Partner-Atlas

TUNISIA

As a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

01 — The key questions for the Partner-Atlas

RELEVANCE: What relevance does Tunisia have for Germany with regards to "strengthening a values and rules-based world order"?

Secularisation and modernisation have shaped Tunisia’s policies since independence in 1956, especially under the leadership of then President Habib Bourguiba, and continue to have an impact today. Recent representative surveys show that Tunisians feel that they belong first and foremost to their country, then to Islam, and only to a much lesser extent to the Arab world. A clear majority, especially in comparison to the neighbouring countries of Libya, Morocco, and Algeria, favour the separation of state and religion.

Tunisia’s special position in the Arab world is also evident from its political development. With the Arab Spring, the country embarked on a path to democratisation. The Tunisian constitution of 2014 is considered one of the most liberal in the North Africa/Middle East region. It lays the foundation for democracy and defines the civic character of the state. Although Islam is defined as the country’s religion, there is no reference to Islamic law in the constitution.

Even though Islamist forces have recently gained in importance and the Arabisation of the country is progressing, Tunisia nonetheless remains an important reference with its cultural, religious and democratic development. Successful continuation of the democratic transition would be an important signal for countries that have not yet begun or completed such a development and would inspire advocates of democracy in those countries. Failure in this respect would strengthen anti-democratic forces and confirm the view of sceptics as to the feasibility of democracy in the entire Arab world.

WILLINGNESS: To what extent is Tunisia willing to work with Germany in realising this interest?

As a French-speaking country, the interest first of all applies to France, where the largest Tunisian diaspora is located and where many Tunisians have studied and lived. However, France continues to bear the stain of the former colonial power, whereby it is often assumed to be acting in Tunisia in accordance with its own interests.

Germany, where, after France and Italy, the third largest Tunisian diaspora lives, tends to be viewed with less suspicion in this regard. The almost omnipresent German development cooperation and considerable involvement of German companies in Tunisia, which have remained in the country even in times of crisis, contribute to this perception. This positive attitude towards Germany is particularly present within the educated, older population group. Young Tunisians, especially at universities, are less inclined to differentiate and are often sceptical about relations with Europe. The government’s interest in cooperating with Germany has been high in the recent past, and cooperation, particularly under the presidency of Beji Caid Essebsi, has been characterised by mutual trust.

Whether this will also be the case under the new president and the new government must be monitored and followed up on. President Kais Saied was supported by voter groups who have a critical view of Tunisia’s relationship with Europe. With the exception of a possible normalisation of relations with Israel, which Saied rejects, he did not adopt a clear stance on Tunisia’s international relations in the election campaign.

STATUS QUO: How close is Germany and Tunisia's current cooperation in this area?

Germany and Tunisia have maintained diplomatic relations since Tunisia’s independence in 1956. Since the beginning of democratisation in 2011, this cooperation has expanded and deepened. A sign of this is that all six German political foundations are represented in Tunis. The volume of state development cooperation is extremely high at 1 milliard million euros (convenant 2017-19). German foreign policy considers Tunisia to be the most important country for the German government’s transformation partnership with the Arab world. In 2017, a reform partnership was entered into with Tunisia, which is intended to improve the framework conditions for private-sector investments and to generate employment.

Economic integration with Europe and Germany is high. Around two thirds of Tunisia’s foreign trade is carried out with the European Union, and the majority of foreign investments come from there. When it comes to foreign investments in Tunisia, Germany ranks amongst the biggest investors. Tunisia was the first country in the Maghreb region to conclude an Association Agreement with the EU in 1995. It achieved the status of a privileged partnership in the autumn of 2012. Negotiations for a free trade agreement between the EU and Tunisia started in 2015, but progress is currently slow.

POTENTIAL: What is the potential for strengthening the partnership between Germany and Tunisia in this area?

Tunisia’s foreign policy strategy has not yet been decided and defined. Among other things, the relevant debates are focused on expanding cooperation in the Maghreb, dealing with actors such as China, Russia, Turkey, Iran or Qatar, who are showing increasing engagement in Tunisia, but also on further developing relations with Europe.

Tunisia is endeavouring to position itself more broadly in international relations while maintaining its sovereignty. The potential of a partnership with Germany must be assessed against the background of this diversification of relations. The economic integration of the countries will continue to be high, especially since Tunisia remains an attractive location for German companies already based there. Social integration will continue to increase, not least because of the influx of Tunisian skilled workers that Germany is encouraging.

POLICY RECOMMENDATION: What in German foreign policy has to change in order to fully exploit this potential?

There could be greater use of the existing political, economic and social relationships for a dialogue on values and concepts of order. In addition to foreign policy and public development cooperation, the soft power of German and Tunisian social organisations should also be utilised, so that this kind of dialogue does not appear to be attacking the country’s sovereignty. The increasingly critical attitude of young Tunisians towards Germany must be countered by creating more transparency with respect to political decisions that affect Tunisia, and by focusing cooperation more on this population group.

Political practices with a high signalling character must be identified and examined for possible improvements. This includes the process of issuing visas, which from a Tunisian perspective is too restrictive and lacking in transparency. For example, public acknowledgement of the importance of Tunisian skilled workers for the German economy and the German health care system, would also have a strong signalling character. The country should also be involved in initiatives such as the Berlin mediation process in the Libyan conflict.

Under no circumstances should German foreign policy be suspected of only looking at Tunisia through the lens of illegal migration and terrorism, and of limiting its cooperation to these policy fields. The dialogue on values should also not be based too much on topics that could lead to pushing conservative religious forces too far, particularly if this prevents progress in less sensitive areas that are essential for promoting a democratic constitutional state.

In view of the increasing number of international players in Tunisia, who represent values and policy agendas other than our own, more effort should be put into working out and communicating the comparative advantages of good relations with Germany as opposed to cooperation with authoritarian countries. This necessity is exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. On the one hand, the obvious inability of some European countries to react to the crisis in a timely and adequate manner, and on the other hand, China’s crisis management, which is often regarded as successful in Tunisia, increases the requirements for direct and indirect foreign policy communication in Germany.

Michael Bauer is Desk Officer for the Middle East and North Africa in the European and International Cooperation Department; Holger Dix heads the KAS Office in Tunisia / Algeria.

TUNISIA

  • Population: 11,824128
  • Capital: Tunis
  • Interest: Strengthening a Values and Rules-based World Order
  • Region: The Middle East and North Africa
  • Potential partner countries: Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia

04 — The Region

The Middle East and North Africa

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SAUDI ARABIA

The relevance of Saudi Arabia for Germany’s economic interests results from the country’s fundamental importance for stability and development in the Near and Middle East, the efforts to modernise its economy, and its oil wealth.

  • Population: 34,813,871
  • Capital: Riyadh
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IRAQ

Iraq has the world’s fifth largest oil and twelfth largest natural gas reserves. The country is a founding member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, in recent years, has become its second largest producer. The Iraqi government considers to further expand the oil and gas sector in the coming years, thereby increasing production capacities even more, although experts as well as members of the government call for diversifying the Iraqi economic and energy sector.

  • Population: 40,263,275
  • Capital: Bagdad
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ALGERIA

In terms of area, Algeria is the largest country in Africa and a key security player in the Sahel. Algeria works intensively with the countries of the region on security issues. This is undertaken within the framework of the respective bilateral relations as well as via regional mechanisms, such as the Nouakchott Process of the African Union (AU), which supports the security policy cooperation of eleven states in West Africa, the Maghreb, and the Sahel.

  • Population: 43,886,707
  • Capital: Alger
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TUNISIA

Secularisation and modernisation have shaped Tunisia’s policies since independence in 1956, especially under the leadership of then President Habib Bourguiba, and continue to have an impact today. Recent representative surveys show that Tunisians feel that they belong first and foremost to their country, then to Islam, and only to a much lesser extent to the Arab world. A clear majority, especially in comparison to the neighbouring countries of Libya, Morocco, and Algeria, favour the separation of state and religion.

  • Population: 11,824128
  • Capital: Tunis
LEARN MORE