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What does Turkey want in Tunisia?

The US or the EU may need to get involved as regional actors are stepping in to push their authoritarian agendas.

As a major backer of the tide of democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the recent turn of events — which many international observers have called a coup d’etat — in Tunisia to threaten key components of its regional policy.

So far, however, Ankara so far has not reacted harshly to the assumption of emergency powers by Tunisian President Kais Saied and his suspension of the country’s parliament. Apparently determined to maintain open communication, Erdogan himself called Saied August 3 to personally offer his government’s view that maintaining democratic norms, including parliament’s work, was critical to the region’s stability.

Erdogan’s main interest, according to most analysts, is to ensure that Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, Ennahda, and its co-founder and parliamentary speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, are not marginalized, let alone banned, as some among the secular parties in Tunis have urged. Erdogan has stressed that all parties, including Ennahda, should be part of an inclusive National Dialogue designed to return Tunisia to its democratic path.

Although Ankara hasn’t considered Tunisia a primary focus of its regional policy since 2011, it has viewed Tunis — and the influence Ennahda has exerted on the country’s foreign policy in particular — as an ally in North Africa, especially in Libya, and the broader eastern Mediterranean in opposition to France, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, the last two of which have led the counter-revolution against the democratizing thrust of the Arab Spring and especially those parties within the movement associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. By threatening to diminish or even eliminate Ennahda’s influence on Tunisia’s future policy, Saied’s moves could well negatively affect Ankara’s own position in the struggle for spheres of interest in the wider region.

Turkey’s defense diplomacy in Tunisia

Turkey has cultivated close economic, political, and military ties with Tunis since 2011.

Bilateral trade between the two countries reached one billion dollars last year, covering mining, energy, food, and agriculture. Tunisia is considered a key foothold for Turkish commercial interests not only in North Africa, which is already a key market with 250 million consumers for Turkish exports, but also as a gateway to the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa where Turkish entrepreneurs have already invested heavily in countries like Senegal and Nigeria.

In the past 10 years, Ankara has also signed a number of defense agreements — an important source of influence — with Tunisia which resulted, among other things, in the transfer by Turkey’s Aerospace Industries of armed, medium-altitude, long-endurance Anka-S Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Tunis just last year, a deal worth $240 million. Tunisia rejected a similar deal with Paris.

Turkey’s rivalry with France naturally extends to Tunisia’s oil-rich neighbor, Libya, where Paris, as well as the UAE, have backed Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Unity, or GNU, in that country’s civil war. Indeed, it was Turkey’s 2020 intervention in that war that turned back Haftar’s offensive and effectively created the conditions for the ongoing cease-fire and peace talks.

The GNU, in turn, has played an important role in stabilizing the Tunisian-Libyan border in Ras-Jedir and Dehiba-Wazin, areas favored by smugglers and human traffickers, and where Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates, as well as Berber insurgents, have been active.

Ankara clearly worries that Saied’s moves, backed as they are by France and its regional rivals in the Gulf, now puts these gains — as well as Tunisia’s own stability — in jeopardy.

It is urging the United States and the European Union to press Saied to commit himself to an inclusive process designed to restore democratic governance as soon as possible. Much, according to Ankara, is at stake, not least the possible radicalization of Islamist groups in Tunisia if they feel themselves marginalized or disenfranchised by any new government. Tunis was already dealing with local militants like Ansar-al-Shariah, Tunisian Combat Group and Jund Al Khalif as well as the return of  hundreds former ISIS fighters captured by Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Moreover, instability in Tunisia could well affect its neighbors, most notably Libya, where Haftar’s foreign backers could see advantage in easing their pressure on him and his associates to remain in the peace negotiations. But the EU should be more worried about the prospect of Tunisia becoming a major new point of departure for desperate emigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia already plays host to some 20,000 Africans (mostly from Côte d’Ivoire), many of whom are undocumented. Such migrants may now be tempted to make the perilous trip across the Mediterranean.

For all these reasons, in addition to the West’s insistence that it supports democracy and the rule of law, according to Turkey, the EU, and the United States should offer Saied a face-saving way to step back from the edge of the steep political cliff in which he has placed Tunisia.