When then Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resolved to overthrow the ailing Habib Bourguiba in 1989, he made sure to inform Algiers and secure its backing beforehand. Hence, Ben Ali was able to avoid any regional fall-out or unnecessary tension with Tunisia’s most important (and powerful) regional neighbor and ally. When Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party won the first free and fair elections in Tunisia in 2011, the Ennahda leader’s first official foreign visit was to Algiers.
This time however, it is becoming apparent that President Kais Saied has not sought out a consultation with Algiers. When Saied announced his decision in late July to suspend parliament and assume executive, legislative, and judicial powers for himself, Algiers appears to have been caught by surprise.
If the current narrative touted in Algeria is to be believed, Saied called Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune a few hours after his announcement; not before. Whatever was said in that phone call appears not to have eased Tebboune’s concerns and he immediately ordered his Foreign Minister to fly to Tunis early the following morning.
Algeria has legitimate reasons to be concerned over Saied’s coup.
The Special Relationship
Saied’s decision not to inform Algiers before embarking on this sudden action suggests that he does not intend to respect the “special relationship” between the two countries. Algiers has always seen its rapport with Tunis as integral to its foreign policy, and the two have often operated in tandem to ensure a common approach to regional issues that affect them both. Tunisia in particular has always sought to uphold and promote this special connection with newly elected officials, as they are expected to make Algiers their first official foreign destination.
Algiers has always seen its rapport with Tunis as integral to its foreign policy.
The decision by Saied, and by extension the Tunisian security apparatus, to move forward with the coup without liaising with Algiers suggests a threat to the special relationship. This is further compounded by the implication that the UAE-Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis is seeking to supplant such ties.
The Gulf Playground
Algeria has often publicly expressed its annoyance and concern with the Gulf’s settling of scores on North African territory. While the regime in Algiers was never in favor of the Arab Spring revolutions, it nevertheless adapted to the changing dynamics. Notably, it adjusted its foreign relations and respected the newly emerging democratic institutions in Tunisia. And it maintained ties with Libya’s disputing parties during the initial democratic transition and its subsequent collapse into civil war.
However, Algiers resents both Qatar and UAE interference in what it sees as its own stomping ground. Qatar has supported allies in the region which Algiers is not comfortable with. The UAE meanwhile has sought to transform North African states into proxies to settle its scores with Qatar and Doha’s allies, as well as expand its own maritime influence and international clout. Both agendas are seen as threats in Algiers.
The UAE has sought to transform North African states into proxies to settle its scores with Qatar and Doha’s allies.
In the case of Tunisia, Saied is overwhelmingly supported by the axis of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Prior to the coup, Algiers was fairly content with the balance of powers in Tunis. That power sharing helped Tunisia maintain relative independence by preventing any other states from pushing it into a foreign policy position that might run contrary to Algeria’s interests. Saied’s coup threatens to upend this “balance” by throwing Tunisia headlong into the arms of Abu Dhabi.
From Algiers’ perspective, Saied’s power takeover threatens to render Tunisia akin to an “8th Emirate” of the United Arab Emirates (“the UAE”) to be wielded by Abu Dhabi in order to secure foreign policy gains in North Africa at Algeria’s expense.
Throughout the Libyan civil war, Tunisia has always acted as a lifeline for the internationally-recognized government in Tripoli, amidst ex-General Khalifa Haftar’s bid to impose a military solution to the conflict. Algeria’s resentment of Haftar is no secret. Haftar has publicly threatened Algiers in the past and Algeria’s President Tebboune has reiterated numerous times that he will not allow Haftar to militarily seize Tripoli. Regardless of whether Algeria’s domestic upheaval would allow the President to make true on these statements, the sentiment nevertheless is clear.
Given Algiers’ stance towards Haftar and its preference for a political solution (that Haftar and the UAE seek to undermine), there are genuine concerns that Saied’s coup in Tunisia will shut off Tripoli’s lifeline to the West and result in Abu Dhabi being able to antagonize the internationally-recognized government via both Haftar to the East, and Tunisia to the West. With Haftar itching for a renewed military campaign, Tunisia’s stance will have a significant impact on whether the Libyan political process survives, or Haftar’s ambition is realized.
President Saied met with Morocco’s Foreign Minister immediately after sitting with the Algerian Foreign Minister. Saied’s coup is unfolding at a time of particular tension between Algiers and Rabat. Morocco has normalized ties with Israel in exchange for US recognition of its control of the Western Sahara. Algeria views this normalization as an underhanded tactic by Rabat to garner international support for Morocco on the Western Sahara issue at the expense of the Algeria-backed Polisario movement that seeks an independent state.
The UAE is seen as the prime beneficiary of Saied’s coup, and a firm ally of Rabat.
The UAE, which infuriated Algeria by establishing a consulate in El-Ayoun in the Western Sahara, is seen as the prime beneficiary of Saied’s coup, and a firm ally of Rabat that is committed to supporting Morocco in advancing its interests at the expense of Algeria.
Where Tunisia has often been either neutral or silent on the matter of the Moroccan-Algerian differences, there is concern in Algiers that the UAE will drive Tunisia to greater support of Rabat and to undermine Algeria diplomatically as it seeks to rein in a Morocco that is increasingly assertive.
What Does Algiers Want?
Algeria does not seek a public display of any loyalty. Rather, it seeks to prevent Tunisia being dragged into the Gulf states’ proxy warfare that has greatly exacerbated conflict in the region. Algiers wants a guarantee that whatever emerges from Saied’s coup will not result in the UAE being able to sway Tunisia in favor of its foreign policy.
As the UAE extends its influence in regional matters of exceptional importance to Algiers (Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia), there are rumblings in Algerian public discourse that the UAE is beginning to surround Algeria. The general feeling is that any complacency on the part of Algiers will lead to Abu Dhabi exacerbating a volatile domestic situation in Algeria itself. With Abu Dhabi’s reach now spanning nearly all of the North African states, there is a sense that if Saied’s coup succeeds, then Algeria will be next.
Algeria’s ideal outcome in Tunisia would be a power-sharing deal between Ennahda and Saied.
It is in this context that Algeria’s ideal outcome in Tunisia would be a power-sharing deal between Ennahda and Saied in which each acts as a check on the other. For all of Algeria’s reservations towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda, there is little doubt that they are an effective rein on any UAE overreach. The same applies for Saied with regards to Qatari overreach. Realistically, this is the only way to guarantee that neither the UAE, nor Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are able to force Tunis into a position against Algerian interests.
Nevertheless, President Saied appears to now be engaging Algiers and making serious efforts to ease its concerns by assuring that no foreign powers are threatening the unstable region. On July 31, an official statement was released by the Algerian Presidency, stating that Saied had informed Tebboune that he would announce important decisions very soon.
Although, this does not mean that Saied will succeed in easing all of Algiers’ worries. Indeed, on July 31, UAE and Saudi Arabia-backed media outlet Al-Arabiya had its broadcasting license in Algeria revoked due to it “failing to uphold industry ethics, and its generally misleading content and dishonesty.” It seems Algiers remains on high alert over the Tunisian situation and its potential fallout, and only time will reveal whether such fears are valid.