Haftar meets with Caid Essebsi as Tunisia adjusts Libya policy

Sunday 24/09/2017
Thawing out. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (R) meeting with Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, on September 18. (Tunisian Presidency Press Service)

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.