Algerian President Playing Matchmaker in Tunisia

Article Summary
Reports of recent meetings between Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the heads of Tunisia’s main political parties, lead some to speculate that Bouteflika is trying to reconcile the two Tunisian groups.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal will visit Tunisia in the coming weeks — a highly significant visit at a time when meetings between Algiers and Tunis are increasing. Given the turn taken by Tunisia’s internal political and security affairs, the meetings between Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, as well as Beji Caid Essebsi, are charged with meaning.

Since Jan. 14, 2011, Algeria has managed to maintain discretion regarding the Tunisian crisis. However, the country is no longer capable of remaining impassive and has decided to play its important geopolitical role. While Algeria denies any “brokerage,” the end of the crisis in Tunisia is in its interest as it will maintain its regional status and protect its border from terrorist threats.

Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, which is the country’s second most popular party according to polls, was the first politician welcomed by Bouteflika after three months of absence during which he was hospitalized in Paris. One day later Ghannouchi's rival Essebsi, the head of Nidaa Tounes, met with Bouteflika. Following an interview with Nessma TV, Ghannouchi stated, “Algeria is the most important state for us.” Meanwhile, Essebsi said, “Tunisia’s security is part of Algeria’s and vice-versa.”

Indeed, the security situation, which is currently more delicate than ever in Tunisia due to the attacks in the Jebel ech Chambi region located on the Algerian border, has caused great concern in neighboring Algeria. Several agreements pertaining to security and economic cooperation have been reactivated with Tunisia. Currently, settling the political crisis, along with its impact on the security aspect, has become an emergency, not only for Tunisia but also for Algeria, which is directly involved. Algeria, which once had a discrete stance and preferred not to comment on political developments in Tunisia, could not keep up this trend facing the threat of jihadist terrorism that is rocking the border between the two countries.

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Moreover, Algeria could not remain indifferent to the turns taken by Tunisian political affairs. It is in Algeria’s interest today that the political crisis be buried so that its status as a “great neighbor” is not compromised by the intervention of Gulf countries. A vacuum, which is very bad for those affairs, will also allow terrorism to flourish, as is the case in Libya.

However, the Algerian side is denying any eventual “brokerage,” stating that these interviews were planned at the request of the two Tunisian politicians. The Algerian ambassador to Tunisia said in an interview with the local newspaper El-Khabar, “The solution to the Tunisian crisis must come from within Tunisia.” According to him, no road map has been proposed by Algeria for the coming period, but simple tips have been given, such as steering clear of dissolving the National Constituent Assembly. However, the Algerian press is unanimous: Ghannouchi and Essebsi reportedly went to Algiers to seek the help and support of Bouteflika in pursuing the democratic process, but they also wanted to inform him of the agreement reached at the secret meeting in Paris on Aug. 15.

Will Tunisia beg its neighbor to the West for support? History seems to be repeating itself. Recalling the last meeting held between Habib Bourguiba and Chedly Benjedid, the former had told his counterpart at the time, “Tunisia is under your responsibility.”

Today, at a time when the political crisis is ignited more than ever, we must recognize that the decisions of Tunisia are important for its Algerian neighbor. Although nothing has seeped out regarding the purpose of these interviews, they undoubtedly seem to want to pass the message that Bouteflika is playing matchmaker. He is seeking reconciliation between the two parties that are in perpetual conflict. Are visits with this “old friend” just a matter of courtesy, as the two Tunisian political leaders are affirming?

In Tunisia, the politicians are hoping that Bouteflika will be the broker of an agreement facing the crisis of confidence between the government and the opposition. Bouteflika’s meetings with Ghannouchi and Essebsi are rekindling hopes of nearing reconciliation, thanks to the Algerian brokerage. In contrast, those who have been moving away from the solution do not hesitate to pick on these meetings and describe them as “Algerian meddling in Tunisian affairs.” This is the view of the leader of the Popular Front, Hamma Hammami, who said, without so much as blinking, “We believe that Tunisia does not need the intervention of any state, although Algeria is a brother and friend. Ennahda should have fished for solutions in its own sea.”

It is in the interest of Algeria, which has economic, security and political ties with Tunisia, for the calm to be restored in Tunisia so that its affairs aren’t compromised. It resents the prospects of a new scenario, the Algerian way, lurking in the horizon.

However, at a time when the hatchet does not seem to be buried yet between political rivals, will the intermediations forestall the crisis and lead the country toward an exit from its ordeal?

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Found in: terrorism, ennahda, borders
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