What’s Next for Tunisia’s Foreign Policy?

Tunisia’s interim government will soon step down, to be replaced by a president and legislature that will serve for the next five years. While the incoming government is not yet complete, its policies will differ significantly from the departing interim authorities, and the contrast may be sharpest in foreign policy. The party that will control Tunisia’s next governing coalition, Nidaa Tounes, will likely be less inclined to champion human rights and democracy abroad, emphasizing national interest over moral resolve. Security and the economy will top the agenda, and the new government will probably look for more international assistance on both fronts while pursuing closer relations with states that were wary of the previous government’s Islamist ideology.

Across the political spectrum, Tunisian leaders generally share a remarkably similar evaluation of the current challenges in their foreign affairs. However, they differ considerably in their preferred approach to address these challenges.

The interim government, under the leadership of President Moncef Marzouki, looked to promote Tunisia as an international model for democracy and a champion of human rights. The governing coalition—made up of the Islamist Ennahda, populist Congress for the Republic (CPR), and social democratic Ettakatol, collectively known as the “troika”—came from a long legacy of opposition. In many ways, this history of activism inflects their foreign policy priorities.

Troika leaders’ responses to international events evoked a commitment to democracy and human rights internationally. For example, when Muammar Qaddhafi’s former prime minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi was arrested in Tunisia, President Marzouki initially refused to extradite him, citing concerns that he would not receive a fair trial in Libya and could be subjected to torture. Marzouki later allowed Mahmoudi’s extradition, but publicly expressed his regret for the reversal. Later on, Marzouki withdrew Tunisian diplomatic recognition of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, calling for Assad to relinquish power and accept a democratic transition.

Troika leaders tend to hold the view that Tunisia’s role in international relations should be to serve as a model for reformers, and an intermediary in conflicts. Leaders in Ennahda and CPR especially believe that while Tunisia has little in the way of natural resources, its human resources—the Tunisian people and their successful democratic transition—can become a valuable asset to foreign nations.

The troika government has come under strident criticism for this view and its consequent foreign policy from opposition parties, most notably Nidaa Tounes. Founded in 2012 by former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes aimed to unite Tunisia’s disparate opposition parties against the troika, and Nidaa Tounes supporters have a distinctly different perspective on foreign affairs. That perspective will now become far more influential, as Nidaa Tounes won the plurality of seats in last month’s National People’s Assembly elections along with the constitutional mandate to form Tunisia’s next government. Nidaa Tounes’s influence may grow larger still, with its candidate Beji Caid Essebsi ahead in the presidential polls.

Unlike the troika, Nidaa Tounes leaders believe Tunisia should avoid promoting any particular political or social system. They do not believe it in the national interests of Tunisia to take stands on the democratic bona fides of other states, a tendency they often perceive as amateurish and embarrassing. Nidaa Tounes leaders instead prefer a foreign policy that is neutral on ideological issues.  Over the course of several interviews with Nidaa officials, this was often referred to as a foreign policy of “no problems.” Because of this approach, the next government will likely be silent on the issue of political reforms or human rights, while emphasizing pragmatism and Tunisian interests.

A Nidaa-led foreign policy will need to address many of the same challenges that confronted the troika in the past three years. Tunisia needs foreign capital to bolster its economy and deal with chronic budget shortfalls. It also needs foreign assistance to deal with extremist groups based along the western border with Algeria, who have persistently attacked police and military installations.

The new government will look abroad for assistance in addressing these challenges. Leaders in Nidaa Tounes consider it a priority to solicit foreign direct investment. In addition, leaders report that they favor negotiating larger economic assistance packages from Europe, the United States, and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund.

To address Tunisia’s persistent internal security challenges, Nidaa Tounes will also seek support from Western nations in the form of military equipment, training, and support. Coordination with security services in Algeria is likely to be a major priority as extremists draw resources from cross-border smuggling networks and base their operations out of the border regions.

As part of this effort, Nidaa Tounes will likely court sympathies from some different regional powers. While Ennahda enjoyed cordial and substantive relations with Qatar and Turkey, powers such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and some European governments have been wary of committing support to Tunisia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE viewed the Islamist ideology of Ennahda and the revolutionary background of the troika as a whole was a threat to the ruling powers. Due to its own ideological and political background, Nidaa Tounes—which contains a large contingent of members of Ben Ali’s erstwhile ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally—will probably seek a warming of relations between Tunisia and the Gulf powers. After both Saudi Arabia and the UAE opened up their coffers to support the presidency of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, Nidaa Tounes leaders may look to them for aid for Tunisia, especially if it is able to form a government that leaves Ennahda in the opposition.

Some of Tunisia’s largest trading partners in Europe have been slow to send assistance to Tunisia for similar reasons. The European states do not regard Tunisia’s revolution as a threat to internal stability, but many took a wait-and-see approach to assistance to avoid over-commitment before they were sure that Tunisia’s transition would work in their interest. Nidaa Tounes may look to these states for more assistance now, and might have a warmer reception than the troika due to their ideology and the additional credibility of being Tunisia’s first non-interim government under the new constitution.

Once a peripheral issue, foreign policy success is an increasingly important criterion for public confidence in Tunisia’s government. After three years of relatively little progress on pressing economic and security issues, Nidaa Tounes and its future governing partners have a chance to persuade the public that their vision of international affairs is the right one for Tunisia. Improved cooperation with the international community is a key to success, and one that they will try to achieve with the appeal of an ideological vision that is politically neutral and focused on pragmatic interests. This may be a useful approach for some countries that were uncomfortable with the politics of Tunisia’s previous government. But ultimately, the Tunisian public will judge the new government based on the results it achieves.

Alexander Nisetich is a Master’s student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He spent eleven weeks in Tunisia over the summer of 2014 researching Tunisian political development since 2011, and the role of youth in political activism. This article is a product of his fieldwork.

Image: Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Tunisia?s secular Nidaa Tounes party and presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in the capital Tunis November 15, 2014. Tunisia's presidential election is scheduled to be held on November 23. REUTERS/Anis Mili