Tunisians watchful of dramas unfolding next door

Tunisians often felt their interests were intertwined with those of their neighbours.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government arrive in Tajura, a coastal suburb of the Libyan capital Tripoli, on April 6, 2019. (AFP)
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government arrive in Tajura, a coastal suburb of the Libyan capital Tripoli, on April 6, 2019. (AFP)

TUNIS - With unfolding developments in Libya and in Algeria in the background, Tunisia convened an urgent meeting of its national security council on April 5 and decided to prolong its own state of emergency.

Since the 2011 “Arab spring” uprisings, in particular, Tunisians have realised the high degree of interdependence they have with their neighbours. When it rained in Algiers or Tripoli, Tunisians held out their umbrellas.

International media have always had a knack at describing Tunisia as being “sandwiched” between Algeria and Libya. Such a description is based on the appearance on the map of the small North African country, with an area of 163,610 sq.km. The size of the country pales in comparison to that of Libya, the fourth largest country in Africa (1.7 million sq.km) and even more with Algeria, the largest country in the continent (2.4 million sq.km).

Tunisians themselves have always had a healthy awareness of their size and of their limited natural resources and military power but they never looked at themselves or their country as being “sandwiched.” They often felt their interests were intertwined with those of their neighbours. They saw the fallout from events next door affecting their country.

Civil strife in Libya has cost Tunisia billions in lost jobs and trade, although the steady stream of Libyans seeking medical treatment or temporary stay in Tunisia has made up at least partially for lost employment and revenue opportunities.

The porous borders between the two countries were a source of concern as jihadists trickled back and forth. It took two serious terrorist incidents for Tunisia to receive international support and better secure the border after 2015.

During the last eight years, Algeria has constituted an alternative source of tourism revenue for Tunisia. Millions of Algerian tourists compensated for the decision by many European countries to stay away from Tunisia because of security fears.

Even more vital has been Algeria’s support to Tunisia in fighting the terrorist threat that lurked in the border mountains.

In a recent interview with Al Arabiya television, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi described his country’s relationship with both Algeria and Libya as that of “one people in two states.”

In this three-state constellation, Tunisia has been always too absorbed by its own domestic concerns to worry much about developments in the neighbouring countries.

That changed in recent weeks. Tunisians have been shyly coming to terms with the fact that Algeria was undergoing a dramatic leadership transition that they could not avoid comparing to their own 2011 regime change. More than anything else, their debates have reflected admiration for Algeria’s mostly peaceful protests, at variance with the violence that traumatised them during their days of turmoil.

When Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar announced April 4 that he was marching on Tripoli, questions quickly arose about the implications for Tunisia.

Turmoil or quiet in the country’s backyard is a national security consideration for Tunisia. The situation in both Algeria and Libya and the ability to drive through the common borders are key factors in the livelihood of the thousands of Tunisians who live off cross-border trade. That includes legitimate commercial activity but also trafficking in all kinds of goods. Whatever the judgment passed on them by upper-lip bureaucrats for the legality of their activities — or the lack of it — traders-on-wheels have provided jobs and income when the formal economy could not.

Those Tunisians who have become used to customers, patients and tourists with Algerian and Libyan accents breathing life into their businesses have been monitoring the news much more than reporters and diplomats. They figure they have a lot at stake. They live each day as one people in three states.