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Coups, fake footage and proxy parties: What is the UAE doing in Tunisia?

As its Libya adventure falters, Abu Dhabi has been accused of fomenting political turmoil in another North African state
Ghannouchi has been accused of upsetting Tunisia’s neutral stance on developments in Libya by favouring the UN-recognised government (AFP)
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Tunis

There has been political turmoil in Tunisia in recent weeks after parliamentary speaker Rashed Ghannouchi came under fire for alleged contacts with Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood regarding the war in Libya.

Tensions flared last month after Ghannouchi congratulated Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), on its recapture of al-Watiya airbase from Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army.

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Ghannouchi, leader of the country's Ennahda movement, was accused of upsetting Tunisia’s neutral stance on developments in Libya by favouring Sarraj, who is backed by Ankara and Doha. 

Haftar, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia, has suffered a series of defeats in recent weeks.

Tunisian politics have become a battleground for rival Gulf states since the overthrow of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. 

Now, as their Libya adventure goes off the rails, there are claims that the UAE and its allies have been behind the recent political upheaval, and in particular the campaign against Ghannouchi.

Suspicions aroused

On Sunday, security forces stopped a rally in Tunis, organised by a group calling itself the Salvation Front June 14 Committee, which was demanding the removal of parliament, early legislative elections and the formation of a small caretaker government.

Fathi Ouerfelli, a spokesperson for the group, told the Tunisian news agency TAP that Ghannouchi was "practicing parallel diplomacy" and that "his alignment behind the Turkish-Qatari axis does not bode well for Tunisian diplomacy nor benefits the Tunisian people.” 

The Facebook page of the Salvation Front, active as Harak al-Aksheedi, is run by 'two people in the United Arab Emirates'

Ouerfelli said that the demonstrators had been harassed and prevented from protesting peacefully in front of parliament, criticising the Ennahda movement, which Ghannouchi founded, for using state bodies (the ministry of interior and Bardo municipality) to ban demonstrations by closing all roads to the capital's central Bardo Square. 

According to the Lens Post, a Middle Eastern media outlet, the Facebook page of the Salvation Front, active as Harak al-Aksheedi, is run by “two people in the United Arab Emirates”.

“This raises suspicions about the size of the Emirates' interference in Tunisian affairs,” the Lens Post said in an article on Friday. 

Ouerfelli was not available for comment, but denied any foreign interference during a press conference, saying that: “Only Tunisia’s affairs matters.”

Ouerfelli, who also leads the left-wing Tounes Beytouna party, added that his initiative includes political organisations, national personalities and the patriotic youth movement in Tunisia. 

Since the beginning of this month, two other movements have demanded parliament be dissolved and staged sit-ins in the Bardo Square.

The 1 June Coordination is chaired by lawyer and political activist Imad bin Halima, while the Third Republic, a coalition of three civil society groups, is headed by lawyer Mohamed Ali Abbes, a former member of the National Salvation Front.  

'Hunger revolution'

Last month, Turkey's Anadolu Agency reported that Tunisia's public prosecutor's office had opened an investigation into appeals launched on social networks for action against state institutions. 

Two Tunisian analysts told the agency that the calls made on social networks were for "a revolution" and "the dissolution of parliament".

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The analysts said the appeals were not serious and that they had been directed by political parties incapable of mobilising the people, as well as through regional forces.

While the calls had been framed as a "hunger revolution," Riyadh al-Chaaibi, a political researcher, told Anadolu that the "scientific and historical data prove that it was a counter-revolution" against Tunisia's democracy.

"These calls launched under the guise of social welfare and unemployment are false and push towards a counter-revolution," said Chaaibi.

Tarek Kahlaoui, a former director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies, told Anadolu that according to the content posted on the social networks, the calls came for political parties with contradictory orientations.

Kahlaoui said they included supporters of Ben Ali, such as Abir Moussi, the leader of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), and people close to the Nidaa Tounes party, which won a plurality of seats in the country's 2014 parliamentary election.

'Planned coup'

Last month, El Watan, an independent French-language newspaper in Algeria, cited several Middle Eastern media outlets, including the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, as reporting that Turkish intelligence had foiled a coup attempt in Tunisia coordinated by the UAE. 

Several media outlets reported that Turkish intelligence had foiled a coup attempt in Tunisia coordinated by the UAE

The first act of the coup, said Al-Quds al-Arabi, was to begin on 13 June with anti-government demonstrations. 

According to Turkish sources, the demonstrations were to be prepared and led by personalities linked to Ben Ali and "certain leaders of organisations affiliated with the Tunisian left, who did not succeed in making a place in parliament during the last legislative elections."

The Lens Post reported: "The planned coup in Tunisia aims overall to reproduce the scenario set up in Egypt to bring [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi to power", as well as the "demonisation of the Ennahdha movement".

The ploy would have been used "to prepare the coming to power of a subservient figure in Abu Dhabi who was asked to apply to the letter the agenda of Abu Dhabi in Libya and the region," the Lens Post wrote.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have been accused of backing the toppling of Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

Morsi, who was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was replaced by Sisi.

Betrayal

“This resembles very much an Emirati-style coup plot,” Middle East researcher at the Free University of Brussels Sebastien Boussois told MEE. 

“With Haftar in Libya on the losing side, Tunisia has become key in their plan to settle or maintain authoritarian regimes everywhere in the MENA region.”

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A liaison between the old regime of Ben Ali and the left makes sense in this context, says former foreign affairs minister Rafik Abdessalem. 

“Those left-wing groups feel connected to Arab nationalism, now embodied by Assad in Syria, another ally of the Emirates,” Abdessalem, a member of the Ennahda movement, told MEE.

Almost exactly two years ago, on 12 June 2018, the Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak reported what it said was another UAE-backed coup attempt that came from the former Tunisian Minister of Interior Lotfi Ibrahim.

The purported coup, which aimed to seize power and depose the Ennahda party, was foiled with the help of French, German and Algerian intelligence units, according to the daily.

“For years the UAE is trying to halt the influence of Qatar, backer of the Ennahda party and the democratic transition," said Boussois.

"Abu Dhabi had initially bet on [Beji Caid] Essebsi (the founder of Nidaa Tounes), but felt betrayed by his alliance with Ennahda. The Emiratis never forgave him for his decision to keep a distance in the relations with the Gulf countries.”  

Political substitute

Abdessalem argues the sponsorship of individuals, political parties and civil society groups is not the UAE's favourite mode of operating. 

“They prefer to use the army and army leaders, but since the Tunisian army has proved to be independent, this doesn’t work in Tunisia,” he said. 

As of the 2019 legislatives elections, the Tunisian substitute is reportedly Moussi's PDL, holding 17 seats in parliament.

'Abu Dhabi wants to destroy Ennahda, no matter what'

- Rafik Abdessalem, former Tunisian minister

“Abu Dhabi now openly supports Abir Moussi and the PDL, which is very close to the former and now banned party of Ben Ali, and whose mission is the definitive eradication of Ennahda. Moussi has the wind in her sails," said Boussois. 

“For the Emiratis, Ennahda’s Muslim-democratic identity is a threat to their raison d’etre. An unwelcome competitor to their home-made Islamic totalitarian regime,” said Abdessalem.

“Mass media are vital for their business. UAE media outlets advertise the PDL and to top it off they also fund a large range of Tunisian outlets.

"Abu Dhabi wants to destroy Ennahda, no matter what.”

Media campaign

Last month, the Emirati television channel Al-Ghad aired a news report about demonstrations across Tunisia “protesting against unemployment”. 

However, the footage was actually of a demonstration over a football club in Bizerte - which had nothing to do with the country’s social problems - and months-old clips of protests against the Trump administration's “deal of the century."

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Also in May, Anadolu Agency's Qatar correspondent, Ahmed Yusuf, highlighted what he called "a systematic campaign" against Ghannouchi from media backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. 

Yusuf said the media arms of all three countries had been publishing "simultaneous deceitful news" about the parliament speaker, including claims that he had "gained huge financial wealth since his return to Tunisia" in 2011. 

Ghannouchi has denied such allegations and official financial documents obtained by the Arabi21 news website last week refuted the claims. 

'Questioning Ghannouchi'

Following Ghannouchi's congratulatory call to Libya's prime minister on 19 May, political tensions ratcheted up further this month during a 20-hour parliamentary hearing, instigated by Moussi, over Ennahda’s alleged partisan attempts to shift the country’s foreign policy agenda. 

Of Ghannouchi's call to Sarraj, Boussois said: "It is fairly normal; it reflects the good relations between Ennahda and Turkey. Although it won't have helped reconciliation with the Emirates.”

'The Emirates seek either anarchy or dictatorship, anything to show that democracies don't work'

- Rafik Abdessalem, former Tunisian minister

In an unusual move, Saudi- and UAE-backed media outlets broadcast the parliamentary hearing on 3 June live, with controversial and misleading titles such as “Questioning Ghannouchi".

A motion put forward to refuse any foreign intervention in Libya failed to pass, garnering 94 votes in favour, 15 votes short of the 109 needed for approval.

“This fits perfectly with the way Abu Dhabi operates”, said Abdessalem. 

“The Emirates seek either anarchy or dictatorship, anything to show that democracies don't work,” the former minister says. 

'All parties opt for democracy'

Despite failing to pass, the motion gained the backing of three of Ennahda’s five coalition partners. 

“It's not normal for the coalition to side with the opposition," said Abdessalam.

"We need consensus and a broader coalition, so we asked the prime minister (Elyes Fakhfakh) to initiate an internal dialogue and add the second largest Qalb Tounes to the coalition.” 

In the coalition talks following the 2019 election, the refusal of the prime minister and the Attayaar and Echaab parties to include Qalb Tounes in the government almost led to new elections. 

Despite the current political tensions facing Tunisia, Abdessalam is still hopeful for its democratic future.

“If it comes to the crunch, all parties opt for democracy, including the PDL,” he said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.