Emirati media rejoices as Tunisia’s democracy comes under threat

    The real target for the UAE and its media is Tunisia’s democratic path, and the liberties Tunisian citizens have gained in the past few years.

    After a year of political tensions over turfs and prerogatives, President Kais Saied, based on a wrongful interpretation of Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, engaged in a power grab and instigated what is being called a “coup d’état”. As a result, he sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, suspended the democratically elected Parliament, assumed executive powers, took over public prosecution authorities, and placed the head of his internal security as the new interior minister. 

    Ironically, Saied’s power grab was anticipated in documents leaked by the Middle East Eye (MEE). The latter warned two months earlier about an impending coup in Tunisia via the use of article 80 of the constitution as a pretext.

    Coups and foreign interference

    States regularly use various means and instruments to interfere in the affairs of other countries. These instruments sometimes take the shape of economic, military, political and diplomatic inducements. Moreover, there are other forms of interference, such as covert operations, which occur via a mix of subversion and disinformation. 

    Given Kais Saied’s lack of political experience and foreign policy acumen, pundits believed that he probably relied on foreign assistance to plan such a complex operation. For example, Tunisian academic Mohamed Hnid accused the Egyptian regime of supplying the team and know-how for the subversive operation against Tunisia’s democracy. 

    These suspicions were somewhat boosted after Dhahi Khalfan, a former Emirati senior police official, tweeted cryptically three days before Saied’s ‘coup’ that “the Muslim Brotherhood will receive a striking blow soon.”

    The UAE and the Arab uprisings

    Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has developed a dark side. It has become one of the key meddlers in other countries’ affairs throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The UAE spent decades cultivating the “image of a tolerant tourist and business-friendly oasis.” However, when demonstrators forced former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to quit power, this defining event rang alarm bells in Abu Dhabi, which felt threatened by the democratic progress. 

    Consequently, Abu Dhabi spent the next decade interfering with and worsening the situation in Arab countries where democracy was taking root. The UAE and its international allies (e.g., France) incited their proxies to embark on violent power grabs. The UAE went to the extent of grooming counter-revolutionary movements and false-flag terrorist groups to this end. These methods turned promising situations into civil and sectarian wars, such as Libya and Yemen. In Egypt, the first democratically elected president in the country’s history Mohamed Morsi was toppled.

    Meanwhile, even with the imperfections of consensus politics, Tunisia remained on the path to democracy with slow but steady progress. Such a situation irritated the axis of autocracy in the Arab World, led by the UAE. The sheer existence of the Tunisian democratic experiment at the birthplace of the Arab uprisings became a thorn in the UAE’s side. As a result, the UAE spent considerable sums of money to restore the pre-2011 order and derail the current democratic experiment. 

    The UAE’s media brigade

    It is no secret that Abu Dhabi owns dozens of satellite television channels, such as Al-Arabiya and Sky Arabic, in addition to newspapers, radios, and digital platforms. This constellation of media outlets strives to shape an anti-democratic narrative sugar-coated with an abhorrence for political Islam. In the post-coup Tunisian context, the Speaker of the Parliament, Rashid Ghannouchi, directly accused the UAE media of inciting the coup and cheerleading Kais Saied. 

    Some Emirati media outlets indeed peddled the narrative of Kais Saied as the saviour of Tunisia. For example, 20FourMedia hailed Saied as a ‘hero’. Meanwhile, Gulf News chose to concentrate on the “crowds [that] fill capital in support of [Saied’s] move,” omitting to report on the counter-protests that opposed Saied’s coup. 

    Al Hadath, which is a UAE-funded satellite channel, echoed the support of Warlord Khalifa Haftar (himself an illegitimate putschist) to Kais Saied’s unconstitutional move. Haftar stated via Al Hadath that “Tunisia got rid of the biggest obstacle in the way of its development after the uprising against the [Muslim] Brotherhood.” Al Hadath also peddled fake news, such as the rumour that Rachid Ghannouchi was prohibited from travel and that the leader of the Dignity Coalition, Seif El-Din Makhlouf, was placed under house arrest. It also insisted at every turn on the popular support that Kais Saied allegedly enjoys cropping out pictures and magnifying small crowds to give this impression. 

    At the same time, Al Hadath tries to create the feeling that the military and the justice institution are completely aligned with Saied, even when the Supreme Judicial Council in Tunisia rejected Saied’s decision to take over the prerogatives of the Public Prosecution Office. Of course, the main concern remained the rejection of the coup label while describing Saied’s move as ‘constitutional.’

    It was the same story on social media. Academic Marc Owen Jones examined Twitter manipulation surrounding the coup in Tunisia. One Arabic Hashtag that Owen analysed was titled: “Tunisians revolt against the [Muslim] Brotherhood”. Owen’s analysis revealed that most of the tweets were led by a few UAE and Saudi influencers and bots. They aimed to create the impression that there is a sizable popular mobilisation behind Saied across MENA, which is not the case.

    All in all, it was no surprise to see the UAE mobilising against the Tunisian democracy and supporting Saied’s coup. The same modus operandi was used in the past ten years all over MENA, as the UAE media and electronic army tried to sell this decade-long crusade and justified it by mirroring UAE’s aversion for political Islam at every turn. 

    In reality, though, the UAE’s leaders abhor democracy. The Ennahda Party has only 52 out of 217 seats in Parliament and has been compliant with the democratic rules, becoming known for its sense of consensus. Thus, the real target for the UAE and its media is Tunisia’s democratic path, and the liberties Tunisian citizens have gained in the past few years. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

    This article originally appeared in TRT World’s opinion section.

    Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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