Garvan Walshe: Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia

5 Aug

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.

As in Belarus and Hong Kong, democratic freedoms are under attack in Tunisia. But 10 years after its revolution, the powers that be are weaker, and strong foreign support for Tunisians’ freedoms can tip the balance.

“I will not become a dictator” insisted Kais Saied, the Tunisian president, as he shut down parliament, put the army on the streets and stopped Al Jazeera broadcasting.

Not since Egyptian general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared in military uniform in the summer of 2013, denying that the events which would make him president were a coup, or when Jeremy Corbyn said he was “present but not involved” at a wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists, has North African denial been so implausible.

Tunisia is the last survivor of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, but a decade on, its democracy is looking shaky. Ten years of fractious politics haven’t yielded the economic progress freedom was supposed to bring. The pandemic, and the disruption of the vital tourist industry it produced, has made things worse.

Tunisia is supposed to have a political system where power is shared between parliament and the president, but last week the president, a former academic who doesn’t belong to any political party, invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to suspend parliament for 30 days. But while the constitution allows periods of emergency presidential rule, they are conditional on the parliament being in session to keep an eye on him.

A constitutional court would have reaffirmed this, but one hasn’t been set up yet. In its absence, Saied, despite being a former professor of constitutional law, just used the security forces under his command for a power grab. Though he likened himself to de Gaulle, it would be fairer to compare him to Cromwell dismissing the Rump.

Nonetheless, unlike Sisi’s in Egypt, Saied’s coup looks far from a foregone conclusion. Elected with 72 per cent of the vote in 2019, Saied’s approval ratings have fallen to around 40 per cent, and it’s best to describe him as the single most popular figure in a crowded field.

The successor pparty to the old regime, known as the Free Destourians, heads the polls with around 30 per cent support, followed by the genuinely moderate post-Islamist Ennahda, with 20 per cent. Various left-wing and secularist groups, and Islamist groups make up the rest.

This contrasts with Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood were extreme, saw democracy as a means to an end, and against whom the Army was the only force in society capable of standing up to them. Unable to win on their own, Ennahda, who now describe themselves in as “Muslim Democrats” in conscious analogy with Angela Merkel’s CDU, have become moderate (a hardline faction split off to form its own “Dignity” party). Though Saied can argue that his opponents are dysfunctional, there is no threat of an Islamist takeover in Tunisia.

Islamist weakness has been reflected in the US position, with Jake Sullivan, the National Security Adviser, insisting that Tunisia return to the “democratic path.” The US may also be motivated by concerns about increasing Chinese influence in the country, which is only 200 miles from Sicily.

The Foreign Office has so far been rather more perfunctory, issuing a statement so anodyne it is worthy of the department’s caricature in Yes, Prime Minister. There is a need to get a grip on the situation, and the Foreign Secretary should use the opportunity to lead.

Just as in Hong Kong and Belarus, the UK has a duty to stand up for freedom in Tunisia. It has been heavily involved in the democratic transition since 2011, supporting civil society, offering practical assistance and considerable sums of aid. Unlike France it is not burdened by colonial baggage there. And it has an opportunity to outflank the EU which is hampered by the requirement for unanimity in foreign affairs. The UK has an opportunity to convene a response by the world’s democracies.

The most important task is the resolution of the constitutional crisis and a return to the normal democratic process.

In the first instance, the army should be taken off the streets, and journalists be allowed to report openly. Parliament should be reconvened (after all that is what the Tunisian constitution requires even during an emergency), and the parliamentarians that have been arrested freed immediately.

In the medium term, agreement is needed on a constitutional court, and measures to ensure full international observation of future Tunisian parliamentary and presidential elections to ensure their legitimacy.

In the longer term, reforms are needed in Tunisia’s army, intelligence services and police, to ensure oversight by all elements of Tunisia’s political system, as is normal in presidential democracies. They may be under the command of the president, but need to be subject to laws enacted by the parliament compliance with which is monitored by parliament and enforced by the judiciary.

Finally, priority should be given to Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country is still extremely poor, despite reasonable levels of education, a large French-speaking population and a geographical location extremely close to the European market. A good investment climate and the rule of law should put it in a position to leapfrog its neighbours in Algeria and Morocco. Further aid needs to be made conditional on progress towards a stable, and free, political and business environment.

The only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab revolutions needs our help. Unlike in Hong Kong and Belarus, autocratic forces lack a powerful patron. Unlike in Egypt, choice isn’t between authoritarianism and Islamism. And unlike in Lebanon, the country has not been overtaken by sectarian dysfunction. We can make a difference in Tunisia. It would be unforgivable to take our eye off the ball.

Garvan Walshe: This week’s Israel-Morocco deal. A consolation gift for Trump…and a strategic win for China.

17 Dec

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the British Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy

Since the Second World War, the revision of frontiers, overriding the wishes both of the people who lived in the territories adjusted and their officially recognised governments has been frowned upon, for obvious reasons – as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost in 1991 when he invaded Kuwait (and as he also found out to his cost in 2003 – because revision of leaders could still happen, as long as frontiers were not disturbed).

Like all international norms, this non-revision of borders wasn’t universally upheld. Yet even when Russia annexed parts of Georgia or Ukraine, it went through the motions of holding sham elections to legitimate its land grab. The Trump Administration doesn’t feel the need to be bound by such hypocrisy – which Benjamin Netanyahu has tried, but never quite managed, to exploit fully.

His latest qualified victory has come in the form of Israel’s normalisation this week of relations with Morocco. Morocco has great cities, a large diaspora, one of the world’s major Jewish communities; it also controls territory significantly beyond its internationally recognised borders, and protects itself from insurgents by means of an long separation barrier.

Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, has now won this land for himself – in exchange for the diplomatic gesture of recognising Israel, something he probably wanted to do anyway, so as not to be left behind by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The territory in question is Western Sahara. It had been a Spanish colony for almost 90 years until the decaying Franco regime (which owes its origins to a military putsch that began in Spanish Morocco) decided it could no longer hold on, and offered the Saharawis a plebiscite.

As Franco lay dying in hospital, the then King of Morocco, King Hassan II, forced a Spanish regime that was now confronting a succession crisis to hand the territory over. The last thing Francoists wanted was to have the best units of their army occupied fighting a colonial war to defend territory they wanted to leave anyway, when these troops might be needed to quell an uprising in Spain.

The insurgency in question is led by the Polisario movement, originally backed by Algeria, which operates from the inland desert. The separation barrier referred to above has been constructed to prevent them infiltrating guerillas into the territory Morocco controls.

Morocco and Israel have pulled off a notable diplomatic coup in the Trump Administration’s twilight. Israel gets diplomatic recognition from another Arab country, and access to an important destination for foreign investment. Morocco gets recognition of territory, and Israel’s support in seeking to prevent an future American administration from changing its mind. There are legal consequences too: it should be easier to have Saharawi insurgents designated as terrorists, making it harder for them to raise funds.

This mutual recognition comes, however, with wider diplomatic costs. The West is now divided on Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. The EU and UK (not to mention the UN) are opposed. So it is not obvious that Morocco, for whom relations with the nearby EU are far more important than with Israel or the United States, has made the best use of its diplomatic capital. That the agreement was made with a lame duck Trump administration won’t help win over a Biden team bent on restoring the international order.

This trade gives off the whiff of a nineteenth century-style carve-up. Other territories denied international recognition will have been made distinctly more nervous. Perhaps the most important of these is Taiwan. Though Trump will have been booted out of office before he can trade away American protection of Taiwan, Taipei is now a little less secure than it was.

Morocco did extremely well out of this Mohammed-Trump-Netanyahu deal. And Israel got something out of it. But the biggest long term winner will be Beijing, whose diplomats are doubtless already working to turn this egregious lame-duckery into a precedent for the next stage in China’s “peaceful rise.”