of state who attended the 2022 Arab League Summit in Algiers in early November.
Saied’s efforts to make Tunisia a regional leader have been sporadic and do not seem consistent. At the beginning of his presidency, Saied focused on Libya, which is Tunisia’s most immediate foreign policy concern. However, Saied has not sustained interest in the issue despite a continuation, if not escalation, of violence in Libya. Instead, Saied has pivoted away from his country’s most immediate concern to focus on issues further afield. In February 2022, Saied traveled to Belgium for the European Union–African Union Summit, and in April, it was announced that he would travel to Russia to watch the first Tunisian astronaut go to the International Space Station, although that visit never materialized.
Saied’s most notable attempt to demonstrate Tunisia’s leadership backfired spectacularly. In August, Tunisia hosted the Eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). The event was an opportunity for Saied to demonstrate his capacity to host international events and engage on important international issues. Despite warnings from the Japanese government and others, the Tunisians welcomed Brahim Ghali, the president of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, with some fanfare—including meeting his plane on the tarmac upon its arrival in Tunis. This warm welcome was interpreted by the Moroccan government as a departure from Tunisia’s previous position of neutrality on the issue of Western Sahara and a deliberate sign of disrespect. Morocco recalled its ambassador from Tunis and cancelled its participation in an upcoming regional sporting event hosted by Tunisia.
Some have suggested that Saied’s actions were meant to curry favor with Tebboune. Regardless of Saied’s motivations, the spat over Ghali’s participation overshadowed the content of the conference and cast Saied as having blundered his way into an easily avoidable diplomatic gaffe. If Saied had wanted to use TICAD to highlight Tunisia’s leadership ability, it had the opposite effect.
Saied’s most recent attempt at diplomacy was the November 19–20 Francophonie Summit in Djerba. Tunisia was scheduled to host the summit in October 2021, but the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) chose to postpone the summit, which would have come just a few months after Saied’s takeover and handed him a major diplomatic win. While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged French President Emmanuel Macron and others to boycott the summit, in the end the usual participants attended, including Trudeau and Macron. The meeting netted significant gains for a variety of Francophone countries, including the advancement of the French language around the world and sustainable development in the Sahel. Tunisia walked away with a loan of 200 million euros ($206.9 million) from France and an agreement to oversee the presidency of the OIF for the next two years, although it is not clear how or whether Saied will take advantage of that position.
One of the few countries outside the Maghreb that Saied has repeatedly engaged with is France. During his first extended interview with the French press during his candidacy, Saied was very warm toward France, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between France and Tunisia because of their geography and history. This is not surprising given Tunisia’s reliance on Europe for financial assistance and the extensive ties between the two countries’ populations. However, when asked in the Tunisian press how he would address Tunisia’s extensive borrowing needs, Saied answered, “I will try to limit indebtedness as much as possible,” again without providing any real substance on how he would tackle economic reform in the country.
Not long after Saied’s election in 2019, he hosted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey. Press reported that the meeting focused on Libya, which would be consistent with Saied’s campaign promise that Tunisia would play a more visible role in resolving the Libyan conflict. Saied traveled to France in June 2020 and to Libya in March 2021; both visits were advertised as focused on Libya, but Saied’s meeting with Macron likely included a range of issues beyond Libya.
While he has long expressed a nonaligned worldview, Saied is not eager to curry favor from nor to boldly criticize the United States, with a few noted exceptions when U.S. officials issued harsh criticism against his actions of July 25, 2021. Conversely, Saied has actively courted Macron, going so far as to denounce a failed motion in the Tunisian parliament that would have demanded an apology from France for crimes committed during the colonial period, which earned Saied vocal criticism from Tunisians across the political spectrum.
Saied has also spoken passionately about the Palestinian cause. Tunis, which housed the Palestine Liberation Organization from 1982 to 1991, has long given the issue far more attention than its North African neighbors have. Saied has repeatedly called normalization with Israel “high treason,” and the 2022 Tunisian Constitution goes so far as to explicitly acknowledge the “right of the Palestinian people to their stolen land,” a step further than the 2014 Constitution, which called for support for the “liberation of Palestine.” Saied’s hand-picked Prime Minister Najla Bouden got into hot water at the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt in November after she was photographed smiling at Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
Saied also made trips to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2021. Both trips were under the guise of increased trade and investment; however, many observers believe that the trip to Saudi Arabia was an effort to secure a loan on more favorable terms than the IMF has proposed. The exact reasons for Saied’s visit to Egypt are less clear. It’s possible that the trip was meant to build support for Tunisia among Saudi Arabia’s allies. It’s also possible that Saied sees Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a model for how to govern. The Egyptian president came to power on the wave of a countertakeover, ousting the democratically elected Islamist government. In the years since, Sisi has consolidated power in the executive branch, arrested or otherwise marginalized political dissidents and perceived opponents, closed space for independent civil society, and curtailed free speech in the name of national security. Some of these actions have already been replicated by Saied, albeit on a much smaller scale. Tunisians should be wary of efforts by Saied to emulate Sisi.
As Saied enters his fourth year in office, he has yet to develop a consistent or coherent foreign policy. While he has succeeded in enacting much of his domestic agenda, he has failed miserably at shoring up the diplomatic and financial support Tunisia needs to succeed in the short term. Rather, each step Saied has taken to chip away Tunisia’s democratic transition has left him more and more isolated, with a growing number of international companies abandoning ship for safer shores. And while Saied had grand (albeit naïve) hopes that a successful IMF deal would result in a windfall of international support to shore up the country’s myriad debts, in reality he has failed to secure the confidence of international donors, who remain largely skeptical of Saied’s ability to address structural economic challenges or the deep and vicious social polarization whose flames he has fanned and that has set the country on a path to instability. After governing Tunisia for three years, it appears Saied still fails to understand that his domestic agenda cannot succeed without a clearly articulated foreign policy.
1 These themes came up often in authors’ conversations with Tunisians throughout 2019–2020.