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Will Tunisia, Algeria relations recover through land border reopening?

Several issues, including gas and the dispute over the Western Sahara, continue to linger over the tense Algerian-Tunisian relations, despite the reopening of the land borders between the two countries.
Tunisia's President Kais Saied (C-R) receives Algeria's President Abdelmajid Tebboune (C-L) as the latter arrives at Tunis-Carthage International Airport, Tunis, Tunisia, Dec. 15, 2021.

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied’s recent visit to Algeria has seemingly succeeded in breaking the stalemate that has plagued the relations between the neighboring countries and sparked widespread speculations.

On July 5, Saied headed to Algiers upon an invitation from his Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune to attend the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France. 

Speaking alongside Saied at the end of his visit, Tebboune announced that land borders between the two countries would reopen July 15.

The announcement represented a breakthrough in the silent crisis between the two countries as the closure of the land borders has heavily affected Tunisia in particular. The North African country, which has been grappling with a severe economic crisis for the past two years, heavily relies on the crossings, which are a major source of tourism and commerce for Tunisia. 

The Tunisian-Algerian borders had been closed since March 2020, with authorities from both countries saying the continued closure aimed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

But it seems other factors have delayed the reopening of the borders, including disputes over several regional issues. 

According to a well-informed Algerian political source who spoke to Al-Monitor, the disputes between the two countries have pushed Algeria to pressure Tunisia on several issues, including in delaying the reopening of the border. 

Among the files that may have contributed to the silent tensions is Tunisia's position on the Western Sahara dispute pitting Morocco against the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.

The Polisario Front, which calls for the secession of the Western Sahara territory, faced a series of setbacks in the past years after former US President Donald Trump recognized in December 2020 Rabat's sovereignty over the territory. More recently in March, Spain has expressed its support for Morocco's plan to grant the territory autonomy, while remaining under Moroccan sovereignty.

Tunisia has in the past tried to distance itself from the Western Sahara conflict, amid reports of Algeria’s attempts, in vain, to lure Tunisia to its side.

Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ounaies told Al-Monitor, “This [Algeria’s attempts to lure Tunisia] is not ruled out. Algeria may have tried to pressure Tunisia to align with its position on the Western Sahara conflict, but Tunisia's position is consistently neutral. I do not think our authorities will drop this card.”

Ounaies added, “Opening the borders was an expected decision for several reasons. First, Algeria's leaders trust Kais Saied as president of Tunisia, and they are comfortable with him. Second, Algeria seeks to play a regional role, and Kais Saied's visit may help it do so. Third and most importantly, Algeria will host the Arab League summit in November. It is therefore working to mobilize Arab support and carry the torch of the summit presidency after Tunisia [in 2019].”

Despite announcing the opening of land borders, it is not clear whether Tunisian-Algerian relations will fully recover as several other files are pending given the political situation in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.

Tunisia witnessed a remarkable turning point last year when Saied overthrew his opponents. He invoked a constitutional chapter that stipulated procedures regulating the state of exception. Based on that, he dissolved parliament and the government in a move his opponents described as a coup.

Initially, Algeria was enthusiastic and supported these measures. Yet, over the past months, there have been changes in its position on Saied’s measures.

The picture became clearer when on May 26 Tebboune stated from the Italian capital, Rome, that Tunisia is facing a political impasse and needs support in reinstating democracy. 

Of note, Tunisia has set out a road map ending with early parliamentary elections next December.

The disputes between the neighboring countries do not seem to center only on the political track in Tunisia and the dispute over the Western Sahara issue. Tunisia has valid concerns about Algeria raising gas prices in light of the global energy crisis.

Abdelkader Jelassi, secretary-general of the Electricity and Gas Federation of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), had warned in May of a catastrophic situation that the country might witness if gas prices are raised and predicted an electricity crisis might occur as a result.

Algeria sells gas to Tunisia at preferential prices, and the latter earns a right of passage of 5.25% on the total of Algeria gas transported through Tunisian territory to Italy.

On the other hand, Algeria has expressed concerns over potential Tunisian normalization with Israel despite the fact that Saied had stated during his electoral campaign in 2019 that “normalization with Israel is tantamount to treason.”

UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi seems to have intensified these concerns as he said in June statements that “there is a campaign to drag Tunisia into normalization with Israel.”

Taboubi leads the UGTT, a historically strong and popular union in Tunisia with more than 1 million workers. In an explicit reference to Morocco's normalization with Israel, Taboubi said in his June statements that a campaign to push Arab normalization with Israel aims to pressure Algeria, which leads a campaign to boycott Tel Aviv in the North African region.

Tunisia denies any efforts to normalize relations with Israel, which through the so-called Abraham Accords managed to normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

Leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front Kassi Abdelkader told Al-Monitor, “There was a debate about the possibility of normalizing ties between Tunisia and the Zionist entity [Israel]. We think that the Tunisian people reject this, so Algeria will not be backing Tunisia in such a decision.”

Abdelkader said, “Now things are becoming clearer and what happened is just a passing situation between our countries. Even brothers have disputes, but there will be no problems in the future between Algeria and Tunisia. All issues will be settled whether they are related to gas, borders or other matters.”

Although the opening of the land borders appears to be an indication of the beginning of the recovery of Tunisian-Algerian relations, other measures will need to be in place to guarantee this recovery. This will be challenging for both parties in the next stage.