Saied under scrutiny as Turkish plane destined for Libya lands in Tunisia

The Tunisian presidency said that “Tunisia alone” would be responsible for “delivering the aid to the Libyan side of the Ras Jedir border crossing.” 
Friday 08/05/2020
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Tunisian President Kais Saied at the Tunis Carthage International Airport, last December. (AFP)
Two presidents and an aeroplane. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Tunisian President Kais Saied at the Tunis Carthage International Airport, last December. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia allowed a Turkish plane carrying medical aid for Libyans at the Ras Jedir border crossing to land in Djerba-Zarzis Airport.

The Turkish plane, which was allowed to land on the condition that its cargo be delivered to Tunisian authorities for security and customs checks, could not fly directly to Libya because the country’s airport was unsafe at the time, according to Tunisian authorities.

In a statement, the Tunisian presidency said that “Tunisia alone” would be responsible for “delivering the aid to the Libyan side of the Ras Jedir border crossing.” The conditions set by Tunisia for the landing of the Turkish plane reflected the country's unease about Ankara's designs in Libya and the wariness of the country's political class about being dragged by Turkey into the Libyan conflict.

The shipment also raised eyebrows in the country, where there are concerns that medical aid sent by Turkey is intended for Islamist militias loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez Sarraj and backed by Turkey and Qatar, as fighting intensifies in the vicinity of the Libyan capital Tripoli, and on the fringes of Al-Watiya airbase.

The concerns in Tunisia were further exacerbated following the release of a report by the Turkish news agency Anadolu that cited a Turkish Defence Ministry statement saying that the aforementioned aid was "provided with instructions from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The report also noted that, "in addition to the aid, the relevant officials delivered a message from the Turkish president to his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied. "

Concerns in Tunisia

Tunisian reactions seemed to reflect the country's frustration with Turkey’s move to send the aircraft with little notice.

Tunisia has vowed not to allow foreign forces to use the country to interfere in neighbouring Libya.

Mongi Harbaoui, a leading figure in the Nidaa Tounes movement, warned that the move could carry repurcussions, as it contradicts an earlier assurance by the Defence Ministry that Tunisia is "not a launch pad for military operations in the region."

Harbaoui also noted that Turkey was using Tunisian territory to attack positions of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in western Libya.

 “These medical supplies are suspicious, especially at a time when Libyan airports like Mitiga and Misrata are still operational and this means that the Turkish planes could have used them,” Harbaoui said, warning that “if Tunisia is now guaranteeing the delivery of such aid to the Saraj-allied groups, this could means the country has chosen its side by openly aligning with the Turkish-Qatari-Libyan Islamist axis."

"Turkey wants to associate Tunisia with the Islamist axis supporting Sarraj through this suspicious aid," Harbaoui added, calling on the Tunisian presidency to "clarify the nature of this shipment."

Such concerns were also shared by Mohsen Nabti, spokesman of the Tunisian Popular Current, who did not hesitate to say that the landing of the Turkish plane in the cover of darkness at Djerba-Zarzis Airport "revealed the hidden and suspicious Turkish activity in Tunisia aimed at targeting the Libyan people."

He said the incident "confirms our doubts and fears about the Turkish activity in Tunisia and its threat to the our national security...such 'aid' is directed at mercenaries and takfiris who suffered a bitter defeat on the outskirts of Al-Wattia Air Force Base in western Libya."

Nabti stressed that the Tunisian presidency "is required to be clear and radically review its policy regarding the developments in Libya."

"It is not acceptable for Tunisia to recognise and support terrorist militias supported by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not also acceptable to turn the country into a corridor for the delivery of suspicious aid provided by Erdogan to his mercenaries and terrorists," Nabti said.

However, the president's brother, Nafouel Saied, defended Tunisia's move to receive the Turkish plane. "The Presidency of the Republic acted in compliance with the fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of these civilians in time of war, of August 12, 1949, signed by Tunisia on May 4, 1957," he said. "The convention stipulates that it is necessary to send out aid to populations in times of war,” he added.

Ghannouchi in the crosshairs

Tunisia's frustration is further amplified by Turkey’s continued consultation with Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, who heads the Islamist Ennahda party.

Legislators and other politicians have been critical of correspondence between Ghannouchi and leading Turkish figures without clear consultation with Tunisian President Kais Saied. They believe Ghannouchi should be questioned about the nature of his secret diplomacy with Ankara.

In a statement to Tunisian media Thursday, Tunisian MP and President of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party (PDL) Abir Moussi said her parliamentary bloc had submitted an appeal to question Ghannouchi over his “unclear links” with foreign parties.

 According to Moussi, Ghannouchi is using parliament as a tool to further the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda in the Maghreb region, particularly Libya.

 “If the demand for a hearing is dismissed, a lawsuit will be filed against him,” Moussi said. “Let the Tunisian judiciary and state assume their responsibility.”

 The PDL’s bloc in Parliament prepared a draft resolution announcing the parliament’s rejection of foreign interference in Libya and its opposition to forming a logistical base on Tunisian soil to facilitate this on May 4.

 The bloc called to present draft resolution to the plenary session for deliberation and approval, as per requirements in parliamentary bylaws.

 It indicated that this decision was made due to actions by Ghannouchi it considered in violation of Tunisian law and diplomatic norms. Ghannouchi’s alleged violations include holding closed and unannounced meetings and phone conversations with the Turkish president, whose country’s parliament decided to intervene militarily in Libya.

The PDL bloc said: “This comes against the backdrop of the Speaker’s attempt to pass economic agreements with Turkey and Qatar that involve an undeniable, unambiguous expansionist desire and an assault on national sovereignty while the Parliament is not in session due to the coronavirus crisis....

This raises suspicion and doubts and confirms fears of the hidden will of some organisations to convert Tunisian soil into a logistical base that facilitates external intervention operations in Libya.”

 Ghannouchi has been under increased scrutiny since he drew backlash last January by secretly meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. Ghannouchi is accused of acting on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is lending support to the GNA and allied Islamist groups in the Libyan conflict.

Hard Questions

Turkey's involvement in Libya and the signing of military cooperation and maritime demarcation deals last December between Ankara and Tripoli sparked concerns in Tunisia about regional tensions.

Tunisia has so far maintained close links with Libya’s internationally recognised GNA out of geographical necessity. Islamist militias and tribes allied with the GNA largely control the western areas of Libya adjacent to Tunisia.

 Western Libya is a critical economic and security valve for Tunisia. Many families in southern Tunisia make a living off the informal economy that relies on the smuggling of heavily subsidised goods from Libya, including oil.

 But Islamists’ influence in Tunisia’s government and close ties between the GNA and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the support for the GNA by radical Islamists, have complicated links between Tunis and Tripoli.

 Tunisia has faced even harder questions as Tripoli’s government has relied on Turkish military support, including drones and troop transport vehicles, to fight the eastern-based Libyan National Army since April 2019.

 Political leaders and analysts in Tunis said Turkey’s manoeuvres in Libya are forcing the country into a bind, as Turkish manoeuvres in Libya anger the European Union and NATO, from whom Tunisia receives crucial military and security support.

 The Turkish push in Libya is also likely to change the alignment of forces in the conflict, which experts believe could increase security concerns in Tunisia.

The shift in the Libyan conflict is likely to test Tunisia’s political stability, as Ennahda attempts to expand its power and advocate a foreign policy vision at odds with its political rivals.

Ennahda sees Erdogan as a symbol of the “revival of the Muslim Ummah,” but critics say his intervention in Syria, Iraq and Libya revives bitter memories of Ottoman Empire’s colonisation of Arab lands.

Libya’s GNA said earlier this month its forces would keep fighting after a unilateral ceasefire declaration by its eastern-based opponents, the LNA, in its civil war.

Libya is a messy battlefield with heavy involvement by foreign fighters. The United States and the United Nations have warned against the deepening footprint of Russian private contractor forces while Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have also deployed drones, according to diplomats.