Tunisia readjusting its foreign policy

In the first democratic elections held in post-revolution Tunisia on Oct. 23, 2011, Ennahda, the political movement supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, had emerged as the strongest political party with 37 percent of the vote.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, declared in March 2012 that the party would not make Sharia (Islamic law) the main source of legislation, that they would not force women to wear the headscarf, that they would not ban alcohol in restaurants and that they would be inspired by the Turkish experience of moderate Islam as practiced by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). These were strong signs that the secular nature of the state was going to be preserved in post-Arab Spring Tunisia. The concept of Turkey as a role model for the Arab Spring countries had become fashionable during that period.

In order to be able to say that spring is dawning in the Arab countries, we have to see that the political parties that will come to power after the Arab Spring are replaced by other political parties. In Tunisia, there may still be a risk of things getting out of control, but we have reasons to be cautiously optimistic and say that the Arab Spring has successfully crossed the critical point in this Arab country. Therefore Tunisia has become not only the country where the Arab Spring started, but also where the post-Arab Spring process of democratization is moving ahead successfully.

In the general election held on Oct. 26, 2014, Tunisia’s leading secular party, Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), pushed the incumbent Ennahda to second place and emerged as the strongest political party, with 85 seats in a parliament of 217 seats as compared to Ennahda’s 65 seats. These results indicate that Ennahda failed to meet the expectations of Tunisians during its two years in power. After the elections, in a move rarely seen in Arab countries, Ennahda ceded its place peacefully to the winner of the elections.

During its term in government, Ennahda had rightly put the emphasis on democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms in its foreign policy because the country had suffered for decades from the lack of these basic tenets of good governance. In line with this policy Tunisia had withdrawn its diplomatic mission from Syria and severed its diplomatic relations in February 2012 when the Syrian regime started to use disproportionate military force against demonstrators. Again in line with this policy, then-Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, in an address to the United Nations, had called on Egypt to release former President Mohammed Morsi.

Now that this euphoria is fading away, the present government led by Nidaa Tounes is shifting its foreign policy priorities from universal values to less controversial and more pragmatic targets that affect its national interests. In line with this new approach, Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche announced at the beginning of last month that his country was prepared to receive a Syrian ambassador. This disclosure was later overruled by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebi, but it seems that diplomatic missions may resume their activities soon in both countries.

This is a clear deviation from the foreign policy followed by the Ennahda-led coalition government. This policy shift also entails a change in regional alliances. Turkey and Qatar were among the closest allies of Tunisia because they were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition in the Arab Spring countries. Close relations with the ruling AKP in Turkey were mainly due to the fact that there is an ideological affinity between Ennahda and the AKP. Now Tunisia is moving to tighten its relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because its national interests require it to do so.

In 2010, Tunisia was committed to being inspired by Turkey’s experience in the process of democratization. In 2015 Tunisia has set a good example by readjusting its foreign policy to its new requirements. Turkey, on the other hand, may now take Tunisia as a source of inspiration for readjusting its foreign policy to on-the-ground realities in the Middle East.