In the early years after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the US was perceived as friendly. It was only in 1956 that its charismatic first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, clearly shifted into the Soviet camp (however non-aligned he had claimed to be). While the US put Nasser under pressure for his social reforms and anti-Israel rhetoric, the Soviets offered him almost unconditional help. Hence, between the years 1956 and 1973, Egypt grew close to the Soviet Union.
Much like Egypt in the early years of the Cold War, Tunisia today is facing economic and political challenges and is being courted by almost every side. Tunisia’s second republic was inaugurated in January 2014, after the National Constituent Assembly adopted a new constitution. The Constituent Assembly has been one of the most important achievements of the Tunisian revolution, and writing the constitution has benefited from massive funding from the US and Europe. The West hails Tunisia as the success story of the Arab Spring.
But non-Western countries have also shown their interest in Tunisia. The chairman of Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, visited Tunisia in early February. He met the country’s political leaders, and expressed his support to its transition, calling for stronger economic ties and offering cooperation and assistance. But Larijani also denounced the US during a speech in the Constituent Assembly at a ceremony to mark the adoption of the new constitution, prompting a walkout from the American delegation. He used the occasion to remind America of Iran’s reach in the Arab world.
Ten days later, US Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise stop in Tunisia. Discussing academic cooperation and economic aid with Tunisia’s leaders, he renewed his country’s promise to help to secure a democratic transition and stressed the importance of developing security and fighting terrorism together. He also handed the prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, an invitation to the White House. That important official delegation is flying from Tunis to Washington, DC, in early April.
Two weeks after Kerry’s visit, another surprise guest arrived: Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov. He agreed to grant academic scholarships to Tunisian students, called on Russian tourists to continue visiting the country, and expressed his wish for a stronger economic partnership with the country. He also offered Russia’s expertise in combating terrorism. As this was taking place during the Ukrainian crisis, Lavrov threw in some harsh criticisms of the US and the European Union, echoing Iran’s Larijani.
High-level and executive delegations from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, France, Italy, Japan, Serbia and other countries have also visited Tunisia since February. Financial and political aid is flowing from all sides.
In contrast, Arab countries have been almost totally absent from the country’s affairs. Their loans, when they did come, carried high interest rates and harsh political conditions. The Saudis and Emiratis are still snubbing Tunisia for having flirted with the Islamists over the past two years, whereas the Qataris are unhappy over the fall of the Ennahda-led government.
There appears to be an excess of soft power targeting Tunisia these days. But will the country look East or West to forge its new friendships? Most likely, Tunisia will keep its old diplomacy: not getting too close and not staying to distant, it will try to be everyone’s friend. It seems, however, that the best friends of the leading Arab Spring country will not be Arabs.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.