As the sole success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has emerged as an emblematic model of democratic transition in what can be an unstable region, which has further burnished the country’s diplomatic influence.
Tunisia has a long tradition of pragmatic diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa, benefitting in part from what was once its most defining trait: stability. Under its previous presidents, Tunisia prized stability, in some cases to the detriment of other democratic values. As a result, the republic has long championed regional integration through a variety of means, including the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), established in 1989 with Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Libya, although its efforts have been stymied by the ongoing territorial dispute between Algeria and Morocco. Tunisia has often played a leading role in the African Union, and has been active in a number of UN peacekeeping and diplomatic missions in the continent. Tunisia also served as head of the Organisation of African Unity from 1994 to 1995, promoting gender equality and economic development.
This active role in regional affairs has continued, even after the revolution. While Tunisia’s first post-revolutionary government, led by the moderate Islamist Al Nahda (or Ennahda) party, briefly adopted an ideological stance to regional foreign policy, the country is returning to its long tradition of pragmatism and neutrality under the current Nidaa Tounes-led government.
Since rising to power, the new government has adopted a slightly more neutral approach to foreign relations than its predecessor, which severed relations with Syria as a result of the ongoing violence there and pushed Egypt to release former president Mohamed Morsi from prison, which in turn prompted Egypt to recall its ambassador.
The rationale behind the more prudent moves is clear: with increasing terrorist activity along the border between Algeria and Tunisia, in addition to the ongoing division in Libya, Tunisia has a vested interest in expanding cooperation with its neighbours in key areas, in particular security.
The country has also sought to strengthen relations with its hydrocarbons-rich neighbour, Algeria. In a sign of the relationship’s importance to Tunisia, President Béji Caïd Essebsi’s travelled to Algeria in February 2015 in his first official visit abroad as president. Later, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed followed suit, travelling to Algeria in October 2016 on his first official visit abroad in the role. While there, Chahed reiterated the government’s commitment to increased cooperation, stating that Tunisia is willing to preserve the exceptional nature of the relationship between the two countries.
Libya remains the main foreign policy challenge for Tunisia’s current government, as the conflict in Libya has both economic and security ramifications. Libya is Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner and an important source of informal cross-border trade. While Libya was formerly a centre of low-skilled employment for Tunisians, since the beginning of the conflict in Libya the migration flow has been reversed, with thousands of Libyans taking refuge in Tunisia.
The current Tunisian government has attempted to play a central role in forcing a solution to the Libyan political crisis and has opposed military intervention in Libya, siding with Algeria against Egypt and the UAE’s calls for international action. More recently, the Tunisian government has sought to uphold its principal of neutrality by sustaining official relations with the internationally recognised government in the east, while also maintaining open lines of communication with the Libya Dawn government in Tripoli.
Going forward, the national unity government is expected to continue its “zero-enemy” policy, an approach with roots in the foreign policy doctrines of previous administrations. With a revival of the economy as the government’s main priority, Tunisia’s regional foreign policy is likely to emphasise national interest and increased cooperation over ideology.