On 9 April 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied began a three-day official visit to Egypt, his first since he took office in October 2019. During the visit, he met, alongside his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a number of Egyptian officials and Islamic and Christian spiritual leaders. The visit came within a changing regional and internal context for Egypt and Tunisia alike.

This paper analyses the contexts in which the visit took place, together with its envisioned goals, while examining the issues addressed by the two sides and the results it achieved.

A changing internal and regional context

The visit of the Tunisian President to Cairo did not come as a surprise. Rather, it was arranged for nearly a year. In May 2020, Kais Saied received an invitation from President Sisi to visit Cairo. However, the radical shifts that were witnessed by the region and the two countries since that time dominated the agenda of the visit, which came within changing contexts, including the following:

- The collapse of the recent round of talks, hosted by the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa, between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on 6 April 2021. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs described Ethiopia in a statement as “lacking the political will to negotiate in good faith”, amid hints by the Egyptian President that Egypt would resort to all options in the event that its right to the Nile waters was undermined, and the growth of Egyptian diplomatic activity to mobilise support for Cairo’s position on this issue at the regional and international levels.

- Tunisia’s membership in the group of non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) since the beginning of 2020, as the successor of the State of Kuwait, given that Tunisia will continue to occupy the seat until the end of 2021 as the representative of Arab and African countries on the UNSC together with Niger.

- The escalating conflict between Kais Saied, the Islamic Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, after Saied refused to sign the Constitutional Court Law which Ennahda wants to change to serve its interests. Earlier, Saied had refused that a number of government ministers take the constitutional oath. The dispute reached its climax one day before Saied's visit to Egypt, that is on 9 April 2021, during the celebration of the Martyrs’ Day, when the Tunisian President took the liberty of harassing Ghannouchi and Mechichi by presenting a cartoon from the beginning of the twentieth century showing a bedridden Tunisia and a doctor prescribing treatment thereto by saying "you need a respectable parliament and a responsible government", in an implicit criticism of Ghannouchi and Mechichi.

- The beginning of the political shift in Libya after the situation stabilised and the government of Abdul Hamid Dabaiba assumed its duties, which is seen as a positive step towards building the state of institutions, and the beginning of addressing the issue of the exit of foreign fighters and Turkish mercenary forces, as well as the issues of reconstruction and economic recovery.

The issues

The Egyptian-Tunisian bilateral summit discussed a number of common issues. According to the joint statement issued on the talks between Presidents Sisi and Saied, the talks “reflected the convergence of views between the two countries on the overall issues”, the most prominent of which being the following, according to the statement:

  • Strengthening cooperation in the field of combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, calling on the international community to adopt a comprehensive approach to address this phenomenon in its various security, economic, social, developmental, intellectual and ideological dimensions, confronting all terrorist organisations without exception, undermining their capability to attract or recruit new elements and drying up their sources of funding, and, importantly, confronting extremist ideology which poses a threat to the region and its peoples.
  • Developments in the Libyan crisis, the formation of the new executive authority, and how to provide it with all forms of support to enable it to fulfill its role in managing the transitional phase, holding the elections as scheduled at the end of 2021, ending foreign interventions and securing the exit of all foreign forces, mercenaries and foreign terrorist fighters from Libya.
  • The issue of Egyptian water security, being part of the Arab national security, and underlining the need to preserve Egypt’s water rights as an existential issue, and the efforts made by Egypt to reach a fair and comprehensive agreement regarding the rules for filling and operating the Renaissance Dam.
  • Enhancing cooperation in economic fields between the two countries, and developing that cooperation in a way that would achieve the development goals of both countries, at both the trade and investment levels.
  • Seeking to promote cultural cooperation between the two countries in its various aspects, in a way that would contribute to strengthening the rapprochement between the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples, especially that culture has an important role to play in addressing the dangers of the intellectual extremism facing the countries of the region. It was agreed to declare 2021-2022 as the Year of Egyptian-Tunisian Culture through the activation of joint cultural and artistic activities.

Outcomes of the visit

While it is difficult to quickly judge the extent of the success of the Tunisian President's visit to Egypt, or to what extent it has achieved its goals at the present time, it can be said that some of its goals seem to have been achieved, both for the Egyptian or Tunisian side, including the following:

  • The visit succeeded in bridging the gap that occurred in the Tunisian-Egyptian relations in the wake of the 30 June 2013 Revolution, and the hostile positions announced by former President Moncef Marzouki, where relations have significantly deteriorated from what they were during the reign of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali before the Arab revolutions.
  • Egypt has achieved a diplomatic success in gaining the Tunisian vote on the issue of the Renaissance Dam, given Tunisia's capacity as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. The Tunisian President declared a strong position on this issue, stressing that his country would not accept that Egypt’s water security be undermined. In the coming days, Egypt will need to garner the largest possible number of international and regional votes that support its position, as part of its continuous efforts to mobilise diplomatic support in the dispute with Ethiopia, which could end up in the UNSC.
  • The visit has deepened the gap between President Kais Saied and his opponents in the Ennahda Movement, given that the latter considers the political regime in Egypt to be one of its opponents due to its conflict with the Brotherhood. Saied’s visit to Cairo was not a surprise in itself, and the Islamists’ reaction thereto was expected for well-known considerations. However, the visit’s content produced a set of messages that Saied wanted to address to his direct opponent (the Ennahda Movement). The visit may also be an indication of what the relationship between them would look like in the future. Saied left Tunisia against the backdrop of clear disagreements with the Movement and its political allies. He returned with direct and implicit messages about the relationship with his opponents, which suggests that he would continue to block and confront the intransigence of Ennahda and its allies on domestic issues of a political and legal nature, and external ones of a strategic nature with respect to major issues and alliances.
  • The Tunisian and Egyptian sides have succeeded in identifying a common position on the Libyan issue which, despite the assumption by the new government of its duties, is still open to more than one possibility, due to the presence of foreign fighters and Turkish influence. As Libya's neighbours, Cairo and Tunis want to benefit economically from the post-war period. However, with its military and economic manifestations, the Turkish influence remains one of the obstacles to this common will.

Conclusion

The visit of the Tunisian President Kais Saied to Cairo ended the chilliness that characterised Egyptian-Tunisian relations in recent years. While the visit took place amidst changing regional and internal contexts, it has achieved at least part of its urgent goals, especially in terms of Cairo’s confidence in winning over the Tunisian vote in the UNSC regarding the issue of the dispute with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam, and the agreement reached by the two sides on common points regarding dealing with the Libyan file and the issue of foreign fighters there, as well as the consensus on issues of countering terrorism and extremism. This like-mindedness could be an indication of what the relations between the two leaders and states would look like in the future. On the other hand, the visit and its outcomes have deepened the gap between Saied and his main opponent, namely the Ennahda Movement, which suggests that relations between them have reached the point of no return.

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