What lies behind Tunisian protests against Saudi crown prince?

Tunisia’s relations with Saudi Arabia were and will remain as strong as ever and are needed to promote stability and security in the region.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Troubling scene. Banners of the Iran-backed Houthis (C, C-L) are seen during the protest against the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Tunis, on November 27. (Simon Speakman Cordall)
Troubling scene. Banners of the Iran-backed Houthis (C, C-L) are seen during the protest against the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Tunis, on November 27. (Simon Speakman Cordall)

Surprisingly to some and expectedly to others, the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to Tunis underscored many neglected realities in the Arab Maghreb region, particularly Tunisia.

Since the “Arab spring” uprisings in 2011, three dangerous developments have put North Africa at risk: An assertive Iranian foreign policy, a perennial, yet muted, de facto alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Tehran and the proliferation of political Islam in Maghreb societies via politics, the media and civil society groups.

As Iranian influence increased and money flowed from Tehran and Qatar, some voicing concerns about this trend were quickly intimidated into silence. Threats against critics were made regularly, the appeal of political Islam grew and North African countries plunged into economic, political and social malaise.

More than seven years after the uprisings, such political forces are still at play. This was evident during protests against Crown Prince Mohammed in Tunis, where banners of the Iran-backed Houthis were seen amid the crowd.

As I saw this scene, words of political science professor Jonathan Laurence in his 2017 commentary for Reuters rang fresh in my ears: “In Sunni North Africa, fears of Iran’s Shia shadow.”

That Tunisia’s democratic rights could be exploited by foreign powers with a nefarious agenda might be difficult to fathom for those who hold the Maghrebi mind in great esteem. However, the truth needs to be told: In North Africa, our grasp of regional politics has been limited, with much of the public relying on agenda-driven news sources for information. The post-2011 upheaval has intensified our focus on local issues.

The public, however, is not to blame for switching at times to channels such as the pro-Iranian al Mayadeen or Qatar-funded Al Jazeera, subscribing to YouTube channels managed by so-called experts or having public discussions with those who have a covert agenda in mind.

Much of the blame instead falls on local media, which have usually focused their reporting on immediate developments, local politics and the dynamics between the country and the West, mainly Europe and specifically France.

Concerning the Arab Gulf region, let’s be even more daring and call a spade a spade: We in the Maghreb are very badly informed and know very little about the Gulf. Too often, we fail to critically examine our sources of information, leading to the proliferation of fake news and wild conspiracies.

The misinformed views driving much of the protests against the Saudi crown prince exposed this bitter truth. Indeed, most of the young protesters I spoke with could not answer even simple questions on the topics that we are speaking out on, such as: How did the war in Yemen begin? Who are the Houthis? Who is Jamal Khashoggi?

Some of them responded simply by regurgitating hollow slogans. One protester, proudly hoisting the banner of the Houthi militia, was not even able to identify the group or the nature of its connection with Tehran. In the end, he simply said he agreed with the slogan, which read: “Allah is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.”

This troubling scene raises questions over who supplied such banners and helped mobilise the crowd. If we trust reports by Western correspondents in Tunis or Al Jazeera journalists, the “spontaneous” protests are to have been organised by civil society groups, notably the Tunisian Journalists’ Syndicate, against “war crimes in Yemen.”

Yes, the same Journalists’ Syndicate some of whose members have been supportive of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, which stands accused of repeatedly using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of its own people. Isn’t that ironic.

Here in Tunisia, I saw protests being organised immediately after Crown Prince Mohammed’s visit was announced. Calls for demonstrations were put out on social media, particularly Facebook pages known for their sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, the clamour grew louder, with activists and some politicians joining in. What began as a slow mobilisation turned into a race to see who could grab the reins of a movement that would surely capture international media attention.

Unfortunately, in Tunisia, following the clamour and confusion surrounding the “Arab spring,” people have grown disillusioned with and distrustful of politicians and activists across the political spectrum. To grab their attention, therefore, leaders have resorted to fiery speeches, populist views and played off immediate controversies.

It is true that politicians and activists who joined the protests against Crown Prince Mohammed were well served by foreign media. Still, they failed to score big on the national level, convincing only hundreds to turn up for the highly publicised demonstration.

However, if there is a point on which I agree with the Western reporters in my country, it is on the beauty of free expression in Tunisia without fear of retribution, a rare sight in the Arab world. Still, I remain fearful of my country’s possible descent into mobocracy, a phenomenon that would jeopardise the foundations of our diplomacy and our positive ties with countries around the region.

Certainly, the hundreds who turned out on Tunis’s Habib Bourguiba avenue are free to speak their mind. Certainly, some of them were honest about their outcry. Those hundreds, however, should not compromise the tenets of our diplomacy. Tunisia’s relations with Saudi Arabia were and will remain as strong as ever and are needed to promote stability and security in the region.

Hopefully for Tunisia, President Beji Caid Essebsi, with more than seven decades of political experience, demonstrated once again his shrewd understanding of complex regional politics, sending the right message to Saudi Arabia by warmly welcoming the crown prince and awarding him the Order of the Republic medal.

Yes, Tunisians may not be after benevolence and financial assistance, as the hundreds shouted during their protest. They do, however, need national and regional stability and should resist any form of foreign meddling in their national politics that could harm their solid ties with the kingdom and historic bonds with the Saudi people.