Tunisian-Libyan relations amid transitions

The security of both countries is so interlinked that the success of the democratic process in Tunisia and the country’s economic recovery largely depend on developments in Libya.
Friday 28/05/2021
Tunisian President Kais Saied, left, and Stephanie Williams, Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General  attend the opening ceremony of the Libya’s peace talks in Tunis, Nov. 9, 2020. (AP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied, left, and Stephanie Williams, Acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General attend the opening ceremony of the Libya’s peace talks in Tunis, Nov. 9, 2020. (AP)

Ten years after their respective uprisings, Tunisia and Libya are still at a crossroads.

Libya is indeed inaugurating a new chapter of its political transition by the formation of a new interim government on February 15, 2021, which must confront the gigantic  task of securing and unifying a deeply-divided country and preparing the ground for general elections set for the end of the year.

For its part, Tunisia is struggling to consolidate its own democracy in the context of serious economic, social and political crises, further complicated by a devastating pandemic. The country is still also testing the political governance set up by the 2014 Constitution, a semi-parliamentary system with dual executive branches that are unable to manage and contain the rise of populist trends while the country strives to establish normal and balanced relations between the different political institutions.

The two countries are in fact intertwined by geography as they share a common border of 461 kilometres. They also share strong human, cultural and ethnic bonds that are deep-rooted in history.

Their long-standing relations could be traced back to the Phoenician era. Ever since Carthage started expanding in the Mediterranean, Tunisia had held some sort of sway over Tripolitania (Northern Western Libya). Later during the Ottoman Empire, it wielded considerable influence on a great part of present Libya as it used to appoint the territory’s rulers who were loyal to the Hussainite dynasty in Tunis. The Bey of Tunis even waged wars to remove unwanted governors from power, as was the case with Hamouda Pacha Bey in 1794, when he sought to reinstate Youssef Karamanli as the Pacha of Tripoli.

The two countries maintained over the years close cooperation and intense human contacts as Tunisians used to take refuge in Libya whenever they felt threatened at home, particularly during the French colonisation (1881-1956). Likewise, the Libyans often sought security and better living in Tunisia during the invasion and the occupation of their country by the Italians (September 1911-1951). Many families are often of the same tribal origins even if they live on both sides of the border.

During Muammar Gadhafi’s rule, relations were often strained as the Libyan leader pursued aggressive policies during President Bourguiba’s tenure, while those relations improved substantially under President Ben Ali.

A crucial turn 

After the Tunisian and Libyan 2011 uprisings, relations took another turn. The new interim Tunisian government formed after the collapse of President Ben Ali’s regime, acted immediately to secure the country’s borders with its southern neighbour. It even strove to initiate contacts with different Libyan stakeholders to influence the outcome of the Libyan revolution and avoid the spillover of the military strife onto Tunisian soil.

It is needless to restate the paramount importance of Libya to Tunisia. The security of both countries is so interlinked that the success of the democratic process in Tunisia and the country’s economic recovery largely depend on developments in Libya.

The great majority of the Libyan population is concentrated in the Western part of the country, geographically  close to Tunisia, making Tunisia one of the immediate destinations of many Libyans seeking medical treatment or holidays. In fact, Tunisia is the only one among seven neighbours to have kept its borders open with Libya. Furthermore, most Libyans travelling abroad use Tunisian airports as a transit point for other destinations. More than two million Libyans and foreign refugees fleeing the violence in 2011 sought refuge in Tunisia for months. Some have even since settled in Tunisia  integrating smoothly with the locals.

During the 2011-2014 crisis, Tunisia played a major role in providing the Libyan market with basic necessities. It contributed immensely to the alleviation of the scarcity of many products including food and meeting urgent needs.

High economic stakes for Tunisia 

For many years, Libya used to be the second economic partner of Tunisia with almost 2.5 billion dinars in trade. Besides, the informal trade, including all forms of smuggling, has evolved from being basically tolerated before 2011 to becoming a main source of revenue for many communities on both sides of the border. But smuggling  also became a serious threat to the stability and security of the whole region. Illicit activities have included arms trafficking and other forms of trans-border criminal activities.

A recent World Bank report emphasised the extraordinary intertwining of the Tunisian-Libyan economies and showed how much the Tunisian economy was dependent on Libya.

Some indicators:

  • Almost 1.7 million Libyan tourists choose Tunisian resorts each year, making Libya the second tourism market for Tunisia after Algeria.
  • Some 100,000 Tunisians used to live and work in Libya. Most of them (60,000) left the country in 2011 and have not been able to return since then, depriving their country’s economy of badly needed foreign currency.
  • The Libyan crisis adversely affected the flow of foreign investments and further reduced the traditionally large number of tourists willing to spend their holidays in Tunisia. In fact, Libyan investments dropped by almost 60% in the tourism sector and tourist flow decreased dramatically after the terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 where Tunisian extremists with Libya connections were involved.

The World Bank estimates that the Libyan crisis is behind 24% of the deceleration of the economic growth in Tunisia during 2011-2015. Since then, that figure has increased drastically. This is the equivalent of almost of 2% of the national GDP per year. According to the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, about three million Tunisians depended on Libya either from the remittances of Tunisian workers or from black market activities in the border zone.

— Cross border security —

The security of both countries is very much intertwined. The absence of a strong central government in Tripoli and the massive arms stocks in the hands of militias spread all over the Libyan territory have made it a playground for armed gangs and militant groups. The country has provided a safe haven to thousands of terrorists originating from sub-Saharan Africa (the Sahel region) as well as those fleeing the hotbeds of tension in Syria and Iraq. ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated bodies regrouped in Libya after their setbacks in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. With recruitment and training centres in Libya, they evolved into a major threat to Tunisia, other neighbours and even to Europe.

A file picture of Tunisian Foreign Affairs minister Khemaies Jhinaoui at the EU Council building in Brussels, on May 11, 2017. (AFP)
A file picture of Tunisian Foreign Affairs minister Khemaies Jhinaoui at the EU Council building in Brussels, on May 11, 2017. (AFP)

Faced with this real danger on their southern frontier, particularly after the deadly terrorist attacks of 2015-2016, the Tunisian authorities have worked over the past few years to secure their borders. Situated in a military buffer zone, the frontier is nowadays protected by physical infrastructure including an electronic fence, trenches, observation posts and towers. Thanks to US and German support, the border control was upgraded to include modern surveillance technology reinforced by regular drone flights.

Additional steps are underway to improve and further upgrade security in order to increase the impermeability of the borders against terrorist infiltration and smuggling activities. But the authorities are careful not to treat the terrorist threat on the same footing as cross-border commercial trafficking activities.

Cracking down systematically on informal sector operators can render the already difficult economic situation of smuggling-dependent regions even more precarious, especially in the two major southern cities of Medenine,  Tataouine and neighbouring regions. It is often said that the most serious security risk the Libyan conflict poses to Tunisia is not represented by individuals crossing the border but by a complete border shut down. Such a scenario, if strictly implemented, could trigger a wave of unrest that would develop into destabilising protests across many areas in the frontier region.

The lack of socioeconomic solutions to scarce employment opportunities and sources of revenue could lead to increased tensions among the local population. It could also radicalise some young people who might be tempted to join extremist groups if left with no alternatives.

The spillover of jihadist violence, such as in the Ben Guerdane assault of March 7, 2017 when the Islamic State attempted, and failed, to establish a foothold in the border town as well as in ISIS-claimed attacks whose perpetrators originated from Libya, have discouraged foreign investments as well as the usual foreign tourism.

Libya continues to be a vital national security concern for Tunisia because of its outsized effects on the country’s economic development and political stability. Along with diplomatic engagement, Tunisia’s defence strategy against current and future threats from Libya has been largely reactive and geared toward containment.

— Tunisian diplomatic role in the Libyan peace process —

Aware of the direct impact of the Libyan crisis on the political transition in the country and the economic recovery, successive governments in Tunisia have paid special attention to Libya.

The involvement by Tunisian actors and the nature of the support they extended to different political factions in Libya often reflected their ideological affiliation and the fragile equilibrium within Tunisian society itself.

The Islamist Ennahdha Party has never hidden its support for the Islamists in Libya. Rached Ghannouchi  even congratulated in May 2020 the former president of the  Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Al-Sarraj and the Islamist groups in Tripoli over their military victory against Field Marshal Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). Ghannouchi’s comments came as forces loyal to the GNA retook control of Al-Watya military base. His statements were severely criticised by the Tunisian opposition and even prompted calls by MPs to remove him from the post of speaker of the Parliament.

Immediately after the 2014 elections, the Tunisian Government sought an active outreach to Libya but tried to keep an equal distance from all Libyan actors. The aim of late President Beji Caid Essebsi and the Tunisian diplomacy of the time was to help enable a kind of rapprochement between the warring factions (East-West / Haftar-Sarraj) and work for a peaceful settlement of the conflict through dialogue under UN mission (UNSMIL) sponsorship.

Two Major objectives were coveted by the Tunisian diplomacy:

1-Avoid a spillover of the Libyan conflict into Tunisian territory by increased surveillance and border monitoring to prevent terrorist infiltration and arms and goods smuggling into the country.

2-Create a new dynamic among Libya’s neighbours, mainly Algeria and Egypt through a presidential initiative associating the three Arab North African countries bordering Libya (Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt) in a push for a comprehensive peaceful settlement to the conflict. The rationale behind such an scheme was to harmonise the Egyptian and Algerian positions towards the Libyan conflict and try to speak with one voice to the various Libyan political factions, regardless of their ideological or regional affiliations.

The Tunis declaration dated 20 Feb 2017 underlined the core principles of the political solution of the Libyan crisis:

  • No military solution to the conflict
  • Any settlement should be reached through dialogue and negotiation among all Libyan factions, excluding those involved in terrorism
  • Any solution should preserve the unity and integrity of Libyan territory and aim at unifying the divided Libyan institutions; the Central Bank, national oil company and the army.
  • The negotiations, as well as the final settlement, should be conducted and reached under the UN umbrella, excluding any other foreign involvement.

These are the basic principles which were finally endorsed by the political Forum Dialogue held in Tunis in November 2020 as well as the agreement reached in Geneva on February 15 on the presidential Council and the National Unity Government.

As a non-permanent member of the Security Council (2019-2021) Tunisia has a special responsibility to accompany Libya during the remaining period leading to the general elections. It needs to stress to other members of the Council the importance of taking Libya out of the transitional phase through the organisation of national democratic and transparent elections going ahead as scheduled. Specific steps have to be taken to hit this target by establishing the necessary constitutional and legal framework and calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Libya and decommissioning the armed militias in all parts of the country. Tunisia has to be more active and vocal in the different meetings related to the Libyan crisis and the follow-up of the Berlin Conference recommendations.

 Tunisia’s contribution to Libya’s reconstruction 

Tunisia is well-positioned to contribute to the consolidation of peace in Libya and take part in the rehabilitation of its institutions and the reconstruction of its economy. It benefits from a qualitative edge compared to its competitors:

  • A long history of the Tunisian private sector operating in the Libyan market,
  • A rich legal framework inherited from the Gadhafi-Ben Ali era which is still into force and could help Tunisian companies resume business quickly in Libya
  • A geographic proximity and the availability of a road network that considerably reduces the cost of transport between the two countries,
  • For years, when Libya was under the UN embargo imposed by the Security Council following the Lockerbie case (1988-2008) the Tunisian private sector was at the forefront catering for Libya’s needs in consumer goods and food stuffs. Tunisian products are well known and highly appreciated by Libyan consumers,
  • Tunisian companies also gained rich experience in public work projects in Libya. Hundreds of public buildings and housing projects were contracted by Tunisian entrepreneurs. Resuming operations in Libya will offer new opportunities for Tunisian companies badly affected by the domestic economic crisis and the COVID pandemic. It will also open the labour market for tens of thousands job seekers.

Tunisia’s contribution could be brought about in the following sequential order:

1 — Providing legal expertise to prepare adequately for free and transparent elections initiated by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum before the end of the year. This could range from assisting in drafting an electoral law, helping drawing up the electoral constituencies and providing the required assistance to the High National Election Commission (HNEC) to enabling it to perform its mission according to international standards of transparency and accountability.

The experience acquired by Tunisia during the last ten years in political transition and in managing free national and local elections could be helpful to better prepare the next Libyan ballot and put in place the different steps of the road map agreed in the meeting of LPDF last November in Tunis entitled “the Preparatory phase of comprehensive solutions “.

  • Institutional assistance in establishing a performing public service in Libya.

Though Tunisia is still struggling to streamline and modernise its own public services, it can nevertheless tap into its long experience to provide the support needed by the Libyan authorities in their transitional period.

  • Good governance and proper functioning of state institutions: such a task could be implemented through triangular cooperation bringing together Tunisia, Libya and democratic donor countries
  • Dismantling militias and decommissioning arms in order to help constitute and unify the Libyan National Army and Security Forces.

2– Tunisian companies could also take part in major infrastructure projects in Libya. They can bid for public tenders related to housing and public buildings particularly in the devastated area of Benghazi and the East of the country as well as in Tripoli neighbourhood.

  • Cater to the needs of the Libyan market in consumer goods and foodstuffs and supply that market on regular basis with quality and competitive products.
  • The digitalisation of the public sector.

Prospects for Tunisian-Libyan relations do indeed look  promising. The recent visits to Tripoli by the Tunisian president and prime minister paved the way for a new start in bilateral cooperation. Obviously the two countries need each other to consolidate their respective transitions. Tunisia is badly in need of Libya’s financial support in a form a loan or a deposit in Tunisian Central Bank to continue with confidence the discussions it has already started with the IMF to seek, for the fourth time in a decade, a three-year loan deal. The signature by the two prime ministers on May 22 of a new agreement to ease trade and the movement of citizens will certainly help the private sector in both countries to explore new partnerships and boost the  number of Libyan visitors and tourists to Tunisia.

Libya’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, Libya’s former Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Mohammed al-Menfi, Head of the Presidency Council, arrive ahead of the handover ceremony in Tripoli, March 16, 2021. (REUTERS)
Libya’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, Libya’s former Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and Mohammed al-Menfi, Head of the Presidency Council, arrive ahead of the handover ceremony in Tripoli, March 16, 2021. (REUTERS)

Libya for its part looks to Tunisia’s expertise and human resources to contribute to the vast programme of institutional building and the reform of its public sector. It can also count on Tunisia, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council till the end of 2021, to secure much-needed support from the international community, namely the P5 members (USA, Russia, UK, France and China) for the delicate transition leading to the upcoming elections. Libya can also look to Tunisia to mobilise other neighbouring countries particularly Algeria and Egypt to stand by the Government of National Unity (GNU) to create favourable conditions for a  smooth transition to a permanent settlement of the crisis by the end of the year. However, leaders in both countries have to wait for the outcome of the next general elections in Libya scheduled for this December 24, to start any meaningful discussion about Tunisia’s contribution to major infrastructure projects in Libya. The main task of the current interim government, as defined by LPDF agreement in Geneva, is to prepare the ground for  transparent and democratic elections in Libya by the end of the year.


 Foreign actors in Libya 

The complex interlocking of different and often conflicting interests both within and outside Libya have marked the Libyan crisis since 2011. These conflicts are complex to solve because of the deep institutional divides, the mistrust that has built up  over the years , along with the divergent strategies between Libya’s actors and international players.

The role of the oil and gas industry in Libya in igniting and maintaining the conflict cannot be underestimated since it is the main driver of the Libyan economy and accounts for about 60% of the country’s GDP. It is also subject to an obvious fierce competition among Libyan factions and foreign partners.

Fair distribution of dividends, avoiding their diversion to finance militants and militias and simultaneously resolving financial disputes between the two conflicting sides have always been prerequisites to all peace initiatives, mainly those sponsored by the UN.

Foreign powers continue to weigh heavily on the Libyan theatre, dragging the conflict into regional tensions and making it one of the most dramatic ongoing proxy wars in the world.

In fact, Libya has since 2014 been entangled in a larger regional dispute involving three overlapping conflicts:

-The first centred on the Gulf with Qatar and Turkey against Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Each party is driven by its own interests in Libya, aiming to lay the ground as well as gearing the outcome of any peace initiative in favour of its own agenda.

-The second is the result of tension over gas exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean (Turkey against Egypt, France, Greece, Cyprus and Israel), and Libya being dragged into the centre of this confrontation.

-The third involves Russia and Turkey, the key external actors who oppose each another in Syria and in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They use the Libyan theatre as ground to project their influence and safeguard their economic and strategic interests in post-war Libya.

In fact, the different phases of the Libyan crisis from 2011 to date show that the conflict has an economic dimension as significant as the political and military factors.

Any effort to stabilise the country should consider these three components in an integrated way.

Libya will continue to be the focus of international powerhouses in the coming years. It has the resources and the potential to become a business hub in the Mediterranean. Russia will further sharpen its strategy aimed at recovering substantial debts owed to Russian companies by the Libyan governments since Gadhafi’s rule. Moscow will also aim to use its presence on the ground  with its military surrogate, the privately-run Wagner Group as a significant tool in its global competition with the US and NATO in Libya, the Sahel and beyond.

France and Italy have their own agendas stemming from their economic interests (oil exploration by Total and ENI and the anticipated contribution of their businesses in the very lucrative reconstruction projects), historical responsibilities (the French role in the collapse of Gadhafi’s regime in 2011 and Italian colonial heritage in Libya). These have resulted in ambiguous policies that have de facto blocked any meaningful action of the European Union.

A Tunisian soldier stands in front of a trench dug along the Libyan border , near the Ras Jedir crossing point. (AFP)
A Tunisian soldier stands in front of a trench dug along the Libyan border , near the Ras Jedir crossing point. (AFP)

Turkey for its part has not one single driving interest to pursue but rather acts amid a complex mix of economic, political and ideological factors that have prompted Turkey’s multi-pronged involvement in Libya.

Despite the optimism generated by the recent developments, the Libyan political process is still very fragile; many important decisions taken by the 5+5 security group and the LPDF are yet to be implemented namely: the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries, the opening of the coastal route, the exchange of prisoners as well as the constitutional basis for the December 24 2021 elections.​

The Government of National Unity and UNSMIL have to control of the violence in the country and work out the fate of armed groups. They also need to address the conflicting designs that regional and international powers have on Libya and stop foreign interferences in its politics and security. Foreign competition is set grow in the coming months as the  election deadline draws nearer. Each outside  power is trying to shape the outcome of Libya’s political settlement and to carve its own  niche according to it is political and economic interests .