With the emergence of a political solution in Libya, the security concerns that have weighed on Tunisian political decision-makers over the past decade are receding. The new policy aims to strengthen economic and developmental bilateral cooperation. This ambitious political solution, however, faces many obstacles such as fierce competition between regional and international actors and the absence of a clear vision for Tunisia’s economic role in Libya’s state institutions.
The Libyan crisis is unquestionably the most pressing contemporary issue for Tunisian diplomacy. The features of the problem transcend the usual dimensions of foreign policy and fall under the “geopolitical borders” concept, especially concerning the economic-development sides during peacetime and the security aspect during the phases of political and military turmoil.
Borders represent “a large part of the state’s political balance”, according to Friedrich Ratzel, the founding father of geopolitics. Therefore, gaining control over the border regions and comprehensively integrating them into the formal economy is an indicator of cohesive internal state structures and the durability of a national strategic vision.
It is not easy to decipher the Tunisian foreign policy towards Libya. This is due to the extremely unstable and complex regional and international environment, the multidimensional nature of Tunisian diplomacy, and the complimentary, at times inconsistent, approaches adopted by different state-level institutions. All post-revolution Tunisian governments have adopted a nonintervention policy, based on prioritizing security, or “ensuring security”, at the expense of establishing a modern development model which would replace the rentier economy and the parallel trade and smuggling economic activities that flourished on both sides of the border throughout the 2000s.
These security, political, and economic structural challenges have an impact on both state and society. It is therefore vital to adopt an innovative approach to address this problem through official institutions or economic and social actors, whose role has proven crucial to the development of bilateral relations and the support of official “popular and economic diplomacy” efforts.
The impact of the unstable diplomacy on Tunisia’s economic prospects
Institutional conflict threatens cooperation on Tunisian decision-making on Libya and security issues
The weakening of the Tunisian military during the years of dictatorship  created several strategic and operational deficiencies which have negatively impacted its ability to manage the security threats caused by the Libyan crisis. The successive post-revolution governments have relied on international cooperation to develop the military’s counterterrorism and border security capabilities. This has included the creation of the military buffer zone on the Libyan borders with equipment, such as motion detectors, cameras, ground surveillance radars, and equipped airships with infrared optical sensors, funded by the US DTRADefense Threat Reduction Agency  and the German Armed Forces. However, this support serves other interests beyond logistics, such as asylum applications, combating illegal immigration, and intelligence gathering in a strategic area. This undermines the effectiveness of Tunisia’s national security strategy.
On the other hand, the Tunisian agencies have created a preventive security intelligence system that spans approximately 100 km along the Libyan border. This system aims to collect information about the various Libyan factions present in the West through actively monitoring social networks. This system, however, does not provide the Tunisian intelligence services with information about the political and military situation in eastern Libyan, which is necessary for providing a complete overview of the situation in Libya.
The process of managing the security threat from Libya has also highlighted the communication and intelligence sharing deficiencies between the police and the military. These deficiencies have negatively affected some security operations and the ability to speed up decision-making in terms of access to information. These issues have been publicly discussed within the Security and Defense Committee in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People.
While the Tunisian defense strategy focuses on terrorist threats, there are other non-conventional threats, such as the possibility of drones, of which there are many in Libya, entering Tunisian airspace.
In addition, the Tunisian authorities should keep up to date with the progress of the Libyan “5+5” Joint Military Committee meetings that are taking place in the Libyan city of Sirte. Following these meetings, it was agreed to expel various foreign mercenaries from the Libyan territory and to reconsider unifying the forces that protect the oil production facilities. Discussions regarding unifying the Libyan customs system and the border forces, such as the Al-Zawraa Brigades who control the Ras Ajdir crossing, and the Amazigh National Mobile Force who control the Dhahiba-Wazen crossing in the Nalut area, have been postponed.
On the political level, contradictory visions and the lack of coherence between Tunisian institutions have hampered Tunisia’s effectiveness in the Libyan crisis. This is partly due to political or ideological differences related to supporting different sides in the Libyan conflict. These differences have been made apparent by actors in diplomatic positions, for example, when on April 10, 2020, Imad Al-Hizk, former Tunisian Defense Minister, described the forces controlling the Libyan side of the Ras Jdir crossing as militias. His statement caused strong condemnation from the Libyan Government of National Accord, especially since it came shortly before the defeat of Haftar’s forces in the border region.
Additionally, the “Tunisia Peace Initiative“, organized by the Presidency on December 22, 2019, was not well prepared and failed to include a sufficient plurality of Libyan groups. Its scope of action was limited to containing some Libyan tribes (most of whom were pro-Haftar). This initiative did not adhere to the neutrality approach on which Tunisian diplomacy has been defined. A more comprehensive and inclusive approach could have brought civil society, political, and municipality actors together intending to find a political solution to the crisis.
The Tunisia Peace Initiative was also followed by a set of resignations within the presidential team. General Muhammad al-Saleh al-Hamdi announced his resignation on April 1, 2020, which followed the dismissal of Tariq Battayeb, the former manager of the Libyan portfolio in the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from presidential office meetings. This raised serious questions about the departure of two advisors who were very familiar with the Libyan case and were known for having extensive contacts within the political and military structure. Also, their departure limited the prospects for political consultations with the Presidency of the Republic at an important stage in the Libyan conflict.
Moreover, the President of the Republic and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not sped up the process of filling diplomatic vacancies in some influential positions, such as the French Embassy. They also have not taken advantage of Tunisia’s role as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, from 2020-2022, to provide serious proposals on the Libyan crisis.
Numerous issues have publically, and embarrassingly, revealed a large degree of instability, notably with the exclusion of former Tunisian representatives from the Council, an inappropriate measure that runs counter to diplomatic protocols.
Conflicting political positions and faltering diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict
Cases of unsuccessful political interference have hampered the prospects for cooperation between Tunisia and Libya. For instance, Abir Moussi, the head of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), presented a controversial parliamentary bill to criminalize the Turkish intervention, a criticism that should have condemned any forms of interference, international or regional, in Libya. Despite the bill’s lack of any legal value, it coincided with the Government of National Accord (GNA) forces taking control of Tripoli International Airport and recapturing territories in western Libya, who criticized this move on their media platforms.
At the diplomatic level, Tunisia tried to support the UN peace plan through the Tunisian-Algerian-Egyptian Tripartite Initiative, which was an attempt to complement the diplomatic effort for the Skhirat Agreement in Morocco in 2015. However, this initiative proved unsuccessful due to disagreement between the three states. Egypt, in particular, has tried several times to frame this agreement in favor of its ally in the eastern region. There was a serious lack of diplomatic support for this initiative in Libya, it was discussed at an international level.
Tunisia tried to overcome its late diplomatic intervention and absence from several important international stations, such as the Berlin Conference on January 19, 2020 by hosting the last phase of peace talks at the UN Mission in Libya, which based in Tunisia, following previous rounds which took place in Montreux (Switzerland) and Bouznika (Morocco). Although the extent to which Tunisia national institutions organized this meeting remains unknown, there was certainly pressure from many Libyan parties to host the conference on Tunisian soil rather than in Geneva, where the meetings were originally planned to take place.
The discussion between the Libyan parties at the Tunis meeting focused on the draft presented by the United Nations mission. A number of fundamental issues were agreed upon during the meeting including forming a new unified transitional government to supervise the next elections, on an agreed date of December 14, 2021. Also, the meeting led to decisions on the separation of the Presidential Council from the government and to defining the role of the council as supreme leader of the Libyan army.
Furthermore, it led to an agreement on the appointment or dismissal of the incumbents of the position of the head of the General Intelligence Service, and members of the National Reconciliation Commission. The meeting also led to an agreement to undertake an examination of the obstacles hindering the vote on the Constitution.
Even though these negotiations did not succeed in appointing candidates for all positions, this constitutes the final step prior to signing a new declaration. The Tunisian state, notably, did not take advantage of this opportunity to arrange further activities to accompany the conference or promote meetings between Libyan and Tunisian businessmen or organize societal level parallel dialogues. These would have provided the political dialogue with a wider and more inclusive dimension.
Economic aspects: The cost of the Libyan crisis on the Tunisian economy
According to the World Bank, the 24% decline in Tunisia’s GDP between 2011 and 2015 is due to the Libyan crisis. During this period, the Tunisian economy recorded losses of 8.8 billion dinars. The effects were felt particularly in the foreign investment and tourism sectors which suffered 60% and 36% losses respectively.
In a survey conducted by the Tunisian Institute for Competitiveness and Quantitative Studies (ITCEQ) in 2015, 47% of the 833 institutions questioned said that the Libyan crisis is the first major obstacle to economic growth in Tunisia. Furthermore, Libya purchases 70% of Tunisia’s exports. Nearly 1,300 Tunisian companies have been affected by the decline in trade with Libya, especially for companies specialized in food whose commission value ranges between 50,000 and 50million dinars. Also, Tunisian real estate development companies and cement companies have recorded losses amounting approximately to one billion dollars since 2011.
Due to the unstable diplomatic position, Tunisian investments are facing intense competition from many influential countries at the regional level, especially Turkey, which has taken advantage of the military and economic agreements it signed with the Government of National Accord to control 80% of the food products in the Libyan commercial spaces, where the Turkish market exported an estimated $1.9 billion of produce during 2019.
Commercial competition has also affected the energy sector, oil exploration, and reform of the electrical sector, which has faced severe problems since 2016. The Turkish energy company Karadeniz announced the supply of up to 1000 megawatts to Libya amid the absence of Tunisian companies. The creation of the Turkish-Libyan Trade Platform in October 2020, which included mainly infrastructure projects intending to reach nearly $10 billion in trade exchanges between the two countries, will also lead to more difficulties for Tunisian real estate companies and companies to regain their previous position in the Libyan market.
In addition to the aforementioned factors, many other losses resulted from the long-term closure of borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Fruit export rates, for example, fell by nearly half (15,573 tons compared to about 33 thousand tons in the same period in 2019). Tunisia tried to bypass the continuous and recurrent closure of the Tunisian borders with Libya since March 2020 by operating shipping lines to fulfill the economic obligations of Tunisian producers towards the Libyan side, particularly from Sfax to Tripoli). This occurred after protests from traders and activists in the Ben Gardane area who closed certain parts of the border in reaction to the economic crisis caused by the spread of Covid-19 in both countries.
At the strategic level, the Tunisian side sought to create alternative solutions to the local economy based on smuggling and parallel trade with Libya within a new approach to development in the border regions. This is evidenced by the Environmental and Sustainable Development Plan in the Medenine governorate that was drafted by the Ministry of Equipment in cooperation with the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). It aimed to create local trade hubs and officially develop Libyan-Tunisian cooperation through a free trade exchange area in the Shousha region near the Ras Jedir border crossing.
This ambitious project aims to develop trade levels between the two countries to reach 3.9 million tons by 2030. The project contains two parts: one dedicated to logistics and the other to the commercial aspect in order to contribute to the employment of local labor. However, the project was subject to many administrative obstacles and a lack of funding sources. In addition, the plan is limited to the commercial and tourism areas, such as establishing a tourist area near the port of Al Kutuf, and has neglected many other areas that would contribute to the long-term development of the region.
The technological sector, for example, could lead to economic diversity in the region and contribute to a participatory framework that could attract local capital and integrate the parallel sector into the formal state economy and the tax system.
In addition, infrastructure projects, such as completing the remaining installments of the Gabes-Ras Jdir road (especially the second installment) between Kittana and Marath, and the fourth installment between Kotin and Medenine), have been disrupted which has added the deterioration of the main roads in the town of Ben Gardane.
The strategic vision and proposed solutions
The dynamics of the local community in the border area: an actor in “popular diplomacy”, but absent from the development model
In the absence of a real development vision to effectively integrate the southeastern region into the official economy of the Tunisian state, the parallel economy, based on smuggling, has provided the border area with considerable economic and financial weight.
Illegal activities were largely controlled by the Libyan and Tunisian authorities before the revolution, to prevent the smuggling of drugs and weapons but the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in both countries resulted in an array of new actors, especially on the Libyan side. The Amazigh brigades in Zuwara and Jabal Nafusa, which controlled the Ras Jadir and Wazen crossings, have replaced the tribal parties from the time of the Gaddafi regime from the Mahamid and Nawail tribes (in the towns of Zulton, Raqdalin and Al-Jamil) or Al-Sayan in the Tiji and Badr regions. They previously benefited from the influence of Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, Secretary of the General People’s Committee during the time of its popular rule to extend their smuggling networks. Therefore, the two sides positioned themselves in opposing camps during the Libyan civil war, according to their emerging or lacking economic interests. This led to repercussions on the Tunisian side of the border where Tunisian merchants faced repeated threats and extortion while passing through security checkpoints of the various armed factions on the border.
Local political alignments appeared to support one or another group, which further harmed civil peace in the region. These divisions became apparent during the 2019 municipal election campaign in the city of Ben Gardane, where events escalated and some clashes took place between the supporters of the Ennahda movement and supporters of an independent list. The Ennahda movement supports the Government of National Accord, and thus the city of Zuwara in particular, most of whom are part of the civil service sector and the official economy of the Tunisian state. The independent list is supported by some nationalists and funded by some businessmen who have profited from smuggling and the parallel economy. Most of these businessmen maintain a close relationship with certain tribal militias that support the former regime and who supported the forces of Khalifa Haftar in their recent attack on Tripoli.
The Tunisian local community, in particular civil society associations, representatives of some political parties in the region, and municipalities, have tried to communicate with influential parties in the western region of Libya to solve some of the problems related to security, border closures, and trade. These initiatives occurred sometimes with and sometimes without central authority, but with central coordination during advanced stages. For example, the joint committee between the municipalities of Zuwara and Ben Gardane, was created on December 13, 2019 with the aims of developing relations between the two countries, lifting obstacles to the free movement of people and goods, and preparing for the conclusion of a twinning agreement. This agreement is considered an extension and amendment of a previous agreement in which local NGOs and notables from Ben Gardane participated with representatives of Zuwara and the rest of the border cities on January 27, 2017. However, such attempts, despite their ambition, remain constrained by the trade problems and social divides that persist in the Libyan border region.
Rather than waiting for a political solution, which could be continuously delayed, Tunisia must initiate new economic diplomacy that aims to sign further bilateral agreements and establish a permanent Libyan-Tunisian economic council to govern the trade at the Ras Jedir crossing on the Tunisian side and helps reduce the economic crisis on the border area.
The Tunisian state has an opportunity to support its national security strategy by helping the Libyan state adopt a complete political approach that includes all tribal or social components in the western region. This should aim to overcome the conflicts and divisions fueled by regional interventions during the recent conflict and replace them with a political project that establishes the conditions for full democratic citizenship. Tunisia can provide scientific and administrative expertise at the level of building Libyan institutions, facilitate the entry of national capital to that region, and strengthen its link through an institutional and official framework with the border region in Tunisia. This will positively affect the national economy and civil peace in the Tunisian border area.
It is also necessary to develop academic and scientific cooperation between educational institutions in both countries. Furthermore, strong relations will facilitate the exportation of Tunisian expertise to Libya during the state rebuilding stage in addition to creating strategic plans for the entry of Tunisian technical and informational companies (startups) to the Libyan market under the current weak presence of foreign competing companies in this economic sector specifically inside Libya.
At the local level, there is an urgent need to overcome the various administrative and technical obstacles that have delayed the creation of the Free Trade Zone in the Shousha region as well as encourage economic diplomacy to search for funds for related infrastructure projects. It is also important to develop a common tourism and environmental plan for the Tunisian-Libyan border region that benefits from the richness and diversity of natural and historical reserves in the Tunisian southeast region, such as desert palaces, Djerba Island, Lake Biban, and the Roman city in Sabratha in the Libyan border region.
The Tunisian policy towards Libya needs a comprehensive approach that transcends security or defense concerns and protects the interests of citizens and the community.
While the Tunisian state tried to compensate for a lack of progress by announcing in late December 2020 a full economic program to restore cooperation with Libya, according to Shihab ben Ahmed, Director of the National Center for the Advancement of Exports, and to organize joint forums for Libyan and Tunisian businessmen, the state’s political approach should also be reviewed. Tunisia requires more coordination between the various state institutions and openness to the local community in the border regions.
At the government level:
Develop the infrastructure to aid economic integration with Libya through:
- Accelerating the completion of technical studies related to the preparation of the free trade and logistics zone in Ras Jedir and initiating the provision of the necessary financing for the project.
- Expanding the participatory space for the local civil society in the border region to be a constant and powerful actor in the development process and solving problems related to human and economic mobility.
- Establishing an appropriate infrastructure for economic investment in the southeast region and the search for financing for the “Jorf-Ajim Bridge” projects and the railway between Gabes and Ras Jedir, and the completion of the Gabes-Ras Jedir highway as soon as possible, with special attention to the road network in the city of Ben Gardane which has significantly deteriorated.
At the level of coordination between the three presidencies:
- Unifying the perspectives of the state’s institutions on Libya, avoiding ideological and political disputes with regard to national decisions, and carefully following all diplomatic and military developments in connection to regional and international changes.
- Accelerating the conclusion of agreements with Libyan parties, especially on the commercial side, to eliminate various potential commercial competitors.
At the level of the Ministry of Local Affairs and Border Municipalities:
- Developing an integrated border space by strengthening twinning agreements and joint projects between border municipalities and creating a new space for cooperation between different regions to overcome the divisions resulting from the rent economy and the recent military conflict.
On the academic level and research groups:
- Working on establishing Tunisian study centers with a professional prospect, specialized in Maghrebi and Libyan studies to support and guide national decision-makers and to enhance academic and scientific exchange between Tunisia and Libya.
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