Shifting relations between Tunisia, Libya

Relations between neighboring Tunisia and Libya are currently tense due to Tunisia’s recent decision to reopen its consulate in Islamist-controlled Tripoli.

al-monitor A border official checks passports at the Ras Jdir border, between Libya and Tunisia, west of Tripoli, Dec. 15, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny.

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tunisian government, refugees, libyan fighters, khalifa hifter, islamists, border

May 29, 2015

Tunisia’s relations with Libya have gone through its ups and downs. Following the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, Tunisia established solid and harmonious ties with the new authorities in Libya. However, as developments progressed in the country, these ties went sour. The decision to reopen the Tunisian consulate in Tripoli was not easy.

Since February 2011, when the war erupted in Libya, our country has welcomed thousands of Libyan refugees escaping the battles. Despite the harsh economic situation and the security risks posed by these refugees, Tunisia left its borders open and never rejected any Libyan who sought refuge [in Tunisia] with their family.

Many Libyans found in Tunisia a safe and comfortable haven in which to live peacefully, away from the violent confrontations that have been raging in Libya for more than four years now, and away from the fighting in their cities.

The Tunisian authorities tried as much as they could to treat these refugees as their own citizens. Several Libyan students were enrolled in Tunisian public schools in 2011 so they could continue their education, just like [other] children their age. Libyans also benefit from products subsidized by the taxpayer, just like all other foreigners residing in Tunisia, and at the same price offered to Tunisians — knowing that this constitutes an extra cost to the [Tunisian] compensation fund.

Official relations between Tunisia and Libya remained good since the rules of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Gadhafi, and up until after the Libyan revolution. Tunisian hospitality has certainly played an important role in these [friendly] relations. However, the political support Tunisia provided for the transitional authorities in Libya back then [after the revolution], remains the most significant element in the solidity of these [Tunisian-Libyan] relations. In this regard, Tunisia was among the first countries to have recognized the National Transitional Council.

Since then, Tunisia’s official position has always been in support of the elected authorites. All Tunisian presidents and heads of government have made it clear in their declarations that they support “legitimacy” in Libya. Every time the opportunity presented itself, they would call for dialogue between the various parties to the Libyan conflict, without ever recognizing an authority other than the one elected.

After [Tunisan] journalists Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Guetari were taken hostage [in Libya], [Tunisian] relations with Libyan authorities witnessed minor tension, but no visible diplomatic incidents took place and no harsh remarks were exchanged. During an interview with the parliament speaker of Tobruk in October [2014], former Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi held the [Libyan] speaker responsible for the security of the two [journalists]. In January 2015, the former [Tunisian] head of the government, Mehdi Jomaa, called on the Libyan deputy prime minister of Tobruk and his government to “meet their responsibilities.”

After a few months, relations between Tunisia and the authorities in Tobruk were again destabilized. A military aircraft from Gen. Khalifa Hifter's army violated Tunisia’s airspace. The aircraft accidently entered our airspace and left only a few seconds after. Tunisia promptly responded to this incident. The message was firm and clear: “Next time, the plane will be shot down,” the State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Touhami Abdouli said on the Tunis 24/7 show. In the same context, the Tobruk government representative in Tunisia was summoned to condemn this incursion.

Things did not end there. Tension between Tobruk and Tunis further escalated when Omar al-Gouiri, the president of the Libyan Information Authority, insulted Tunisia and its president. On May 15, he wrote on his Facebook page: “[Beji Caid] Essebsi will be set on fire, burned and turned into ashes because Libya is like a fire. It burns anyone who undermines it or speaks evil of it.”

Two days after this post, Gouiri appeared on television and asked Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to intervene in Tunisia to rid it of Turkish hegemony and “set the compass in the right direction.” He added that Libyans living in Tunisia owe nothing to Tunisians. “They get no charity from anyone. They pay for all the services provided to them: housing and [health] care.”

The next day, the [Tunisian] presidency’s spokesman, Moez Sinaoui, responded to this inflammatory declaration, saying, “These are irresponsible declarations from an irresponsible person.” On May 19, he said on Mosaique FM that Gouiri’s statements are low and do not deserve a reply. Sinaoui said, “We called them [Libyan officials], and they disavowed him [Gouiri]. Even deputies from the Tobruk parliament denounced his statements.” Did Libyans really disavow [Gouiri’s] statements? And if they did, what’s in it for them to disavow this official over the phone? Why wasn’t the disavowal made public?

The reopening of the Tunisian consulate in Tripoli, which is under the grip of Islamists, is the reason behind the tense relations. The Tobruk authorities did not appreciate the fact that Tunisia established relations with their enemy in the west. The authorities see this as diplomatic recognition. The meeting between Essebsi and Ali al-Sallabi, a leader of Fajr Libya, revived tensions between Tunis and Tobruk. [The authorities] saw this not only as recognition of the “power” in the west, but also as normalization with it.

Tunisia announced through its foreign minister that it seeks to preserve a neutral attitude toward what is happening in Libya, to justify the reactivation of the consulate in Tripoli. However, more credible reasons are behind this decision. Let us not forget that our bordering neighbor is Fajr Libya and not the Tobruk government. Thus, Tunisia is somehow forced to deal with the Islamists that are skulking along the border, as some say.

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