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Tunisia-Libya: Closer Ties Between the Two Neighbours in 2023?

As fighting between rival militias resumed in the capital of Tripolitania on 14 August, Tunisia showed its unwavering support for Libya’s Government of National Unity (GNU led by Abdulhamid Dabeiba, the entity’s prime minister since 13 March 2021) by taking in several people wounded in the recent clashes in the Libyan capital from 20 August onwards. Since Kaïs Saïed’s coup de force on 25 July 2021, Tunisia has been experiencing a series of crises in all areas, affecting its economic, political and social stability.

It is in this context that the extent of relations between Tunis and the government in Tripoli raises questions, particularly as regards the duplicity of relations between the two “brotherly” countries. In this sense, 2023 marks a significant rapprochement between the two states, despite the dissensions that remain.

A historical superiority complex on the part of the Tunisians vis-à-vis their Libyan neighbours.

The proximity of Tunisia and Tripolitania, both geographically and in human terms, is a well-established historical fact. The tribes of southern Tunisia and Tripolitania are intrinsically linked and the borders, which are subjective maps, have not made it possible to differentiate the two countries fundamentally. Tunisia and Libya were on the verge of uniting in 1974 to form a new state, the Arab Islamic Republic, a project that was eventually shelved by Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba for fear of a political crisis. Nevertheless, since the 1980s and the more pronounced assertion of the national identities of these two states, Tunisia, historically more open to the international scene, has gradually detached itself from its partnerships with Libya, wishing to retain its tactical neutrality and more stable partnerships.

From 2011 onwards, following the failure of the post-Gaddafi democratic transition, fighting and violence erupted in Libya, leading to the emigration of over a million Libyans to neighbouring Tunisia, which was quick to welcome these refugees, most of whom are still living in Tunisia in 2023. This humanitarian surge, coupled with the distribution of foodstuffs and humanitarian parcels in Libya during the 2010 decade, forged a relative sense of superiority among Tunisians over a Libyan population mired in chaos.

It was in this climate that the Libyan authorities sent a convoy of several lorries loaded with foodstuffs such as flour and oil, which were in short supply in Tunisia, to Tunisia in January. This aid was seen as a humiliation by the Tunisian people, who reacted on social networks: receiving aid from a failed state was seen as an affront. This humanitarian support operation was repeated in April, without upsetting Tunisian opinion.

AFP/MAHMUD TURKIA – Celebrations commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 2011 revolution in Tripoli, Libya 17 February 2021

Towards a new direction for the economic partnership?

Since 2022 and the end of the Covid-19 restrictions on trade, the Tunisian-Libyan economic partnership has accelerated: the Tunisian government has recorded a 67% increase in trade in 2022 compared with 2021, reaching a value of 3,027 million Tunisian dinars (just over €900 million). Libya remains Tunisia’s leading African trading partner. According to figures from the Economic Observatory for Complexity, Tunisian-Libyan trade has increased by almost 46.9% over the last five years, not reaching pre-2011 levels.

The year 2023 also marks an intensification of the economic partnership, with an increasing number of conferences, forums and high-level meetings between political and business representatives, despite successive points of contention. In January, for example, the first Tunisian-Libyan trade fair for the development of industry and commerce was held in Misrata, Tripolitania.

But the most noteworthy initiative of 2023 remains the creation of a Tunisian-Libyan continental trade corridor towards sub-Saharan African countries, announced on 10 August by the two countries’ economy ministers, with particular emphasis on developing the Ras Jedir border zone. Against a backdrop of diversification of its economic partners, Tunisia is currently pursuing a drive to diversify its international partnerships beyond its traditional West European allies. In addition to announcing the creation of this zone, the two parties also shared their intention to form a bilateral commission dedicated to integrating this corridor into the continental African free trade area (the FTAA).

In addition, the recent reunification of the central banks of Libya’s two political entities to form the National Bank of Libya on 22 August bodes well for stimulating a partnership that only requires investment on the part of both governments.

PHOTO/AP – Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, during a press conference Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Tripoli, Libya

The migration challenge, a point of friction between the two states

Since July, the migration issue has resurfaced, resulting in a few crackles on the Tunis-Tripoli line. Tunisia’s policy of turning back irregular sub-Saharan migrants at the Libyan and Algerian borders has drawn the ire of non-governmental and human rights organisations, who accuse Tunisia of flouting human rights by expelling these people by the hundreds at the Ras Jedir border zone, in extreme conditions of almost 50°C.

The reaction of the Libyan authorities, faced with an influx of nearly 700 migrants according to estimates from the Tunisian side, was one that somewhat ruffled Tunis’ feathers. The Libyan border guards published several videos at the end of July, shared on Libyan GUN media such as The Libya Observer, in which they showed themselves rescuing migrants wandering in the desert. Tunisian politicians were quick to react, criticising the choice made by the Libyan authorities and casting a shadow over the relationship.

The calls and meetings that took place during this period did nothing to dispel doubts about the bilateral will to manage the migratory crisis. At the beginning of July, Nabil Ammar and Najla El Mangoush, the Tunisian and Libyan foreign ministers respectively, spoke of the need to cooperate in dealing with “organised crime networks”. This became a reality on 9 August, with the implementation of an agreement between the two parties for the distribution of irregular migrants. At present, the migratory problem seems to have stabilised between Tunis and Tripoli, made more difficult by the recent clashes between armed militias in Tripoli.

PHOTO/AFP/MAHMUD TURKIA – Forces affiliated with the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GUN) deploy after two days of deadly clashes between two rival groups in Libya’s capital, 16 August 2023

Tunisia, in the position of international mediator in the Libyan crisis

Because of its direct border with Libya, Tunisia has often been a base and direct crossing point for humanitarian convoys and military or political operations in Libya, including UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Libya). The main Western embassies and consulates, such as those of France, Germany and Italy, were relocated for much of 2010. Generally speaking, Tunis is therefore the rallying point for all the missions, organisations and think tanks that are directly or indirectly interested in the political situation in Libya.

In March, for example, Tunis hosted a meeting bringing together a number of institutions, including UNMIL, the 5+5 Committee for Libya and the Chiefs of Staff of the GUN and the National Liberation Army (ALN) under Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

At a meeting with the US ambassador to Tunisia and the US special envoy to Libya on 22 August, Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar reiterated Tunisia’s commitment to a settlement of the Libyan political stalemate between the two parties (GUN and Marshal Khalifa Haftar) without foreign intervention. Indeed, further foreign intervention in Libya could Tunisia’s stability and affect its strategic neutrality towards its regional neighbours. Nor should we forget Tunisia’s national security interests, which see the presence of large numbers of foreign troops in Libya on its border as a threat.

So the outlook for Tunisian-Libyan relations remains bright: economic partnerships underway, a definite political rapprochement between Tunis and the GUN, and the certainty of Tunisian neutrality in the Libyan crisis. Nevertheless, Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s invitation to a Russian delegation on 22 August to “discuss an in-depth military partnership” augurs well for the continuation of the latent conflict in Libya, with Haftar’s determination not to leave power in the hands of the Government of National Unity.

Source : Atalayar