President Essebsi’s Death Will not Bring much Change in Iran-Tunisia Relations

Essebsi’s death will not change much in Tunisia’s foreign policy, at least in the next two months. This means that in the short run, Iran-Tunisia relations are likely to remain cordial, without necessarily becoming formal.

On July 25, the Tunisian President Béji Caïd Essebsi died in Tunis. Based on Article 84 of the constitution, Mohamed Ennaceur, the Speaker of the Tunisian Parliament, became the acting president of the country. The presidential election, which was originally scheduled for November 2019, is to be prematurely held on September 15, 2019. On July 27, numerous leaders attended the funeral of the late president. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani sent a letter to condole Tunisia while Javad Zarif, his Foreign Minister, who was in a trip to Latin America and Senegal, called Tunisia a “brother nation” and stated that the Islamic Republic of Iran “stands and sympathizes with the Republic of Tunisia’s government and nation”. Although Essebsi’s death brought about many questions for the future of Tunisian politics, his demise is not to mark a rift in Tunisia’s foreign policy. So, the relations between Tehran and Tunis are likely to remain friendly without an apparent formalization.

Tunisia is the pioneer of the Arab uprisings. In 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi’s immolation unleashed the Tunisian streets with the protests quickly spilling across the Middle East and North Africa in a butterfly effect, unfolding crises, conflicts, and wars. The Tunisians ended the rule of President Ben Ali (1987-2011), who had deposed President Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987), by replacing him with President Moncef Marzouki (2011-2014). Tunisia’s success was mainly bound to the calibrated role of the military apparatus, the remoteness from epicenters of instability, the presence of a vibrant civil society, and the absence of major natural resources. In 2014, the ascent of Essebsi to the Palace of Carthage has been a milestone in Tunisia’s democratic consolidation process.

Essebsi was an heir to Bourguiba’s old regime. From the presidency of Bourguiba to that of Marzouki, Essebsi had served as a minister twice and had occupied important political positions. In 2012, he founded Nidaa Tounes, a secular party composed of members of the old regime. In 2014, he won the presidential elections and formed a coalition with Ennahda Party. However, the competition between his son and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed led to a breakdown between Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda. Ennahda had refused to replace Chahed after he had been held responsible for Tunisia’s unsatisfactory economic records. Consequently, Essebsi asserted that the consensus and relationship between him and Ennahda has ended after “they chose to form another relationship with Youssef Chahed”. All in all, Essebsi’s pragmatist political legacy was based on secularism in two forms. One was opposition to Islamic jurisprudence as a political guide for he believed that politics should be carried out according to the constitution not religion. The second one was his advocacy of gender equality and women’s emancipation. Essebsi, who attempted to fulfill the constitution’s clause on gender equality, suggested major changes, senior among which was the advocacy of inheritance equality between men and women. However, a large part of Tunisia’s population believes that his plan did not fit Tunisia, a country whose official religion is Islam.

When the social upheavals erupted in 2011, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed his encouragement for what he regarded “a regional awakening.” Accordingly, the post-2011 landscape witnessed a growing Iranian interest in Tunisia. Tehran’s officials emphasized the importance fostering robust ties with Tunisia. Similarly, Tunis’ officials called for strengthening the relations with Iran mainly to heal the national economy. In 2014, the spokesperson of the Rouhani government congratulated Tunisia on holding the first free elections since 1956. However, after the ascent of Essebsi, Iran-Tunisia relations stagnated. His pragmatic political style, which was very much common among all members of the old regime, was always noticeable. At different extents, the President has built friendly relations with the Gulf countries, Iran, the United States, and Europe, pursuing a zero-enemy foreign policy. For example, Essebsi favored the relevance of Tunisia’s positive relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar so much so that even the June 2017 blockade against the latter did not stain Tunisia’s relations with the two. In mid-2019, Tunisian and Qatari officials signed memorandums, agreements and projects in sectors like tourism, transport, and energy. On April 2019, Mohamed bin Salman paid a visit to Essebsi which was widely protested in the country.

Iran-Tunisia relations are rather complex. They are an illustration of asymmetric relations, in terms of engagement and commitments. Post-Essebsi Tunisia is likely to follow its pragmatism for three reasons. First, the acting president, aged 85, belongs to the old regime. Like his predecessor, he had served as a minister several times, and had been fully engaged in Tunisia’s political landscape. On June, he was hospitalized following a serious malaise, which rose uncertainty on his ability to lead Tunisia.

Second, the Gulf countries have proven to be highly in favor of old regime figures, opposing the Islamist trend, embodied by Ennahda. The party had encountered several political blows, and this strengthens the image of Essebsi and Ennaceur at the international level. The party’s alleged relationship with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood caused it to suffer the regional repercussions of the coup in Egypt in 2013. Factionalism is another dynamic that weakens Ennahda because one faction supports the motto of the party and another supports Saudi-style Salafism. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s labelling of Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization rose suspicion on the nature of Ennahda.

Third, the Tunisian state apparatus has been following the steps of Bourguiba, and this sustains an internal balance of power. Ben Ali, Essebsi, and Ennaceur are a replication of the Father of Independence. Under Marzouki, Tunisia did not hesitate to display pragmatism, in spite of a foreign policy motto bound to morals and humanitarian principles. The President distanced himself from Ennahda after 2013. Being a fierce opponent of Bashar al-Assad, he did not hesitate to reverse his stance starting from 2013, mainly because a significant number of people were enlisted to the Daesh terror organization in Syria.

Under late President Essebsi, Iran-Tunisia relations have been friendly. The President, figure of the democratic consolidation, sought a zero-enemy foreign policy that valued Tunisia’s geopolitical position. Accordingly, he refused to align with one camp, and instead chose to build positive relations with countries like Saudi Arabia, disregarding the social dissatisfaction of a large segment of citizens. In Tunisia, post-independence presidents have mirrored, at different levels, the principles of the old regime. Consequently, Essebsi’s death will not change much in Tunisia’s foreign policy, at least in the next two months. This means that in the short run, Iran-Tunisia relations are likely to remain cordial, without necessarily becoming formal.