Libya was a key foreign policy issue for Caid Essebsi
TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who said he considered Libya “vital” for Tunisia’s security and economy, died as fighting for control of Tripoli claimed more lives and hardships mounted for over 1 million people living in the Libyan capital.
The situation in Libya was among key issues monitored by Caid Essebsi, who died July 25 at age 92. The situation in Libya fuelled concern in Tunisia that the conflict could spill over the border. There were also worries that chaos in Libya could lead to infiltration into Tunisia by Libyan-based jihadists, many of them from Tunisia.
The strife in Libya has cost Tunisia billions of dollars in economic losses, in terms of employment, trade and remittances.
An indication of the challenges ahead for Tunisia if the conflict in Libya escalates occurred when a Libyan military plane made an emergency landing July 22 on a highway in southern Tunisia, prompting rival sides in Libya to claim the jet be surrendered to them.
Under Caid Essebsi, Tunisia avoided taking sides in the Libyan conflict, advocating for a negotiated resolution under the aegis of the United Nations.
Caid Essebsi began a mediation effort involving Libya’s neighbours Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia with the aim of forging a political solution and preventing the expansion of foreign intervention. He enjoyed wide respect on both sides of the Libyan divide but his successors must delicately tread in Libya.
Libyan National Army (LNA) Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar sent a condolence message mourning Caid Essebsi, stating: “The whole of Libya stands by the Tunisians at this grave moment of sadness. The Libyans and the Tunisians are one people.”
The UN-backed government in Tripoli declared three days of mourning.
“For Tunisia, Libya is very important and even vital,” Caid Essebsi said in an interview with The Arab Weekly last January.
“We always say that Libya and Tunisia are one people in two countries. We have special historical relations. There were adverse effects on Tunisia when the state collapsed in Libya,” he said.
“We, in Tunisia, wish for the return of the state in Libya and we are working towards that but that has to be a Libyan-Libyan affair, without any external interference because such interference has complicated the situation.”
However, the battle over the control of Tripoli between the LNA and Islamist militias aligned with the UN-sponsored government in Tripoli pushed the Haftar camp and its allies to protest Turkey’s open intervention in the conflict.
The LNA blamed Turkish air support and direct involvement in the battle for its loss of a key base in Gharyan June 27.
“We have led a tripartite initiative with Egypt and Algeria to ensure that (there is no foreign intervention). The UN envoy is also doing his best but all of this was not enough and the situation is still unstable,” Caid Essebsi said. “I say to Europeans: ‘Let the Libyans find a solution by themselves with the help of the United Nations.'”
“When countries interfere, it takes even longer to settle,” cautioned Caid Essebsi.
The late Tunisian president saw a multitude of reasons for Tunisia to worry about Libya. “Tunisia was badly affected because it used to have a lot of trade with Libya. It was also affected because of the terrorist threat,” he said.
It is not clear how long the LNA offensive will last and how it will affect the situation in Libya’s neighbourhood. “The deadline of our victory in Tripoli is nearing,” Haftar said July 24 in what Libyan analysts interpreted as his refusal of calls by the UN envoy and other countries, including Tunisia, for a ceasefire to restart talks for a political settlement in Libya.
LNA commanders claim a “steady advance” in their offensive but spokesmen for the Sarraj government in Tripoli said their forces “repelled” an offensive by the LNA July 22.