Beylik: that’s the word we don’t want to hear anymore in Tunis. Beylik, domain of the bey, vassal of the sultan. Beylik, province or Ottoman “regency”. A word that comes from the well of the centuries, a return of the historical repressed. It was furiously written in the country’s media after the unexpected visit to Tunis of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to ask President Kais Saied to support a Turkish intervention in Libya in support of the ill-named “Government of National Accord” of Faiez Sarraj against General Khalifa Haftar. By opening Matmata airport to Turkish military aircraft. But yes, of course, it made sense: the tiny and strategic Tunisia could not but acquiesce to Ankara’s desires. In the spirit of the neo-Great Turk, it had to become again the vassal of the old days.
Beylik is the destiny Erdogan wants for the country of jasmine and revolution. Beylik, like the whole region. A few days later, on his return to his tyrannical peninsula, he chanted: “Libya is the heritage of the Ottoman Empire and we have our sons there… It is our duty to defend them! It’s our duty to defend them!” It seems as if we are still in the 16th century, when Istanbul divided the Maghreb into three Pachaliks: Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. However, the Tunisians of yesteryear never stopped rushing to the stretchers. It is from the very heart of their dependence that was forged this rebellious spirit of independence which, over the centuries, managed to integrate the descendants of the Turkish Janissaries, the Berbers, the Arabs and the immigrants from Al Andalus, driven out by the Spanish Reconquista. “An original alloy that resembles all its components without identifying itself with just one of them” sums up the historian Habib Boularès in his enlightening “Histoire de la Tunisie” (Cérès editions). It is necessary to reread both the dark and the bright pages to grasp the centuries-old Tunisian resistance to all forms of domination.
The youth remembered this in those days of January 2011 when the hymn written by the poet Abu al Kacem Chebbi, a child of Tozeur, sprang from the peaceful Avenue Bourguiba to shake the vast Arab world: “When the people will, destiny will bow!”. At the beginning of the year, while celebrating the ninth anniversary of this unfinished revolution, one of its female figures, Lina Ben Mhenni, died at the age of 36. The very first blogger of the uprising against Ben Ali and his “Regency of Carthage”, Lina had posted photos of the riots that followed the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid. It was through her messages that the late poet and philosopher Abdelwahab Meddeb learned of the dazzling springtime in Tunis. If I evoke these figures that disappeared too soon, by rereading the tender and powerful poems of Chebbi, both Musset and Hugo of the palm groves, who died in 1934 at the age of 25, it is because from generation to generation they tell of an identity that rebelled against the diktats of the sultans. It is this identity that Erdogan tramples on when he goes to Tunis, after having warned Kais Saied of his visit with a phone call that wakes him up with a start in the middle of the night. Why would he bother? He knows his empathy for political Islam. Between big and little Muslim Brothers, we refuse nothing to each other. Thousands of Syrian Islamists are boarding Turkish planes for Tripoli. Erdogan is not asking Tunisia, a country bordering Libya, to remain neutral, but rather to open certain airports to him and to turn a blind eye to the enthusiastic migration of young Tunisians eager to join the jihadist battlefield.
Whatever Kais Saied may have said to Erdogan, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of opinion. Was he going to add fuel to the fire as the internal political crisis raged, as no coalition agreement could be reached in a fractured nation? So no one wants to hear about the country’s involvement in the Libyan chaos. Editorialists stress the economic dangers and the risk of internal destabilisation. On January 19, the Tunisian president, unlike his Algerian counterpart who wants to impose himself on the diplomatic scene, therefore does not attend the Berlin International Conference devoted to the hypothetical settlement of the Libyan crisis. To Emmanuel Macron who called him in the evening to tell him his “understanding”, Kais Saied replied: “My country is the most affected by the situation in Libya…”.
The sultan’s wishes are not orders. Tunisia is not “Beylik”.
*Journalist and essayist, editor in chief at weekly magazine Marianne, specialist in Islamism and Middle-East affairs..