Tunisia in the Libyan tempest

A file picture taken on April 18, 2014, shows Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA) deputies attending a parliament session in Tunis. (Photo: AFP-Fethi Belaid)

Published Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The latest events in Libya put the Tunisian government in a difficult position in front of its neighbors. The painful blow to Libya’s Islamists by General Khalifa Haftar, leaves Tunisia as the only country in its region with an Islamist orientation supportive of the Turkish-Qatari axis.

Paris: On Tuesday, Tunisian authorities denied rumors that the head of the Tripoli Military Council in Libya, Abdelhakim Belhadj, was prevented from entering the country through Carthage International Airport in Tunis. However, they did not deny that the Libyan commander was present on Tunisian soil as the authorities in Libya are facing the worst crisis since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

Tunisians do not want Belhadj in their country

Despite close friendships with a number of influential politicians in Tunisia, several human rights activists suspected Belhadj of involvement in the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid. In a press conference on 2 November 2013, head of the initiative to uncover the truth behind the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, lawyer al-Tayeb al-Uqaili accused the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) of involvement in both crimes. He spoke about the close ties between Belhadj and officials from Ennahda and the banned radical group Ansar al-Sharia.

Recently, Tunisian journal Essour reported that Belhadj was being hosted in the camps of the Green Mountain and al-Breiqa, which trained Tunisian jihadis involved in the attack on the petroleum field in Ain Amenas, in southern Algeria. Quoting an Algerian security source involved in the investigation of the attack, the journal wrote that terrorist elements are being trained in a camp in Nalout. They are supervised by Belhadj and Abou Dujaba to prepare for suicide and bombing operations in Tunisia, Algeria, and Mali.

Haftar’s shadow follows Belhadj

The Tripoli Military Council’s leader would often defend his visits to Tunisia by saying he was being treated in its hospitals. He argued that his visits to al-Nahda leader Rachid al-Ghannouchi, former Prime Minister Ali al-Arid, and former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali were out of courtesy.



However, Belhadj’s latest visit comes as General Khalifa Haftar is starting to represent a serious threat to the Libyan government and the capital Tripoli. There are grounds to believe that Belhadj came to Tunisia in search of political and diplomatic support to break Libya’s isolation among its neighbors, since neither Egypt’s authorities nor those in Algeria are willing to come to the rescue. 

Interim Tunisian president and head of the armed forces, Moncef Marzouki, contacted the head of the Libyan General National Congress Nouri Abusahmain by phone on Sunday evening. He expressed support of Libya “against all threats to its legitimate institutions.” As Belhadj arrived in Tunisia, a high-ranking security delegation of Tunisian officials was heading to Algeria, with the aim of mutual coordination on intelligence and military matters related to the Libyan crisis.

Libya: an internal and external threat?

Tunisia hosts hundreds of thousands of Libyans. According the Tunisian interior minister following the Tunisian Higher Security Council meeting, their number has reached almost 1.9 million people. In turn, Libya hosts hundreds of thousands of Tunisians. The borders between the two countries have remained unstable, since the beginning of the Libyan revolution, particularly since they are controlled by al-Zintan Brigades loyal to Haftar.

Several reports and leaks considered Libya to be the main supplier of weapons arriving into Tunisia. Libya has also become the base for Ansar al-Sharia, who had been restrained in Tunisia, in addition to hosting jihadi training camps.

Faced with this situation, and the Tunisian leadership’s clear bias towards the anti-Haftar camp, especially the president and al-Nahda, observers are worried about the situation in the country flaring up and becoming a geographic extension of the struggle in Libya. They fear that the Libyan opposition could punish Tunisia for its leadership breaking its obligation of remaining neutral.

Difficult equation

Tunisia played a pivotal role in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Being loyal to the Turkish-Qatari axis, it was the first country to kick out the Syrian ambassador and welcome the “friends of Syria” conference. From the beginning, Tunisia was on the opposite side of the axis to which Algeria belongs to.

Tunisia did not seek Algeria’s permission or military cooperation when it facilitated the transfer of NATO’s weapons to Libya and allowed Qatar to establish a training camp on its territories. On the contrary, this constituted a threat to Algeria’s security. However, Libya is currently surrounded by the Egyptian army of [ Abdul Fattah] al-Sisi to the east and Algeria to the west. Its internal crisis could only extend into Tunisia. Regardless of the final outcome of the struggle over power in Libya, Tunisia will not be exempt from paying the tax of war.

The fall of the Libyan General National Congress, after the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood and the failure to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria is the end of the dream of the Arab Spring and will be the imminent fall of the Tunisian troika. War does not serve political interests in Tunisia, so the authorities are beginning to coordinate with Algeria. Tunisia’s tense diplomatic relations with Egypt do not allow for asking it to mediate with the Libyans. The only option is Algeria, in the aim of asking Haftar to take off his military fatigues and sit at the negotiating table.

But will Algeria accept this? It is more likely that Belhadj’s trip to Tunisia to look for an exit to the Libyan isolation, will end up deepening the isolation of Tunisia in its surroundings and weakening its political leadership. However, in Tunisia, those leaders will not require someone like Sisi or Haftar to remove them from power. Despite the setbacks, popular mobilization, which removed Ben Ali, still keeps its revolutionary spark.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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