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Turkey’s leader puts Tunisia at risk of Libyan chaos

By Frida Dahmani
Posted on Thursday, 2 January 2020 09:34, updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 10:31

The Turkish president offered his cooperation to the new Tunisian president, Kaïs Saïed, "to help resolve the Libyan crisis" on 25 December. © Slim Abid/AP/SIPA

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire to involve Tunisia in Libya’s problems has sparked hostility and indignation among locals. Tunisians have no interest in deviating from their typically neutral stance on conflict. The country also does not have the means to manage another war, especially beyond its borders. 

“If Tripoli falls, Tunis and Algiers will fall,” warned Libya’s Interior Minister in Tunis, Fathi Bachagha on 27 December 2019. His words fanned the flames lit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had unexpectedly invited himself to Carthage – the seaside suburb of Tunisia’s capital – two days earlier.

Locals say they’re angry with Erdogan for breaching state protocol, behaving as if he were standing on conquered ground, and, above all, declaring his willingness to involve Tunisia in the Libyan conflict. But, Erdogan’s comments are not unexpected. 

Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed was accompanied by his defence minister, foreign affairs minister, and intelligence director at the unannounced meeting. Saïed implied that it was only intended to discuss trade matters. Tunisian journalists were not allowed to attend the meeting.

  • “Any negative developments in Libya will have serious repercussions on the region and essentially Tunisia,” stressed Erdogan when the head of the Libyan government of national unity, Fayez Sarraj joined the discussions.

Tunisians are upset that their president failed to dismiss the Turkish leader’s message.

Involving Tunisia in the conflict

Tunisians are increasingly worried about getting involved in Libya’s conflict, following Erdogan’s clumsy and ill-prepared visit to Carthage.

A foreign head of state has effectively informed ordinary Tunisians that their country is siding with the Doha-Ankara axis. They were not consulted on this subject.

Representatives at the meeting neither called for peace, nor announced their participation in the UN’s conference on Libya in Berlin in 2020. They are, however, showing their support for war.

Tunisia’s worst nightmare is about to become a reality, although it has carefully avoided the Libyan conflict since 2011.

Tunisia hosts more than 1.3m Libyan refugees, but it has managed to maintain a certain neutrality after the Islamists were ousted from power in 2014.

Libya is much more than Tunisia’s neighbour. They’re major trading partners in the region, and people on both sides of the porous border share family ties.

The trade of arms and jihad recruits (trained in Libyan camps before reaching Syria) have contributed to the instability in southern Tunisia. Some of these recruits have returned to Tunisia to commit violent attacks.

New form of control

Erdogan’s comments are a reminder of three centuries of Ottoman domination of Tunisia.

Since 2011, Tunisian Islamists have moved closer to the Sublime Porte (a reference to the Ottoman Empire), multiplying trade agreements which have raised the trade deficit with Turkey to $641.4m. Erdogan is well aware of his economic advantage over Tunisia.  

  • Activist Adnane Belhajamor asks a fundamental question, “Is Tunisia going to allow Turkish weapons of war and logistics to transit through our country on their way to the Wifak forces in Libya? The Tunisian public has a right to know.”

Code of silence

Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed has refrained from revealing whether he’s in favour of Turkish intervention or providing logistical support in Libya.

The lack of information about the meeting in Carthage is worrying to Tunisians.

Clearly, Tunisians have no interest in changing their neutral stance on the conflict in Libya – a key characteristic of their diplomacy. The country also does not have the means to manage another conflict, especially beyond its borders.

However, the leading party in the Assembly – Ennahdha – supports the Tripoli government, arguing that international bodies also recognise its authority. This is a clear denial of the current situation, and no one is assessing the repercussions of it.

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