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Why Saudi Arabia and the UAE want to smear Rached Ghannouchi

As a leader of political Islam, the Tunisian parliament speaker is viewed as a threat in the halls of power of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi chairs the first session of the new parliament in Tunis on 13 November 2019 (AFP)

Last month, the Emirati television channel Al-Ghad aired a news report about demonstrations across Tunisia “protesting unemployment”. Yet what the clips actually showed was a demonstration over a football club in Bizerte - which had nothing to do with the country’s social problems - and months-old footage from demonstrations against the US “deal of the century”.  

Such coverage is not an accident. It is part of a coordinated campaign to portray Tunisia’s democracy as failing. 

On 3 June, the Tunisian parliament met and discussed the state’s position towards the Libyan conflict. In an unusual move, Saudi- and UAE-backed media outlets broadcast the session live, with controversial and misleading titles such as “questioning Ghannouchi”

The issue of removing parliamentary Speaker Rached Ghannouchi from his position has been pushed by Abir Moussi, a pro-old-regime politician whose discourse - both before and after last year’s election - has focused on two principles: that the Arab Spring and the end of the country’s dictatorship was chaos caused by a conspiracy of foreign powers; and that those who subscribe to political Islam are “terrorists” and the main enemies of Tunisia. 

Both of these notions highlight the despotic nature of Moussi’s Free Destourian Party. Its obsession with the eradication of political Islam not only recalls the policies of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, but also points to its refusal to accept the basic constitutional rights of Tunisians to political organisation and free speech. 

Moussi has called for the Muslim Brotherhood to be banned in the Tunisian Parliament.

At the roots of this crusade against political Islam is a complex set of factors - notably, fear of a well-organised and motivated socially conservative group

Moussi and her party agree on these issues with the Emirati-Saudi axis, viewing the democratisation process as a direct threat to the old Arab regime.

The same issue was confronted directly in Egypt, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE backed the toppling of the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. 

The Saudi-UAE obsession with political Islam, which they have broadly condemned as a terrorist movement, is also known. The Emiratis lobbied the UK government to issue a report characterising the Muslim Brotherhood as being involved in terrorist actions.

They have also relentlessly pushed the US to implement legislation listing the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. While the legislation has stalled in Congress, it will quickly reappear again if President Donald Trump is re-elected.

Backing Libya's Haftar

At the root of this crusade against political Islam is a complex set of factors - notably, fear of a well-organised and motivated socially conservative group, which would be highly influential in the societal context of the Gulf states. 

In addition, the ideological belief in “moderate Islam” as a form of “soft power” for political gain sees other interpretations of Islam - including the Brotherhood’s ideology - as an existential threat. Yet, paradoxically, it tolerates the latter’s targeting by those with more extreme views. 

Supporters of Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar protest against Turkish intervention in the country’s affairs in Benghazi on 14 February (AFP)
Supporters of Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar protest against Turkish intervention in the country’s affairs in Benghazi on 14 February (AFP)

In Libya, for example, the Saudis and Emiratis apparently see no problem with strengthening the Madkhali-Salafis, an extreme Salafist group, to counter the Brotherhood. Libya is a major stage for the Emirati-Saudi war against both the Brotherhood and democracy itself. 

The Emiratis and Saudis opted to back Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s total military solution: to annihilate all rivals and establish a regime close to that of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, based on the rule of a singular authoritarian leader.

The Emiratis appear to be the main funders of this senseless war; a leaked UN report in April showed in unprecedented detail the deep involvement of the UAE in backing Haftar. But as Haftar and his allies are losing the war, they are engaging in increasingly irrational actions. 

Pressuring Tunisia

After being defeated in major sites in western Libya, Haftar opted to end any affiliation with the UN framework, including the 2015 Skhirat agreement, upon which the highly fragile political framework depends. Any entity that would be civilian, democratically elected and inclusive of various political groups - including political Islam and the Brotherhood - is rejected by the Emiratis and Saudis.   

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The conflict will not stop in Libya. Haftar’s backers see the recent defeats as an opportunity to intensify the conflict with more weapons and added pressure on neighbouring Tunisia, which is carefully crafting its own position in Libya.

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s position on Libya emphasises two points. Firstly, international legitimacy, including the UN-sponsored agreement giving rise to the recognition of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Secondly, he insists on a peaceful, Libya-only solution without foreign intervention, which fuels the conflict. Yet even this moderate position seems unacceptable to the Emiratis and Saudis. 

Added to this, the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the most seats in Tunisia’s latest legislative elections, openly defends the GNA. Ennahda’s leader, Ghannouchi, recently called Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to congratulate him after the GNA recaptured the strategic al-Watiya airbase, prompting criticisms that he had overstepped his role. 

Turkey's role

Several months ago, similar criticisms were raised after Ghannouchi made a surprise visit to Turkey to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Clearly, the growing role of Turkey in Libya - especially after Ankara helped the GNA to dominate the skies and end the air superiority of Haftar’s forces - is an essential element in the Libyan equation, prompting anxiety among the Emirati-Saudi axis.

This conflict will not end easily, as the axis remains ideologically entrenched. And Turkey is growing increasingly impatient with both states.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Tarek Kahlaoui
Tarek Kahlaoui holds a PhD from University of Pennsylvania and is a political activist and analyst. He led the presidential think tank “Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies” (2012-2014) and writes regularly on Tunisian politics and security issues.