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Tunisia: between a rock and a hard place

Rachid Ghannouchi was in need of both political reassurance (and indeed financial backing) from the Obama Administration that the Ennahdha Party would not go the way of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Rob Prince
15 August 2013

Two years ago it was a Tunisian uprising that triggered the events in Egypt which brought down Hosni Mubarek. Now it is the Egyptian mass movement in conjunction with that country’s military that is fanning the flames of opposition in Tunisia.

There are parallels between the two situations of the two countries – most particularly, the pervasive collapse of confidence in recently elected governments. Just as the Muslim Brotherhoods failed to address the socio-economic crisis that swept them to power just a short year ago, so too, Ennahdha – Tunisia’s version of the Brotherhood for all practical purposes, has been singularly ineffective in addressing Tunisia’s woes.

But if in some ways events in Tunisia parallel those in Egypt, in other ways the situations are quite different. The political chemistry in the two countries together with the uprisings this produced has created somewhat different results. For example, the Tunisian military is much less of a factor than in Egypt. Tunisia’s strategic position, while not irrelevant, is still not so vital to US interests as is Egypt. There are other important differences as well.

So will the Tunisian demonstrators undo the Ennahdha-led government as their Egyptian counterparts did a month ago?

At this writing it is not possible to answer that question, but Tunisia is once again at a political crossroads, the government approaching gridlock. Not for the first times, there are open calls for the government to resign. Tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to Tunis’ streets calling for the Ennahdha-led transitional government to step down. The activities of the country’s Constituent Assembly, elected to prepare a new constitution, have been suspended. Armed clashes in the western mountains near Tunisia’s border with Algeria have left 8 Tunisian soldiers and an unknown number of Islamic militants dead.

Over the past few weeks since the assassination of Ennahdha critic Mohamed Brahmi, the overall political crisis in Tunisia has deepened. Brahmi was shot 14 times in front of his house. Member of the `Peoples’ Movement Party’ and Popular Front Coalition, his assassination came on `Republic Day’ , the national holiday which commemorates Tunisian independence and the founding of the modern Tunisian state. Earlier in his career, Mr. Brahmi worked as an accountant in Saudi Arabia and as an economics lecturer. He took up politics full-time in 2011, founding his political movement based on a social democratic platform and aligning himself with workers’ groups during the country’s first post-revolution election last year.

A National Salvation Front came together on the six month anniversary of the assassination of Chokri Belaid. It consists of 12 opposition parties. However, Rachid Ghannouchi and the Ennahdha Party are standing firm. I would venture to predict, admittedly rather gingerly, that Ennahdha will weather the storm and emerge from the current crisis, bruised, but still holding the reins of power in Tunisia.

It will do so in no small measure as a result of continued support from the Obama Administration. The US is worried that the more pro-US regimes of Libya and Tunisia, regimes that have the blessings of Washington, could bite the dust if they go down the same path as Egypt. Washington is thus trying to stabilize the situation in both countries. Two assassinations in two days – one in Libya, one Tunisia – boded ill for Obama. Once again the Obama Administration is attempting to pre-empt the resurgence of powerful social movements that could topple key Washington allies.

A month before Mohamed Morsi was unceremoniously relieved of his responsibilities as Egypt’s president, in late May, early June of this year, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader and founder of Tunisia’s ruling Ennahdha Party made a `surprise’ visit to Washington DC. He goes to Washington a lot these days. As in the past, he was given the red carpet treatment by important American Middle East think tanks. He spoke to audiences at both the Brookings Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations. At Brookings, Ghannouchi was introduced by Martin Indyk, the US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, an indication that whatever else is happening in Tunisia and throughout the Middle East, Ghannouchi and Ennahdha still enjoy the support of the Obama Administration.

His public speeches were more or less the same canned remarks he has made to American audiences – that his Ennahdha Party is serious about being in coalition with two paper secular parties; that Ennahdha seems compromised by these `moderate secularists’, but that everyone needs to make concessions and that the constitution that Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly is working on will be a document that takes into consideration the will of the entire Tunisian people and not just the Islamicists. As it was meant to, it all played well in Washington DC, although the gap between Ghannouchi’s words and Ennahdha’s factional behavior these past two years was conveniently ignored.

There is reason to believe that beyond giving speeches to the Brookings Institution Ghannouchi was worried – no that is not a strong enough word – that Ghannouchi was in something approaching a panic over the changing Middle East political map. He was in need of both political reassurance (and needed financial backing) from the Obama Administration that the Ennahdha Party would not go the way of the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt and that Washington would continue to `stand by their man.’

By all appearances – and the hard line that Ghannouchi took towards opening up the Ennahdha-led government to opposition elements – Ghannouchi did not leave Washington empty handed. There is some talk, that in gratitude for continued Obama Administration support, Tunisia might offer AFRICOM its African headquarters in Tunis. Whatever, Washington’s support did not come without some kind of major offer in return.

Why the worry? Because the thin thread on which Ghannouchi’s financial base rests – sizeable cash infusions and political support from Qatar – was about to collapse! It is likely that Ghannouchi got advanced warning of the regional shift about to take place and hightailed it as quickly as possible to Washington, hat in hand, for reassurances and financial support.

To what am I referring and how do the events described below affect Tunisia?

Over the past decade or so, Qatar – flooded with cash as a result of its extensive natural gas reserves has competed – rather successfully – with Saudi Arabia for influence throughout the Arab World. The Qataris have thrown their support throughout the region behind the Muslim Brotherhoods – that Arab-based network that includes financial, educational and religious institutions with now nearly a century of history. It was on an ocean of Qatari money that the Brotherhoods were propelled to power in Egypt and Ennahdha in Tunisia. On the other hand, the Saudis, as they have done since the end of World War II, peddle their influence through the more orthodox Islamic fundamentalists Salafist and Wahhabist movements.

Although both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have carefully supported US security and economic interests in the Middle East – enough so that for Washington, it matters little on a political level which one dominates – the growing Qatari political influence at Saudi Arabia’s expense was creating a dangerous rift between allies. The two Persian Gulf neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been involved in a quiet but intense factional fight for regional influence in the Arab World. For a while there it appeared that Qatari natural gas was checkmating Saudi oil interests.

With the Brotherhood victory in Egypt, a plan for Brotherhood control of the Middle East from Turkey in a crescent around to Egypt and then on into Africa appeared to be gaining strength. All this was too much for the Saudis who lobbied Washington hard to reduce the Brotherhood’s role, neutralize Qatar as a key regional play and permit the Saudi’s to re-emerge after a period of relative hibernation as Washington’s regional power broker.

As Kazerooni and I recently noted in discussing the crisis in Egypt just last week:

There can be little doubt that Washington has shifted its regional support away from Qatar to its old and trusted Saudi ally after a flirtation with Doha. The Saudis are `back in the saddle again‘. The sudden June 25, 2013 removal of the previous emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani, replaced by his son, a 35 year old playboy, Tamin bin Hamid Al Thani, is a clear indication of the re-direction of the regional power centers. The latter, little more than a playboy, cares little about competing with the Saudis for regional power (unless it concerns soccer). The recent trip of the new Qatari emir to “pay homage” to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia supports our arguments.

The shift could have had profound implications for Tunisia but it appears that for a number of reasons, Ghannouchi and Ennahdha will continue to benefit from Washington’s political and financial largesse. Although it has a different name, for all practical purposes Ennahdha is the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhoods. It was recently reported that at an emergency meeting in Turkey to evaluate the situation for the Brotherhoods in the aftermath of the Egyptian coup, Rachid Ghannouchi was appointed in mid-July as the “No 2 man” in the Brotherhoods’ network internationally. Ghannouchi has denied this but regardless, he is a key player in the network whatever his title or lack thereof.

Ghannouchi’s fear – not without merit – was that as Washington had abandoned Morsi in Egypt that it could likewise cease its support for Ennahdha in Tunisia, given Ennahdha’s intimate relationship to the Brotherhoods and Qatar. To date, however, if the Obama Administration has shifted its regional support to the Saudis, it continues to support Ghannouchi and Ennahdha for the moment. This is probably because, although useful diplomatically, Tunisia because of its size is less important economically and strategically than Egypt.

That said, Ghannouchi will have to pay a price for Washington’s support. Especially important to watch is Tunisia’s relations with Saudi Arabia – the big winner to date in this regional shake up. Very likely the stepped up Salafist military offensive against the Tunisian army comes at a time when it is becoming more and more complicated for Ghannouchi to move against the Salafists, having now to look over his shoulder rather regularly to maintain approval from Riyahd, now that Qatar is so dramatically withdrawing from the regional political scene.

For the moment, despite dramatically declining popularity and the loss of much legitimacy, with Washington’s blessing, Rachid Ghannouchi and the Ennahdha Party continue to cling to power in Tunisia. The calls for the government to step down – permanent demonstrations to that effect – are being rebuffed. But how long can they hang on? And what will happen if the government falls?

This piece was published on August 15 on Rob Prince’s blog

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