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Geopolitical changes weigh on Tunisia

Dramatic transformations across the Middle East and North Africa are having an impact on domestic politics.
Last modified: 25 Aug 2013 11:54
Supporters of Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahdha Party

Tunis - The standoff between Tunisia's Ennahdha-led government and a loose coalition of opposition parties calling for it to step down is closely linked to broader geostrategic changes in the region.

While domestic factors - particularly the assassinations of two opposition politicians, along with economic and security factors – are certainly significant, the dramatic changes under way in the rest of the region are also weighing on Tunisia’s political landscape.

There is no explicit American position on the current standoff, although the US State Department has condemned the political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi as "outrageous and cowardly" acts.

The US embassy declined to comment on the current political standoff, but commentators say US relations with the Tunisian government have deteriorated after the September 2012 attack on its Tunis embassy by alleged Salafist groups.

Ennahdha politicians are also very much aware that the Obama administration has failed to take a strong stance against the deadly crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt as the military reasserts itself as the country's main political player.

French connection

France's influence in Tunisia, meanwhile, has waned considerably since the uprising, during which Nicolas Sarkozy's government backed former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali up until its final days.

President Francois Hollande visited Tunisia in a bid to mend relations with the Ennahdha-led government in July. He said Tunisia was a model for the region, which proved democracy and Islam were compatible. His government has also made strong statements against the killings in Egypt.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party is based on a similar philosophical base to Ennahdha, remains one of the government's firmest allies, especially now that the Muslim Brotherhood has been forced out of power in Egypt.

Neighbouring Algeria is concerned about the proliferation of Salafist groups in Tunisia, which it says is already having a spillover effect on its own territory.

While Algeria is providing considerable support to Tunisian security forces in the Mount Chaambi region, the Algerians would undoubtedly be happy for a return to the pre-Arab Spring status quo in Tunisia.

Perceived interference

For the past two years, many opposition activists and politicians have denounced the perceived interference of the Gulf state of Qatar in Tunisian politics, a close ally of both Ennahdha and of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, it is the turn of Ennahdha supporters to denounce the perceived meddling of the Gulf states. Their ire is focused on Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally of the former regime, and on the United Arab Emirates, both of which have viewed the rise of political Islam over the past two years as a potential threat to their own stability.

Indeed, Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia to seek refugee from the uprising. Ben Ali has since disappeared from view, but as the recent release of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak suggests, this is not necessarily a permanent state of affairs.

The fact that Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahdha's president, flew to Paris last Thursday to meet Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the centre-secularist Nidaa Tounes Party, is indicative of how much the power dynamic between the government and the opposition has changed.

You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan