Haftar meets with Caid Essebsi as Tunisia adjusts Libya policy
Tunis- The first official visit by the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to Tunisia reflected a significant adjustment of Tunis’s diplomatic strategy towards the Libyan crisis.
The new approach, which seemed to take shape just a few months ago, reflected Tunisia’s decision to move away from almost exclusive support to the UN-recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.
Prior to his visit September 18, mutual suspicion seemed to mark the relationship with the Haftar camp.
The battlefield gains of the LNA and lack of progress by the Sarraj government despite international support have contributed to a change in Western attitude towards Haftar.
Over the last two years, international meetings on the Libyan issue took place in Tunis, notably negotiations between Libyan political groups and meetings sponsored by the United Nations. Since the appointment in November 2016 of Tunisian diplomat Slaheddine Jemmali as Arab League special envoy to Libya, Tunisia moved towards a mediation initiative that includes all Libyan belligerents.
The first visit by Haftar to Tunisia was presented by media as an attempt to revive the Tunisian diplomatic initiative, which consists of bringing together the Libyan political rivals with the aim of reconciling positions to resolve the crisis.
A statement by the office of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said he and Haftar discussed “the principles and objectives of the initiative launched by Tunisia, with the engagement of Algeria and Egypt.”
Caid Essebsi stressed that the solution to the crisis “remains in the hands of the Libyan people” and explained that the role of Tunisia and neighbouring countries was limited to facilitating dialogue within the framework of cooperation and coordination with the United Nations.
In remarks following the meeting with Caid Essebsi, Haftar said terrorism in the North African country would soon be eradicated and that the LNA is “a powerful army.”
“We have heard a good word from the (Tunisian) president and our vision is consistent with his vision,” Haftar said.
Libyan sources said, however, the real reason for the visit might have been to meet with US Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde, who is temporarily based in Tunis.
In a bid to break the stalemate, Washington is said to be putting pressure on both Haftar and Sarraj to strike an agreement that could lead to presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya in 2018.
Washington is also said to be seeking to persuade Haftar to abandon his military role and present himself as a civilian politician. The United States is yet to clearly enunciate its position about the Libyan crisis.
The Libyan conflict, which has been raging since 2011, has taken a heavy toll on Tunisia, affecting the economy, tourism, security and other sectors.
A recent study by the World Bank stated that the Libyan crisis contributed 24% to the drop in Tunisia’s economic growth from 2011-15. Smuggling, which constitutes an endemic problem in Tunisia, has grown substantially since 2011, weighing much heavier on the sluggish economy. Tunisia harbours security concerns about Islamic State (ISIS) activity in parts of Libya, despite it being driven out of Benghazi and Sirte.
Tunis is to be the site September 26 of meetings between rival Libyan parties to discuss a formula to amend the Libyan political agreement. The deal, which was signed in Skhirat, Morocco in December 2015, under the auspices of the United Nations, was never fully implemented. It has been criticised for keeping out key parties in Libya, such as the supporters of the former regime and some of the large tribes in the south.
Ghassan Salame, the UN’s envoy for Libya, admitted September 20 that the road map for peace in Libya wasn’t working and he unveiled plans to revamp the Skhirat agreement to unify the country and pave the way for new elections.
However, the role Tunisia can play in changing the Skhirat agreement and resolving the Libyan conflict remains in question. The Haftar camp has generally perceived the Tunisian government as being closer to the GNA and was not comfortable with the Islamist party Ennahda being part of Tunisia’s ruling coalition government.
It was under Ennahda’s rule that Tunisia first sided with Libya’s Islamists, supporting the former government of Khalifa al-Ghawil, which was set up by the Islamist-dominated Fajr Libya militia in 2014.
Tunisia’s close relations with the Sarraj government have been a concern for Haftar, though the relations can partly be explained by Tunisia’s key interests in the western part of Libya, rather than the east, where Haftar’s LNA is the main military force.
In such an ambivalent context, Tunisia’s efforts to keep a relatively equal distance from all Libyan rivals and to get more involved in mediation may bear fruit despite attempts by parties in both countries to obstruct a peaceful solution to the crisis.
In Libya, the head of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), Aguila Saleh, stands accused of stalling the political process. In Tunisia, shadowy moves by Ennahda have been raising eyebrows.
In a recent twist after Haftar’s visit, leaked pictures surfaced of Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda movement, sitting next to Mohamed Sowan, head of the Justice and Development Party, widely seen as the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, Imad al-Banani, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Libya, and Libyan activist Abdul Basit Igtet, who has presented himself as a candidate to succeed Sarraj.
The pictures prompted a political uproar in Libya and Tunisia, with many questioning the purpose and timing of the meeting.
Libyan political activist Mohammed Omar al-Warfali warned against the repercussions of this alleged secret meeting and moves by Igtet.
In Tunisia, Mohsen Nabti, leader of the Tunisian People’s Movement, described the meeting as one in a series of “suspicious” moves by Ghannouchi.
Ennahda denied that such a meeting had taken place, with Islamist figure Rafik Abdessalem saying that the leaked pictures dated to 2012.
Whether taken in 2012 or in 2017, the pictures will put Tunisian Islamists on notice against further involvement in the Libyan crisis. Any attempts on their part will not go unnoticed and are unlikely to be tolerated as they were in years past. Such moves were denounced on several occasions by political players in the country as a form of “partisan parallel diplomacy” outside the framework of the Tunisian state’s official diplomacy.