Why are Tunisians fretting over NATO strikes in Libya?

Friday 19/02/2016

With foreign military intervention in Libya looming, attitudes in neighbouring Tunisia are divided. If the government’s stance is clear, that of civil society and political activists is split.

The government is firmly against military intervention in Libya and continues to oppose the use of Tunisian soil for logisti­cal support. The government, however, sensing that an inter­vention is imminent, appears to have softened its position but is demanding to be informed before the launch of operations. This can only mean that a military inter­vention is almost certain.

Tunisian civil society and politi­cal activists, on the other hand, seem to be divided among three camps:

— There are those on the left of the political spectrum along with Arab nationalists. They consider a Western military intervention in Libya a clear threat to Arab na­tional security and an unjustified imperialistic aggression, basically a remake of the Iraqi scenario.

— The second camp is that of the inhabitants near the Tunisian- Libyan border, regardless of their political inclinations. These fear military operations will last long, and severely hurt their livelihoods since they rely on daily trade be­tween the two countries.

— The third camp includes the general public and the silent majority. These do not see any disadvantages to Tunisia in the military intervention in Libya. On the contrary, they think an intervention will not make it any worse for Libyans who are already going through an undeclared civil war anyway.

With respect to the Islamic State (ISIS), a military intervention cannot worsen the situation since the extremist group has amassed forces in Sabratha, 70km from the Tunisian border. Without foreign military intervention, it is feared that ISIS fighters in Sabratha would find their way into Tunisia. Wild rumours are floating around about thousands of fake passports in circulation.

A lot of speculation is cen­tred on the start of the military intervention. Contrary to media reports, it does not seem likely that any intervention will take place soon. Most likely, it will hap­pen only when certain conditions are met.

First, the Tobruk parliament must approve the new govern­ment of Prime Minister-designate Faiez al-Sarraj.

Second, the newly formed government must request military help from Western countries in its war against terrorists in Libya. It must also request weapons and equipment for the Libyan Army.

Third, the new Libyan govern­ment must agree to pay for the war and the cost of armament con­tracts for the Libyan Army.

Under these conditions, military intervention in Libya will be less of a burden to Tunisia.

The number of Libyan refugees entering Tuni­sia will be in the tens of thousands rather than in the hundreds of thousands as some predict.

It is very likely that the Tuni­sian government will deal with the waves of refugees by building refugee camps near the Libyan border. The government will also be taking other security measures, such as checking identities of refu­gees and sending non-Libyans to their respective countries. A closer monitoring of the unofficial border crossing points will be in place to prevent infiltration by terrorists from Libya.

The Munich meeting on Febru­ary 13th did not set a date for the beginning of military operations, although some analysts think it will take place by the end of the spring.

It is unlikely the majority of Libyans will oppose a military strike that would break the backs of the terrorist groups. They worry nonetheless about the real cost of this foreign intervention.

Most Tunisians wish for an end to the terrorist threat from their southern borders and for a quick recovery of economic exchange between the two countries. They wish to take part in rebuilding the Libyan economy and for the return to Libya of tens of Tunisian com­panies that used to operate there.

Tunisians naturally hope that the Libyan population lends its support to a unity government. By doing so, they could lessen the negative effects of a foreign mili­tary intervention and speed up the elimination of terror in their country.