On 15 December Algerian President ‘Abd al-Mağīd Tabbūn responding to the invitation of his Tunisian counterpart Qays Sa‘īd arrived to a two days to Tunisia. Given the two countries have always been close to each other both geographically and politically and that is not the first time these two presidents meet there seems to be nothing extraordinary about this meeting.
However, a number of circumstances made this such an important event that some local sources have already started to talk about a new Algerian-Tunisian axis rising, somewhat similar to those seen by Qatar and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, or Syria and Iran. That might be somewhat of an overstatement, but nonetheless the meeting is indeed important. Because this came at a time, when both countries experience deep economic and social problems, these are met with internal political challenges and there are also regional problems, which prompted cooperation. In short, this is a time, when both countries have started to feel somewhat isolated in their biggest problems internationally and were in need of friends.
This newly strengthened cooperation is directly aimed to boost their image at home and the region, but very likely have a positive result on a number of regional problems. Though here we are talking about two fundamentally different countries, still their joint stance and the overall good relation of the two presidents gives importance to the event, because their problems are very similar.
And by the will fate, this meeting came shortly before the two countries face each other in Qatar in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup final, which also had a number of symbolic surprises.
A big meeting?
In 15 December 2021 by the invitation of his Tunisian counterpart Algerian President Tabbūn visited Tunisia in a two days official visit, which aimed to address a number of key security and political issues. And in a joint press conference at the end of the first day they not only showed solidarity with each other, but the statements concentrated on such key Arab topics that rightly suggest a new axis forming.
But what are these key issues? While the two presidents preferred not to address the problems they both face at home, they showed impressive agreement in key foreign and regional issues. These are the matters of Libya, Syria, Palestine, the matter of the “normalization process with Israel”. All that was summarized by Tabbūn saying at the end that “… most [Arab] countries are planned for being broke apart. So the least which can be done is standing together”.
While these joint positions are important and should be addressed, these are somewhat of a smokescreen at a time, when both countries desperately need each other. Shortly before the meeting Algeria gave a $300 million loan to Tunisia to help Tunis out of biggest economic crisis ever. While the amount is not specifically huge and surely not enough to solve Tunisia’s overall problems, interestingly the loan was an important gesture for both countries.
Given the growing economic and consequently social problems it was important for Tunisia to show that it is not isolated. It might not be able to count on its Western allies or on the international organization to help out, as pressure is growing on Tunis to change its political path, but could still rally support from a friendly county avoiding imminent collapse. It gives the necessary space for Qays Sa‘īd to take steps, right at the time when he announced a new set of measures to move the country ahead of its deep political crisis. However, this gesture was just as important for Algiers to show that regardless of its economic and regional problems also feeling somewhat isolated, it can still act as an important regional player, it still has funds to be a significant power rallying support by an otherwise popular Arab leader.
The key reasons for this meeting are primarily connected to economic and internal political considerations, but naturally resulted in a regional political understanding.
Both countries face very similar problems. This not only prompted cooperation, logically, as the two states are neighbors, but also pushed the two closer to each other.
On the level of internal politics Algeria has deep problems since the Popular Mobilization – al-Ḥirāk – washed aside former President Bū Taflīqa and the uppermost layer of the elite he created. The change eventually brought Tabbūn to power, while the amendment of the constitution and latest elections somewhat consolidated his power sidelining the emerging Islamist forces. But behind the reassurances in Algiers that all is under control there is a growing rivalry within the army with newer and newer rounds of purges. The – somewhat – new elite also couldn’t manage to put the economy back on track and the attempts to gain new partners in Turkey, or Russia also failed to meet the expectations.
Tunisia’s problems are similar, but go back even further. Tunis was already in an alarming state in 2010, which largely contributed to the fall of President Bin ‘Alī. Since than Tunisia never managed to rebuild its economy, and the later years of political infighting, the terrorist attacks in the country disturbing tourism, the Libyan crisis matched with a migration challenges and at the end the Corona pandemic all pushed Tunisia deeper into the abyss. The internal division was huge by the time President Qays Sa‘īd, an adamantly patriotic non-partisan came to power in 2019. Though for long President Sa‘īd tried to mediate between the still dominant Islamic forces and their secular opposition changing governments several times, but in July this year he suspended the Parliament and launched a reform process on his own. Practically he started a revolution from the top down reversing the effects of the constitution adopted by American pressure in 2014 and started building a new republic. That naturally attracted criticism, especially from the West. While the first steps ending the political deadlock in the parliament were overall popular, by now the process started to loose steam and protests started to emerge against the president. To give new impetus to the process he started Qays Sa‘īd on 13 December announced his roadmap to end the crisis. By this the Tunisian parliament stays suspended until 17 December 2022. Until then the constitution will be revised – the president himself is a constitutional law professor -, there will be a popular referendum on it, and upon the practically new constitution there will be elections. This is a huge task to be done only within one year. This ambitious plan if succeeded will in effect dismantle the 2014 constitution and the political system it created, all adopted at the time, when the Islamist an-Nahḍa Party was on the zenith of its power. Since then the an-Nahḍa steadily losses its support, by still is the biggest political force in the parliament. However, if Sa‘īd’s plan goes through that might be the end of the an-Nahḍa’s prominence. Which is significant, as recently similar political formations lost big in the elections in Morocco and in Algeria as well. So this is a regional trend.
Because of its significance and the fundamental change it envision the measures of Sa‘īd so far brought only criticism. There was no support from the West, but not in the Arab world as well, as the internal division reflected the regional struggle between Qatar and the Emirates. And neither camps really wished for Sa‘īd to win in his project. Qatar and Turkey do not wish to see such valued valued ally, like the an-Nahḍa fall, especially since Tunisia has a symbolic role as the first state in the “Arab Spring”. Yet the Emirates also has problems with Sa‘īd, a staunch supporter national self determination and vocal critic of the normalization process. To which Abū Zabī wanted Tunisia to be a part of. The result was so far the growing isolation of Tunis in the last few months. That isolation was broken by the visit of Tabbūn, especially granting a loan, which allows the reform process to go along, at least for the moment.
There are other similarities, by which the meeting was hugely important for Algeria as well, but these are more regional, foreign policy considerations.
A number of key regional and Arab matters were addressed in the meeting of Tabbūn and Sa‘īd, also showing similarities.
The first matter was Libya. While almost a year ago all could have been optimistic about Libya finally seeing the end of the crisis with new elections on all level scheduled for December and January, since then the process slowed down and problems emerged. By now most Libyan political factions agree that the presidential elections in December might be too early and will meet complications. But postponing them can mean the peace process breaking down completely. And if that happens the infighting between the different political factions can start again, reawakening the struggle between Egypt and Turkey here. Even more alarming that recently Israel started to appear as a political actors behind certain Libyan presidential candidates, which is worrisome for both Tunis and Algiers. Libya is a problem for both of them, though for different reasons and on different levels.
For Tunisia Libya is very important, as it was always a key economic partner. Before 2011 Tunisia benefitted from the economic possibilities here and was a relied for its labor market. Since the war, however, all these possibilities closed down and Libya started to present an economic, social and security challenge. The growing number of migrants from Libya brought pressure on Tunisia, especially that it struggled to block this flow towards Europe. There were regular border clashes by militant groups, which was also a huge task to handle. So much so, that eventually Tunis had to accept help from Washington and Algeria to effectively close down the border. Putting Libya back into order is imperative for Tunis to end this challenge, but also to boost its economy once reconstruction starts.
For Algeria Libya was a primarily security threat. The terrorist attack in ‘Ayn Aminās Algeria in 2014 was the biggest one in years and originated from Libya. It prompted Algeria to get directly involved in Libya, which it did, though less officially, but came into contradictions with both Turkey and Egypt in this matter. Around 2014 it 2016 Algeria struggled to find the suitable candidate for its support, but eventually came to reluctantly support the so called unity government in Western Libya for two reasons. Turkey started to appear as a possible good economic partner for Algeria, and since Ankara supported that Libyan government there was little room for serious opposition. Also, the government in the Eastern part of Libya practically represented by Libyan General Ḥaftar, the key protégée of Cairo was growingly hostile towards Algeria and its role here, the growing antagonism also left little room for alternatives.
However, since the al-‘Ulā summit in January 2021, in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar reconciled the former struggle between Turkey and Egypt came to a halt. Though it still hasn’t reached a breakthrough a consolidation process started between Cairo and Ankara, which had a relatively positive effect on Libya enabling the peace process. At the same time the growing economic problems Turkey faces made it less capable to be an effective partner of Algeria, at least not on the level Algiers wanted it to be. In result the main obstacles to an Algerian-Egyptian understanding in Libya ended. There is no sign of a major cooperation yet, but the viewpoints started to converge giving Algeria some space to maneuver. And supporting Tunisia is such a key matter is a perfect opportunity for Algiers to influence this scene.
As for Syria, it also played an important role in the conversations. The next Arab League summit will be held in Algiers soon, and Algiers for some time now expressed that it wishes to be a summit marking the return of Syria. Tunisia is also a vocal supporter for this initiative, largely because Damascus represents the same general trajectory the Tunisian President supports. Namely greater Arab solidarity and the firm refusal of the normalization.
This is exactly where the question of Palestine now plays a pivotal role. It is always a popular topic, but now it signifies the matter of the normalization with Israel, which was particularly pushed by the Trump administration. With Biden coming to office the zeal for this project subsided, but it is nonetheless a crucial issue, as a number of states are still pressured to carry on the process. There are many reports about Tunisia facing pressures, and that one of the reason Tunis is not getting relief in its economic crisis is so that it would join the process.
Since his election campaign in 2019 Qays Sa‘īd made not secret about his firm position that he would never join any process without Palestinian involvement. Algeria always had a similarly clear position on the same trajectory. So their understanding is only natural. Now, however, this common stance has a bigger significance, as recently Morocco joined the normalization and signed a security agreement with Israel. The possible Moroccan-Israeli cooperation entered the realm of the struggle around Western Sahara, which is also a key topic for Algeria. Similarly there are reports that Israel has started to become active within Libya, and some presidential candidates would join the normalization in return for political and financial support in their campaign. In result it is not surprising to find that both Algeria and Tunisia feel themselves surrounded and threatened. But stepping up together can be the sufficient counterweight to repel the pressure. We can see in a number of details that growing Israeli activities in North Africa only push more states for support for each other. In this regard the strong Algerian-Tunisia partnership might just be the beginning.
Even sports matters
Fate had it that right in this time the 11th Arab Cup football championship was coming to its finals, a tournament which was also full of symbolic events. Though the Arab Football Cup exists since 1963 this year’s tournament was still only the eleventh installment in this most irregular championship. But this was the first one under FIFA auspices.
Since next year Qatar will host the FIFA football World Cup it was only natural for Doha to host this event, which was great opportunity to test the installations a year before the grand tournament. Yet only a year ago Qatar was still blockaded by a number of Arab countries, so less than a year after the al-‘Ulā summit ending its isolation it celebrated its return as a major player. And like so many times before, sport played the perfect opportunity to take symbolic gestures. Qatar breaking out of the blockade could host all Arab nations for a grand tournament, even those with which it has a particularly troubled relations, like Syria.
The championship had grate significance for Tunisia and Algeria as well. In the quarterfinals Algeria met Morocco in a symbolic match, and regardless of the tension politically between the two, the fans did their best to mend the wounds. Algeria eventually got through, and after the it was over Algerian players ran around the field not only waving their own flag, but also that of Palestine.
Such a gesture is very common from Algerian teams, but this time it also held a lightly concealed political message. Because as Algeria was, and is a vocal supporter of Palestine, while Morocco not only normalized its relations with Israel, but recently even signed a security cooperation agreement with it. The message was clear, as not only the two historic rivals, but with them two political agendas clashed.
In the finals held on 19 December Algeria played with Tunisia, also symbolizing their special relations, and it mattered little that eventually Algeria won. The fact that two countries building especially close friendship now, which are also the most outspoken advocates of larger Arab solidarity had a strong message for the tournament.
A new axis rising?
Though there are many Algerian and Tunisian voices now claiming the birth of a new Algerian-Tunisian regional axis the question seems fitting: Is this axis plausible?
In large we are very far from seeing an effective and influential regional block emerging, at least not on the scale it works between Qatar and Turkey, or between Syria and Iran. It might be logical for Algerian and Tunisian commentators to be optimistic, but the most essential foundations are missing for a new power block. Neither states are in an economic state to truly push a regional agenda, and they also lack the overall political message. This newly reconfirmed alliance might be strong, but it is much more held together by the common threats than the common aims, or ideals. Their understanding is galvanized by their relative isolation on other fronts. But would that make this duo weak, or even insignificant?
The answer to this primarily dependent on the outcome of the internal processes in both countries. If they manage to overcome their problems upon this solidarity something new can indeed be built, as now the duo is open to Libya, Mauritania, Egypt and reaches out to Syria and the Gulf as well. It has the ambition to play an active role and Algeria has the potential to be a significant player in the region. So far what we see is only an understanding between two currently marginalized states. But with the region moving towards solidarity and the normalizing process largely came to a halt, along with the recent Emirati steps this can play a significant role in the next phase of inter-Arab politics.