Has the West Learned to Work with Tunisia?

Has the West Learned to Work with Tunisia?

Despite Tunisia’s authoritarian turn, Europe and the United States are not willing to put valuable cooperation on immigration and security on the line. 

The North African nation of Tunisia is preparing for a presidential election in which the incumbent populist president, Kais Saied, is likely to win. Saied—who recently met with Xi Jinping and appears increasingly influenced by Russia—has been a source of frustration for the United States and Europe. However, a second term could bring an opportunity to apply hard-learned lessons over the past five years, even as the daunting challenge of protecting human rights for both Tunisians and irregular migrants will remain.

Under Tunisian president Kais Saied, Tunisia’s traditionally firm relationship with the West has been shaken. Over the past several years, Saied has conducted an authoritarian overhaul of the country’s institutions, leaving Western capitals unsure how to respond. On the one hand, reducing their material support would signal disapproval of these non-democratic actions. On the other hand, Saied’s accusations of Western “interference” and “conspiracy”—rhetoric that is typical of post-colonial states that view appeals to human rights as a form of Western imperialism—have successfully stripped Europe and the United States of leverage. The Middle East conflict that began on October 7, 2023, has worked in Saied’s favor by further fomenting anti-Western sentiment in the country.

Yet, on another level, partnerships between Tunisia and the West are continuing apace. Italy, in particular, has led efforts on behalf of the European Union to engage Tunisia, particularly around migration but also as part of a “360-degree approach” to help develop Africa known as the Mattei Plan. A memorandum of understanding signed between the EU and Tunisia in July 2023 sparked criticism (including from within the European Parliament) as well as confusion when Tunis returned an initial €60 million disbursement of funds to Brussels. In fact, this series of events ultimately led to the European Union’s disbursement of €150 million in budgetary support. 

Meanwhile, the United States has had to tread carefully since October 7 as a result of its perceived steadfast support for Israel. Yet, by and large, the U.S. government has found that Tunisian civil society partners, especially local partners—including small businesses—do not want to miss the opportunity for American funds.

The general principle among Western actors seems to be: stay engaged, even if it’s tough. According to this thinking, such pragmatic behavior will ultimately help the relationship weather tough times and prevent Tunisia from fully assimilating into the Russian and Chinese sphere of influence in the long run.

Maintaining Relations at What Cost?

Italy, in particular, is especially concerned about Tunisia’s stability. The two countries share an intertwined history and are separated by a mere 200 miles. Recently, large numbers of migrants, both of Tunisian origin and from elsewhere on the continent, have been disembarking from Tunisia toward Italian shores. However, in recent months, the number of arrivals in Italy from this route has declined as Italy and Tunisia cooperate on border control. Yet, due to the absence of measures explicitly meant to address the rights and protection of migrants, Italy—which has entered into similar agreements with Egypt, Libya, Albania, and Mauritania—is perceived as complicit in the violations of migrants’ rights.

Moreover, Saied’s government continues to take steps to demonstrate that, despite cooperation with outsiders, he is still in control. In early May—following Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s visit, in which several new cooperation agreements and promises of budgetary support were announced—police forces, according to some reports, violently cleared several migrant encampments from the Tunisian capital and expelled them to the borders. The same day, authorities arrested Saadia Mosbah, the head of an anti-racism organization and recipient of a State Department award. Such actions are part of a larger campaign to portray migrants as an external enemy—vaguely associated with the West—from whom Saied can protect the country, thereby justifying his crackdown on dissent.

Thus, Italy’s cooperation with Saied’s government, which continues regardless of this brutal treatment, puts the United States in a somewhat difficult position. Challenging Rome will only create divisions among Western states, which Saied will seek to exploit. Washington must walk a fine line between speaking out against human rights violations and not contradicting its European allies. As a general rule, given that Washington is less directly concerned than Europe by Tunisia’s instability, it has been slightly less hesitant to speak out against the regime’s oppressive actions. For the moment, the more pragmatic choice to continue cooperation seems to have won out.

Moreover, the United States continues to work closely with the Tunisian military. This constitutes a win-win relationship for both sides. Washington considers Tunisia a valuable security partner on the African continent, where rising jihadist activity and weakening Western influence in the neighboring Sahel is of growing concern. 

Meanwhile, the Tunisian military values the training and equipment it receives from the United States and would suffer materially without it. Despite some moves that have been interpreted as attempts to politicize the military, Saied is likely unwilling to jeopardize this cooperation because it could cost him the support of the military. Thus, just as he is accepting assistance from Italy and the European Union while simultaneously demonstrating that he will deal with migrants however he chooses, Saied quietly allows a long tradition of American influence over the Tunisian military to continue while insisting that he will not allow foreign interference to flow into the country.

In practice, this means that despite the mistreatment of migrants, the West continues to cooperate with Tunisia. These include a notable improvement in the professionalization of the security forces and activities such as criminal justice reform. Italy, with investments from Germany, the European Union, and the World Bank, is also spearheading the development of the El Med underwater electricity cable as part of the global transition away from hydrocarbons. Nonetheless, the West’s ability to influence the future of democracy and human rights in Tunisia remains largely unclear.

Long-Term Scenarios

Although a second term is essentially guaranteed for Saied, the country’s stability during the next five years is not. For one thing, it’s not clear how much support he retains. On the one hand, many Tunisians seem to have been persuaded by his sovereigntist rhetoric, in which he promises to wean Tunisia off its dependence upon the West. This is most evident in the trajectory of his economic policies, which have consistently sought to reinforce this vision.

On the other hand, heavy-handed political repression has contributed to a lack of open criticism and a dearth of credible public opinion polls. Moreover, the recent response to a series of arrests of lawyers and journalists who had made critical remarks, in which lawyers, journalists, and judges organized strikes and issued statements indirectly condemning the government’s treatment of their colleagues, revealed the continued willingness among certain parts of the population to stand up for free speech—and the willingness of Western governments to speak out against such repression.

Although the Tunisian population, generally speaking, still harbors a fair amount of suspicion toward the West, and Saied continues to demonstrate that he will engage whichever interlocutors he chooses, including Iran, a second term under his presidency will most likely yield continued cooperation with the West. In the long term, however, the West must still find a way to balance security and strategic competition with the values of human rights protection.

Sabina Henneberg is a Visiting Scholar for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where her research has focused on political transition in North Africa. She is the author of articles in journals including the Journal of North African Studies, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of International Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. She is currently the Tunisia Country Specialist with Amnesty International USA and a 2023-24 Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute.

Image: Hussein Eddeb / Shutterstock.com.