Tunisia’s delicate “neutrality” in the face of the Libyan conflict

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Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed in Tunis, February 20, 2020.

Tunisia values ​​its sovereignty as much as that of Libya and will not be the rear base of any camp. It is a wishful thinking that Kaïs Saïed, president of the Republic, expressed Friday June 5 to Emmanuel Macron during a telephone exchange. It is certainly difficult for Tunis to remain safe from the war in Libya, which is increasingly fracturing regional geopolitics.

Should we support Marshal Khalifa Haftar who launched the assault on Tripoli in April 2019 in the name of the fight ” anti-islamist “And” anti-terrorist “? Or rather the government of “national agreement” (GAN) of Faïez Sarraj, recognized by the international community and which claims to defend the ” democracy ” against the “ military dictatorship “?

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We find more and more the injunction to choose between two great schools of thought, militarily opposed, in the rhetoric of the different political factions in Tunisia “Notes Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Clingendael (Netherlands). Tunisia thus finds itself summoned to choose between the two regional axes to which the Libyan belligerents are affiliated.

On the one hand, the pro-Haftar Arab conservative regimes, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Saudi Arabia, three states which advocate, according to the researcher, a totally vertical authoritarianism, with no place for civil society or a multiparty system ” This coalition is supported, for different reasons and to varying degrees, by Russia and France.

“Malignant forces” in the region

In the camp opposite – pro-GAN in Tripoli – is active Erdogan’s Turkey from the matrix of political Islam, “An increasingly authoritarian parliamentary system that has nothing to do with the Saudi regime “, Said Mr. Harchaoui, and Qatar, close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

These two opposing camps agree on one point, assures Mr. Harchaoui: ” The presumption that Tunisia should not stay as it is. “His pluralist and democratic model is less and less tolerated “, He adds. Beyond the choice imposed between these two Sunni authoritarianisms, it is the United States which recently tried to put Tunisia before the fait accompli.

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In a statement from Africom – the US Army Command for Africa – released on May 29, Tunisia was implicitly ranked on the American side, against “ malignant forces “In the region, with the Russians in the firing line, which, according to Africom,” add fuel to the fire on the Libyan conflict

Turkey was even more insistent, as illustrated by Erdogan’s visit to Tunis in late December 2019. ” When Erdogan arrives in the Tunisian capital accompanied by his intelligence chief and senior officers, it is done knowingly In order to force the hand of the Tunisian authorities. ” In the political narrative of foreign powers, especially Western, we find the theme of the lack of preparation of President Kaïs Saïed, presented as naive and clumsy “Reports Jalel Harchaoui. This perceptible cynicism within the two foreign coalitions operating in Libya is “Dangerous”, adds the researcher, because the Tunisian presidency could be destabilized.

Heightened tensions

The injunction to take a stand on the mined Libya issue is precisely what Kaïs Saïed is trying to avoid. Youssef Chérif, researcher in international relations, sees however in the posture of the Tunisian presidency “ colander neutrality “, because “ it is difficult to control everything in a democratic context

The election of Kaïs Saïed in the fall of 2019 had reshuffled the cards of the Tunisian political game by short-circuiting the dividing line between “ Islamists “And” modernists ” Lacking notable political experience, an international network and a partisan structure, Mr. Saïed presented a new profile which enabled him to win the election. But it was not long before he was confronted with these same partisan logics in the field of external relations.

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Tensions have heightened in particular around the Libyan issue. “ The head of state is not interested in diplomacy, underlines Mr. Chérif. He leaves the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to manage day-to-day affairs. But he does not want to let people outside of this ministry venture into foreign relations

Thus, the regional activism of Rached Ghannouchi, president of Ennahda, a party from the Islamist matrix, has been embarrassing for the head of state. President of the Assembly, Mr. Ghannouchi sees his actions as official, although diplomacy is not his prerogatives. One of these gestures most criticized in Tunisia, in particular on the part of the Arab nationalist current hostile to the Moslem Brothers, was its telephone call congratulating Faïez Sarraj, the head of the GAN of Tripoli, the day after the taking on May 18 of Al-Watiyah air base in Tripolitania, previously held by pro-Haftar forces.

Ideological bipolarization

“Mr. Ghannouchi still works in the same Turkish-Qatari network that was his before becoming president of the Assembly”, precise Adnan Mancer, president of the Center for Strategic Studies on the Maghreb (Cesma). Mr. Ghannouchi fed “A rivalry on this axis with President Saïed”, added Mancer, who was chief of staff between 2011 and 2013 for former head of state Moncef Marzouki.

MEPs did not long resist the internationalization of internal debates. Wednesday, June 3, the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP) sharply polarized on the Libyan question, with the supporters of the Turkish-Qatari axis (pro-Sarraj) exchanging invectives with the supporters of the Emiro axis -Russian (pro-Haftar), during a debate of twenty hours around a resolution denouncing “ any foreign intervention in Libya “.

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The text had been tabled by Abir Moussi, the president of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), nostalgic for the regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, overthrown by the 2011 revolution. In reality, only Turkish-Qatari interventionism was specifically criticized .

Aligning with the UAE speech, Mme Moussi shot red bullets at Mr. Ghannouchi and his party Ennahda, criticized as a satellite of “The international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood” and guilty in his eyes of disloyalty to the fatherland. If its resolution failed to garner a majority, it nevertheless garnered 94 votes, a support going far beyond the only parliamentary group of the PDL (16 elected). Also, Mme Moussi can boast of relative success. It will have succeeded in imposing its terms of the debate and fixed the dividing line opposing the “Anti-Muslim Brotherhood” to the “Ennahda satellites” who would endorse foreign interventions.

Thus, the ideological bipolarization which had fractured Tunisia in 2013 around political Islam has resurfaced in favor of this Libyan controversy. Is another way possible? The Democratic Current, a social democratic party affiliated with the government coalition and which has made itself known in the anti-corruption fight, tried to offer an alternative by not taking part in the ARP vote. But the inaudible option only drew criticism, leaving the new divide gaping.

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