Libya and Tunisia: a relationship under strain
TUNIS - Three years ago, in the aftermath of the Libyan and Tunisian revolutions, there was an enthusiastic sentiment in both countries that a new, special relationship would be forged.
Both, after all, had had revolutions, the Tunisian inspiring the Libyan. There was an economic synergy between the two, with Tunisians providing skills that Libya lacks and Libya investment that Tunisia needs.
Bolstering this were close historic cultural ties. There was talk of Tunisia and Libya possibly setting up a common market to develop the relationship.
Not now. The relationship is under immense strain.
The claim by Tunisian authorities that Seifeddine Rezgui, the man who killed 38 tourists in Sousse on June 26th, and the killers in the Bardo National Museum massacre on March 18th were trained near Sabratha in Libya, and at the same time, came as no surprise to anyone, least of all to Tunisians.
Mention the word “Libya” to almost any taxi driver in Tunis and there is a torrent of angry invective, ranging from “they’re crazy” to “they support terrorists” and “I won’t have a Libyan in my taxi”. Likewise, on Tunisia’s streets and in cafés, the fear is that the chaos in Libya is infecting Tunisia, with militants in the former arming and aiding those in the latter. There is a deep suspicion of Libya and Libyans.
Speak to Libyans about this, though, and they point out that they, too, are suffering from terrorism. Moreover, they claim that many of the terrorists in Libya are Tunisians.
Tunisia admits to the home-grown terrorist problem. It has put the number of its citizens fighting with various Islamist movements in Iraq, Syria and Libya at around 3,000. Libyans give a much higher figure. In February, Omar Gaweiri, who heads the Beida-based, internationally recognised Libyan government’s information authority, put the number of Tunisian terrorists in Libya at 4,000.
It is impossible to know the real number but Tunisians certainly have figured prominently among suicide bombers named by the Islamic State (ISIS) following attacks in Libya.
In March, it was estimated that there were 500 ISIS fighters in Sirte, a large proportion of them Tunisians. One of the top commanders there, Ahmed Rouissi, who had been a member of Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia (seen as more radical than Libya’s) before heading to Libya and joining ISIS, which renamed him Abu Zakaria al-Tunsi, was killed the same month in fighting outside the nearby town of Harawa.
More recently, it was reported by US officials that Tunisian militant Saifallah Benhassine, also known as Abu Iyad, was killed in a US air strike on an Ansar al-Sharia gathering June 13th in Ajdabiya.
The Tunisian terror connection in Libya has resulted in growing resentment of Tunisians in the country, aided and abetted by a general Libyan suspicion of all foreigners.
Polarising the situation even more have been the kidnappings of Tunisians in Libya. In May, more than 200 Tunisian workers in the Tripoli area were seized, by members of a brigade linked to the unrecognised government of Khalifa Ghwell, following the arrest in Tunisia on terrorism-related charges of a brigade commander, Walid al- Ghleib.
They were released following pressure on the brigade by an embarrassed Ghwell regime but then, in June, when a court in Tunis refused to free Ghleib, ten staff members at the Tunisian consulate-general in Tripoli were seized. They were freed but only after Tunisia let Ghleib go.
As a result of the affair, Tunisia closed its consulate in Tripoli. It had reopened in March amid protests from the recognised government in Beida that it constituted a de facto recognition of the regime but Tunis argued that it had to look after the interests of its many citizens in and around the Libyan capital.
The Gheib affair was not the first instance of Tunisians being seized. In early 2014, two Tunisian embassy staff members were kidnapped, again in a bid to secure the release of Libyans arrested in Tunisia.
The relationship has been subject to further pressure by numerous incidents at the Ras Jedir border crossing, often following action by angry thwarted smugglers. It has been closed on several occasions as a result.
There is also the unresolved case of Tunisian journalists Sofiane Chourabi and Nadhir Gtari, who were kidnapped in September 2014 but now widely thought to have been killed by ISIS.
Against the background of this souring political relationship, the Tunisian community in and around Tripoli and the Libyans in Tunisia worry about their future. The former, put at around 80,000, want to continue earning the living that they cannot do back home but feel increasingly isolated and threatened. The latter, variously estimated at between 800,000 and more than 1 million, likewise feel insecure, fearful that Tunisian authorities will impose visa restrictions and start ordering them out.
At present, Tunisia is one of the very few countries Libyans can go without visas. The community consists of several migrations — those opposed to the Qaddafi regime who left during early days of the revolution, Qaddafi supporters who fled and those who have fled since because of the chaos or because they are opposed to the Libya Dawn regime in Tripoli.
All the Libyan communities claim harassment.
The souring relationship is further complicated by poor information and lack of facts.
The wide difference in estimates of the number of Libyans in Tunisia shows the Tunisian authorities simply do not know how many are in the country. The same can be said in relation to Tunisians in Libya. The Tunisian statement, too, that Rezgui trained near Sabratha is puzzling since ISIS claimed responsibility for the Sousse massacre. The camp near Sabratha has been seen as closer to Libya Dawn and Ansar al-Sharia, which are different to ISIS, though there is movement across lines by individual supporters.
Given that lack of information, the climate of suspicion between the two countries looks set to continue while the hopes of a special relationship have all but vanished.