The Libyan conflict, which for some time seemed to reach a dead end with General Ḥaftar’s forces closing on the capital, reached a twist recently. For months now there is are reports of Syrian mercenaries in Turkish service shipped in via Turkey fighting for the so-called unity government. They are falling and getting caught in big numbers, even their leaders, even being shipped to Syria to be interrogated there, but they managed to tip the scale of the war once again with Turkish support. While some six months ago it seemed that the government of Fā‘iz as-Sarrāğ could only hold on to its international recognition, but was losing ground fast, by now it is pushing back the forces of General Ḥaftar fast. Which is surprising, given the substantial help Ḥaftar receives from Egypt, the Emirates, even Algeria, which two years ago was threatening to intervene against him. And of course, there is Russia also supporting Ḥaftar. Despite all that and the seeming regional agreement that Ḥaftar is still the “lesser evil” than the other side under heavy Turkish influence, Erdoğan managed to make impressive gains in this regional battlefield.
The Libyan war is on its own is a very complex and controversial matter, ever since it started in 2011. And many of the scandals and crimes committed back in 2011 are still haunting the scene today. We are planning a longer series on the matter for some time now, but the developments keep getting ahead of us. In short, Libya with its long-enduring war ceased to be a local, or internal problem on its own, and has become a rapidly growing battlefield between regional, and by now global powers. As all sides raise the stakes and put more support behind their preferred side, the solution seems farther away with each passing week. As the solution is clearly not in the hands of the Libyans anymore.
This week, however, with news of ever more global interference, it is another country that will be in our focus. That is Tunisia, which has a popular and strongly pro-Arabic president but had a very hard time to form a government after the elections last year and still on shaky grounds. Tunisia still has significant security problems after the infamous terrorist attacks against tourist landmarks 2015, but the biggest problem is by far Libya by now for Tunis. Because more and more powers try to push Tunisia for its own agenda. Turkey desperately needs Tunisia to be the vital support line for its protégées in Libya. This, however, goes along with security concerns. On the other hand, Algeria also pushes Tunisia for cooperation, as it is worried that the chaos would spread there from Libya. And other forces also try to close this Turkish support route.
Between growing outer pressures, a still existing political deadlock and no firm party support behind him, Tunisian president Qays Sa‘īd may still be very popular but have very hard choices to make. And that is why now Tunisia swings back and forth between the bidders in Libya. But that is also why it is an important target for many.
Ever since the so-called “Arab Spring” Tunisia was suffering from the lack of a firm government, like the one it had before 2011. A deadlock was practically reached by 2014 politically, where the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the an-Nahḍa Party under Rāšid al-Ġannūšī became the strongest political formation, but it was losing support and clearly lost its majority.
All these details we covered last October, but in short after the death of President Qā‘īd as-Sibsī and new, firm, popular and non-partisan president was elected, Qays Sa‘īd. He made his pro-Arab stance clear and he is still very popular. But the parliamentary elections last year resulted in a complete deadlock between the religious-conservative parties, and more secular forces, which in 2014 all formed the Nidā’ Tūnis Party, which since then practically fell apart.
Between an-Nahḍa and the squabbling secular parties, it seemed almost impossible to form a government, and neither side had a convincing majority. Among the secular parties that of a pro-Western magnate, Nabīl al-Qaruwī, the Qalb Tūnis became the strongest, but the former secular allies just as much opposed al-Qaruwī and the an-Nahḍa. It was clear that there are three options. Either to hold new elections, which didn’t promise a very different result; to form a unity government with all major parties, which was clearly impossible, or to form a non-partisan one, given enough support can be rallied behind it.
President Sa‘īd clearly favored this last option, being the non-partisan himself, but he respected the law and offered the premiership to Ḥabīb al-Ğamlī, candidate of the an-Nahḍa. After long weeks of negotiations, however, he barely managed to gain support beyond his own party and was refused by the parliament in January 2020. Ilyās Fahfāh became the next candidate, who on 27 February 2020 was accepted by the Parliament after the an-Nahḍa agreed to support him. Current PM Fahfāh was Minister of Tourism, and later Minister in Finance in the first an-Nahḍa between 2011 and 2013, so they had a functional working experience, but by 2020 he was practically a non-partisan. He is still a leading member of the at-Takattul (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties), but that party did not gain any mandate in the last elections. Under the new deal his 32 members government has some party members from altogether six parties, in which an-Nahḍa has to not with 6, but the majority of the posts -17 – are filled by independents, including all key positions. In such a way the an-Nahḍa still has a firm grip on the government, even highly represented in it, but it is far from running it.
This seems to be a fairly democratic and mature compromise, even surprising for the Arab world, but it clearly lacks strong coherence and it is built on the shaky loyalties of the many parties behind it. This suggests a pattern, where outer powers can exercise pressure and undermine the government, given they find support for it. That is why the current Tunisian government has a very hard time to reject the growing Turkish influence, as some parties showed particularly strong ties with Ankara in recent years.
The security concerns
In October we also mentioned the major security challenges Tunisia faces since the war in Syria reached a halt and the Tunisian members started to flow back steadily. That manifested in 2015 with the terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum right next to the Parliament and at the tourist area of Sūsa. That, however, never disappeared completely and is still a major concern as in recent years sporadic attack hit the capital. Most recently in May 2020, the National Guard reported that it managed to dismantle a terrorist cell smuggling arms and narcotics. While the last major engagement was in February when a major military operation was executed against a terrorist cell. Noticeably, however, this was not in the south of the country, close to the Libyan border, but in the area of the al-Qaṣṣarīn Heights between the capital and the Algerian border.
This shows a problem, which is not even that new. While there is a north-south illegal trade route towards Libya, smuggling men and arms to the conflict zone, there is another, which goes from the capital to Algeria via the city of Tabassa. One such network was uncovered in March 2018, which was smuggling even mortars to Algeria.
Both routes have a very strong Turkish connection, as weapons are proven to come from Turkey via an illegal, or semi-legal channel. Given how much Turkey invested in the Tunisian infrastructure, like the airport in an-Nafīḍa (Enfidha), that is a very serious security concern. Which now for a year or so meets a new one.
Since Turkey started to ship in Syrian mercenaries to the war in Libya, some of these members are coming or expected to come through Tunisia. Either it happens, or not, there is a serious threat that these will contact their former Tunisian associate, many of them fought in Syria after 2011. While many returned and seeming rejoined the society, it is just very difficult to know how many of them are still sleeping cells. The other concern is that more and more mercenaries are getting caught in Libya, and it is reported in Syria that many Syrian mercenaries are forced to join the war.
It is highly likely that as their losses will grow many of them will try to escape and the “safest” route is now towards Tunisia. If such a trend starts these mercenaries might disappear from the government’s eye, but swell the numbers of those radical elements, which still represent a safety hazard, especially in the south.
And the Libyan problem is nothing new even for Tunisia, as already in January 2016 terrorists tried to break into Tunisia from there. While that was successfully repelled the recurring skirmishes prompted Tunis to look for Algerian and later American support. Which both came, increasing foreign influence on the country.
Tunisia and Turkey
Given the size of investment both financially and politically Erdoğan chose to make in Libya, it is clear Tunisia has vital importance for Ankara now as a safe hinterland for operations. Or at least that is the role envisioned.
Turkish investments grew exponentially after 2011, which was considered a successful model of Turkish penetration into the Arab world and North Africa. Similar initiatives were taken in a number of cases, most significant amongst these was Egypt, but Tunisia never “reverted” and never refused Ankara in major deals. The last major package deal was signed in December 2017, which was already focusing on the defense sector. As we saw Tunisia means a gateway to Libya, and in a way to Algeria, but it is also an ideological gateway to North Africa and represents a bridgehead to the whole region. The last major attempt to boost cooperation and investments by Ankara, and with it naturally by Qatar came only recently, in April 2020, which was refused by the parliament. That shows that Turkey and Qatar still have an eye for Tunisia, as a bridgehead between the very hot Libyan field and Algeria, which they are still “working on”.
Of course, the new political realities in Tunisia meant a matter to be dealt with for Ankara. As major peace talks were going in December 2019 about Libya in Berlin, which had the prospect to put an end to the fight and not in favor for Turkey, Erdoğan blended necessity with utility and visited Tunis. This was the first meeting between the presidents and one of the first such missions for President Sa‘īd, who had to be careful not to cause problems with Turkey, but also not to buckling under Turkish pressure. While for Erdoğan it was imperative to rally North African support behind the so-called unity government in Libya which it supports, so it could project the image that the Libyan government has regional allies and it is not solely a Turkish-Qatari puppet. Considering that Syrian mercenaries were already pouring in, such cover was essential.
This important meeting soon met a smaller scandal, as Erdoğan after his meeting with President Sa‘īd said that Tunisia supports the Turkish position in Libya and that it will likely join a coalition between Algeria and Turkey in the conflict. Very soon Sa‘īd’s office strongly rejected these claims and expressed that Tunisia is strictly neutral in the Libyan matter.
And Turkish pressure is still very strong on Tunisia. When coalition talks were still at its highest in January 2020 and the an-Nahḍa still had some hope to form government party leader Rašīd al-Ġannūšī left went to meet Erdoğan in Istanbul, about which no details were reported. He was even questioned and condemned for this move by the parliament. And Erdoğan not only feels very confident about his influence over Tunisia but even openly plays with it, as it was clear in May. On 8 May 2020, a Turkish plane landed in the Tunisian airport of Ğarba, the closest to the Libyan border, officially carrying medical aid to Libya. There are two noticeable things, however. Thus far Turkey could with ease deliver arms and men to Libya, without any Tunisian involvement, and that the plane was not scheduled before. Therefore it put the Tunisian government ahead of a hard decision either refusing to deliver medical aid or becoming a toy of Turkish policies.
Tunis refused the safe passage for the Turkish crew only allowing to deliver the aids itself and only this one time, but the attempt is clear. And it is probably not the only way Erdoğan tries to force Tunisia to a bridgehead of even military operations.
Tunisia and Algeria
While kneeling in front of Turkish-Qatari pressures is dangerous enough on its own for Tunisia, it has another neighbor to count with. That is Algeria, which now has a “new” government and a new president, all too eager to prove a new era after the Bū Ṭaflīqa decades, and which is active in all, especially regional matters. That manifests in the renewed disputes with Morocco over Western Sahara, border and border crossing matter, the bid to facilitate Syrian readmission to the Arab League, and very naturally in the Libyan matter.
However, Tunisia is a very important safety issue for Algeria even without Libya. As we saw, there is an illegal trade from Turkey via Tunisia. Tunisia can become a headquarters of Turkish-Qatari operations in the region, while a clash with Turkey might mean destabilization. And Algiers cannot afford the spread of militancy to yet another neighbor, right along the economical heartland of gas and oil fields. On the other hand, as Libya is a very important matter for Algeria, Tunisia can serve as a semi-neutral middle ground between Tabbūn and Erdoğan to reach an agreement. Especially that Algeria is less than clear which side it prefers in the Libyan conflict.
On 5 February 2020 Foreign Minister Ṣabrī Būqādum, a man of the new Tabbūn government, arrived to Banġāzī, the practical capital of Ḥaftar’s government. Here he not only met local officials, but also leaders of the local tribes. He specifically stressed that for Algeria there is only one Libya, he also invited Ḥaftar to Algiers. Which seems to be the result of months of negotiations, as a big number of Ḥaftar’s officers had already visited Algeria to conduct negotiations on Algerian support and cooperation against terrorist cells. Because many of the most wanted Algerian terrorists, like infamous Muhtār bil-Muhtār are operating in Libya. And if Turkey pours more Dā‘iš elements into Libya that is a huge threat for Algeria. It would seem that Algiers stepped over the previous animosity with Ḥaftar and took his side. However, only two weeks later, on 18 February the same Būqādum was meeting with the Foreign Minister of Libyan unity government in Tripoli. The official line is just like that of Tunisia. Algeria is neutral and supports peace and unity. Unlike Tunisia, however, Algeria can and must be an active player in this theater, and if it chooses to take stand against the Turkish penetration, it will have to step in.
This seeming ambiguity goes back to the fact Algeria is somewhat divided itself about its relations with Turkey, and that manifests in many open political debates. In one hand Algiers is rightfully worried that the Turkish-Qatari political and ideological penetration presents a danger. On the other economic cooperation is still good, and Turkey is so far one of the few countries, which invest in Algeria and build factories there. And that is the clear aim to work together to gain the Central African markets.
And that manifested, when Erdoğan only a month after Tunis, on 26 January visited Algiers.
The tone, however, was strikingly different from that to Tunisia, as Erdoğan was accompanied by a large delegation and the meeting focused on the economy. A high level economic and trade cooperation council was founded and the new target of economic balance of $5 billion was set. This time political and regional matters were only vaguely mentioned, just like the growing cooperation in the weapons industry, which is a very significant question for Algeria, as Turkey has become a very significant arms producer itself.
That is this peculiar standing of Algeria vis-à-vis Turkey that makes it difficult for Tunis to strongly rely on this strong and stable neighbor. Not like it is not trying, as even the election campaign President Sa‘īd stressed several times that Algeria and Tunisia are “one nation in two countries”. That shows the intention that amidst growing tension in Libya and growing foreign interference there, Tunisia tries to rely in Algeria, which has a very similar approach on Libya, but has much more muscle to flex. In this context, however, that is somewhat strange that President Sa‘īd could only visit Algiers after Erdoğan and not before. Only days after the Turkish president left, Qays Sa‘īd visited Algeria on 2 February. And this time the meeting was very cordial and ceremonial, but very vague in results.
It is clear from the timing that from mid-December to mid-February there was a very intense diplomatic movement between Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, and Libya, in which Tunisia tried to evade Turkish pressure and resort to Algerian support. However, at least it seems like so, the results are less than satisfying.
One wrong step
That is the very difficult web of internal and external conditions Tunisia, and even more so its president has to cope with. While it is for long clear by Tunisian deliberations that Tunis’s best interest to stay out of the problem and solve it as soon as possible, since Tunisia can not cope with the overspill effects.
Since the terrorist attacks happened there was a growing reliance on foreign intelligence and security support. Which came from Algeria in the first place, but very soon the U.S. followed, officially helping the border patrol. Now Turkey tries to utilize Tunisia as a staging ground for its operations in Libya. Which is dangerous, but even more so that Ankara is not alone in such desire. In June 2020 the United States Africa Command announced that it will increase its activities in Tunisia, specifically to counter the Russian moves in Libya. And at the same time, there is political instability and security concerns already.
It is not even a distant fear that these contradicting regional and global agendas in Libya might plunge Tunisia into chaos. It was recently it was revealed that there is already an ongoing Saudi-Emirati operation to push Tunisia into chaos, force it to implement emergency measures, and might even reach government change and the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood from politics. If the sources are correct it is Egypt that is pressing the matter the most, partially against the Brotherhood, but more to cross Turkey’s supply line and create a more stable support for Ḥaftar, who in this week was in Cairo. So far to counter these effort the Algerian support seems to be insufficient.
It might be an attempt to turn to France, or quite to contrary, a sign of even French pressure that on 5 June Qays Sa‘īd held a rare telephone conversation with French President Macron about Libya, stressing that: “Tunisia will not be a rear front for any sides”. Given the list of possibilities, it is curious to whom the message was intended. And this time France seems to be the least of the candidates.