Algerians make up the highest number of visitors to neighboring Tunisia, with whom Algeria shares a border that is over 1000 km long. The two countries hold strong historical ties and relations. Despite taking a different trajectory during the pro-democracy uprisings sparked in Tunisia, both countries’ politics have realigned once again. Tunisia’s recent authoritarian drift came simultaneously with the Algerian government dismantlement of the Hirak opposition movement.
Algeria will never abandon Tunisia
Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune stated during his 2021 visit to Tunisia that “Tunisia is an extension of Algeria and Algeria is also an extension of Tunisia.” This emphasized the strong ties between the two nations, echoing his previous declaration that Algeria “will never abandon Tunisia in its battle against a conspiracy.” Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, also highlighted “Algeria's role in guaranteeing Tunisia’s stability,” expressing concern about illegal immigration from Tunisia.
In recent years, Algeria has become increasingly critical of Tunisia’s survival as it faces an unrelenting political and economic crisis. To truly understand the Tunisian context, one must consider its larger energy-rich neighbor, the “Algerian brother,” or the “khawa khawa,” (brother, brother), as both countries affectionately refer to each other.
Warm signs of friendship and solidarity are common between Tunisians and Algerians, among politicians and everyday citizens, rooted in their fight for independence against French colonization. It is not uncommon to see the Algerian flag and on car-number plates in Tunisia.
When tourism collapsed in Tunisia following terrorist attacks, Algerians quickly claimed they would step in to make up for the loss of Western tourists. In 2019, nearly 3 million Algerians visited Tunisia, mainly coastal towns, to enjoy the leisure and entertainment that their more conservative country lacks.
Young Algerians, particularly men, appreciate the more liberal environment in Tunisia with plenty of clubs, bars, and hotels to unwind, drink alcohol, and socialize. “We go to Tunisia to unwind and have fun. In Algeria, everything is controlled, and society constantly judges your morals, making you feel like you’re committing a crime if you drink or have a girlfriend,” said a young Algerian alluding to their more restricted lifestyle. His friend, a taxi driver who regularly visits Tunisia added, “Since Algeria cut diplomatic ties with Morocco and closed all borders, Tunisia has become our only relatively accessible getaway.”
Saied and Tebboune: the same strongmen returning the old authoritarian order
Algeria and Tunisia, both with young and educated populations eager to change have different approaches to political reform. Algeria, haunted by the memory of civil war that resulted in 200,000 deaths during the “Black Decade,” was more cautious about the Arab Spring on its doorstep.
However, in 2019, when the then-dying president Abdelaziz Bouteflika sought a fifth term, millions of Algerians took to the streets, initiating the Hirak, the most significant political movement since Algerian independence.
Despite this, the newly elected president Tebboune, who was part of the old ‘system’ and had served several times as a minister under Abdelaziz Bouteflika, centralized power and dismantled the Hirak, despite the fact that he campaigned for a ‘new Algeria.’ This was achieved through a combination of repressive legal reforms, censorship, arrests and carefully stage-managed elections.
On the other hand, Tunisia experienced a relatively peaceful transition to democracy after the toppling of longtime authoritarian leader Ben Ali during the Arab spring. However, President Kais Saied, elected in 2019 on an anti-corruption and reform platform, has been accused of centralizing power and undermining democratic institutions.
Both Tebboune and Saied have portrayed themselves as revolutionaries, using populist rhetoric to better overturn the transition and consolidate a counter-revolutionary order. Saied has vowed to correct the path of the revolution and to give “power to the people spoiled by the elites.”
However, both leaders have tightened repression, with nearly 300 activists currently imprisoned in Algeria, according to human rights groups. They have also amended constitutions to suppress dissent, and demonized and arrested those who oppose their backsliding on democracy.
What Algeria seeks in Tunisia is stability and to prevent any democratic spillover. When Saied grabbed full power, freezing the parliament, dissolving the government, and taking over the judiciary in the name of an “imminent danger” that was never defined, Tebboune expressed “understanding” of these exceptional measures described by many as a coup. He also criticized Tunisia's democratization process, arguing that the country has chosen a governing system “incompatible with the configurations of Third World countries.”
Tunisia's economic dependence on Algeria
As Tunisia's crisis worsens, Saied lost the trust of international institutions. His actions isolated him from Western allies who disapprove of his sabotage of the transition. To save his country from financial bankruptcy, Saied sought alternative backers in the Gulf region (UAE, Saudi Arabia). However, the US has asked these countries to hold back their support.
As a result, Saied turned to Algeria, which has also engaged in a similar repressive takeover.
Algeria has become indispensable to Tunisia’s survival, and the list of favors is long. In February 2020, Algeria made a deposit of USD 150 million to the Tunisian Central Bank. It generously granted a USD 300m loan to “support the struggling Tunisian economy” in 2021, and an additional USD 200M in 2022. Algeria also sells fuel and gas to Tunisia at preferential prices.
During the COVID-19 crisis, in the summer of 2021, Algeria donated oxygen and medical equipment to Tunisia, despite facing shortages itself. Algeria also supplies basic commodities to the market, as Tunisia couldn’t pay for its imports. Algeria filled out the shortage and sent sugar, cooking oil and other daily products. The Algerian rescue of a struggling Tunisian government has eased the animosity of the population facing empty shelves, rationing, and delays in payment of state civil servants for the first time.
Algeria defends Tunisia
After the revolution and against the backdrop of international terrorism threats, Tunisia faced attacks, including the killing of political figures, police, and tourists, as well as assaults from its Libyan borders, such as the jihadist coup in Ben Guerdane in 2016.
Lacking the resources and the expertise to deal with these threats, Tunisia sought help from Algeria, known for its powerful army and expertise in fighting terrorist groups. The two countries signed a series of military agreements— that many analysts argue give Algeria has the upper hand — and now Algeria protects Tunisian borders.
Tunisia’s heavy dependence on Algeria puts it in a fragile situation. Tunisia relies on Algeria for national security and electricity production. Exiled Algerian journalist Abdou Semmar, who has been sentenced to death for his reporting in Algeria, has gone so far as to say that “If it was not for Algeria, Tunisia would have collapsed since Algeria guarantees Tunisian financial and military security and helps provide its essential commodities.”
Algeria benefits too
Algeria has a vested interest in its neighbor, but its support for Tunisia comes with strings attached. According to Hasni Abidi, from the Center for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World in Geneva “Algiers wants Tunisia to follow its diplomatic position in return for this financial support, such as in international institutions like the African Union or to follow Algeria’s diplomatic position regarding Morocco.”
While Tunisia has traditionally pursued a pragmatic neutral foreign policy, it recently extended a state welcome to the leader of the Polisario Front, a nationalist organization that seeks independence for Western Sahara from Morocco, during the 2022 Japanese–Africa Conference provoking the ire of Morocco, who recalled its ambassador.
However, the relationship is not always as straight forward. When prominent Hirak movement activist Amira Bouraoui, entered Tunisia illegally from Algeria to flee a two-year sentence for “offending Islam and insulting the president,” Tunisia let her leave and go to France, despite demands for her extradition, much to the anger of the Algerian government.