An ex-Tunisian minister has been accused along with an Emirati intelligence officer of plotting a coup aimed at undermining Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, which the UAE deems an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In June, Tunisian authorities probed accusations that former Minister of Interior Lotfi Brahem plotted a coup to oust Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi with support from the UAE. French-language publication Le Monde Afrique reported that the Brahem-UAE coup aimed to remove Ennahda, the moderate Islamic party, from the government. The party is part of the ruling coalition along with the secular party, Nidaa Tounes.
Brahem and an unnamed UAE intelligence officer allegedly concocted the plan during a meeting on May 29 in the city of Djerba. The details involved removing Essebsi, 91, from power due to his failing health in an act that resembled the 1987 coup against Tunisia’s long-serving founding leader, Habib Bourguiba, that brought ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to power.
The plan also included replacing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed with former Defense Minister under ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Kamel Morjane. French, Algerian, and German intelligence, however, foiled the plot and warned Tunisian authorities.
Shortly thereafter, Chahed dismissed Brahem, for “security failures” related to a boat accident in early June that killed more than eighty migrants near the island of Kerkennah. However, according to journalist Nicolas Beau, the real reason behind Brahem’s dismissal was his involvement in the attempted coup.
Unidentified members of the Tunisian parliament said on June 12: “[L]awmakers have accelerated efforts to hold a session to uncover the truth behind this issue. . . .The information surrounding Brahem’s dismissal . . . clearly indicates that something was being planned and that it was foiled.”
Prime Minister Chahed replaced Brahem with Hichem Fourati who received a parliamentary vote of confidence on July 31, finally bringing the two-month-long political crisis in the North African country to an end.
The UAE’s motives for involvement in the plot likely stem from the fear of the spread of Islamist power in the region, especially into the UAE. Ennahda has gained power in the current government over the last year. The party won municipal elections in April, securing a five percent lead over Nidaa Tunis. Ennahda has also expanded its involvement in civil society activities and captured the popular vote, stoking concerns among some that it could beat Nidaa Tunes in the 2019 elections. Getting the Islamist Ennahda party out of the government would serve UAE’s interests in containing the Islamists.
The move appears to be part of the broader UAE, Saudi, and Egyptian strategy to marginalize and undermine Islamic groups in the region, which they consider an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The three nations are thought to have been trying to influence Tunisian politics since 2011 when Ennahda came to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The alliance has also targeted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and it remains accused of initiating the military coup that deposed former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Current President Abdel Fettah al-Sisi is waging a violent crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other opposition forces.
The UAE is also accused of providing $3 billion to the Fetullah Terror Organization (FETÖ) in support of the coup in Turkey in July 2016 and for interfering in the affairs of other countries, including Somalia and Syria, with the aim of fomenting unrest.
However, other commentators have called into question the idea of a coup plot. A July article in Orient XXI noted that the coup accusation could have been an attempt by Chahed to remove Brahem from the government, because “he was becoming too autonomous as a minister and a potential rival.” The same source added that Brahem traveled to Saudi Arabia in February 2018 to meet with King Salman, fueling suspicion about the motives behind the meeting.
Whether the accusation against Brahem and the UAE is true or not, the Tunisian public has reacted strongly. On the evening of June 12, Tunisians in the capital city staged a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior, calling for an end to foreign meddling in Tunisian affairs and denouncing the coup attempt as having been “manipulated by advocates of counter-revolution that do not want what is best for Tunisia.” Protesters also demanded that the Emirati ambassador in Tunisia be expelled.
Now, two and a half months later, lawmakers in Tunis are apparently still investigating the incident.