Neighbourhood watch

In Libya, Tunisia and Egypt hope to work hand in hand

By Frida Dahmani

Posted on April 9, 2021 22:24

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied meets with Libya’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh in Tripoli © Tunisia’s President Kais Saied shakes hands with Libya’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh during their meeting in Tripoli, Libya 17 March 2021. Media Office of the Prime Minister/Handout via REUTERS
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied shakes hands with Libya’s Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh during their meeting in Tripoli, Libya 17 March 2021. Media Office of the Prime Minister/Handout via REUTERS

Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed will visit Cairo between April 9 and 11 at the invitation of his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Since the fall of the Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regimes in 2011, this will be just the second official visit of a Tunisian head of state to Cairo. His predecessor, Béji Caïd Essebsi had met with President Sisi during the 26th Arab Summit in Cairo and made an official trip in October 2015 to mark the re-launch of the Egyptian-Tunisian high joint committee, a barometer of bilateral relations.

Relations between the two countries hit a cold patch with the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013. The Ennahdha party, which was in power in Tunisia, had given its support to the brotherhood and boycotted Sisi, even fearing that the overthrow of Morsi in Cairo would inspire a similar uprising in Tunisia.

Since then, the Nile has flowed under the bridge: Saïed, whose prerogatives extend to foreign policy, has gained confidence. He is working on a foreign policy free from ideology.

Tunisia’s President also spoke by phone with his Egyptian counterpart on 27 March, during which he assured him of Tunisian support on the issue of the Ethiopian dam on the Nile.

Oum el dunya

The historical relationship between Tunis and Cairo is marked by the figures of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Habib Bourguiba, two independence-era leaders considered by their peoples as fathers of the nation.

Both bet on the modernisation of Arab societies, but the Arab nationalist Nasser chose to rely on the army to consolidate the regional position of Egypt, while Bourguiba relied on development and education.

During the Cold War, Bourguiba leaned towards the United States, while Nasser is famous for embodying non-alignment. The Egyptian raïs had even turned unashamedly to the USSR after the US refusal to finance the Aswan Dam.

Egypt retains, despite the years and the decline of its cultural influence in the Arab world, an image of prestige in Tunisia. “Egypt is still for us “Oum el dunya” [the mother of the universe], that is all. We admire Egyptian cinema, the abundance of literature and the level of Egyptian music that has created divas like Oum Kalthoum,” says a Tunisian film critic.

Conversely, what is the image of Tunisia in the land of the Pharaohs? “Many people hate the Islamists of Ennahdha – which is seen as similar to the Muslim Brotherhood – but Tunisia can count on its footballers and artists, they are the best ambassadors of the country,” notes a Tunisian based in Cairo.

Economic ties

Beyond the symbols, economic relations between the two countries are weak and unbalanced. Some 312 Tunisian companies in the services, industry, tourism and agriculture sectors invested in Egypt in 2018, to the tune of $802m. In Tunisia, the volume of Egyptian investments amounts to $2.2m, divided between a tobacco factory and another in the furniture and appliances sector.

Investment and the opening of shipping lines will certainly be on the agenda of the talks between Sisi and Saïed, but they will devote their attention to the Libyan situation, which concerns both countries.

On 6 April, Saïed received Najla Mangouch, the foreign affairs minister of the Libyan government of national unity to discuss with her ways to improve the bilateral partnership

“The fear of all North African countries is that the country will be partitioned or that federalism will be pushed to the limit, with two totally different entities,” says Rafaa Tabib, an expert on Libya. However, the concerns of both Egypt and Tunisia have been alleviated somewhat by the installation of a new government in Tripoli, which is set to lead Libya to elections in December 2021.

In Tripoli, Egypt has its eye on the huge reconstruction market and is counting on Tunisia to participate alongside it. The Libyan embassy in Cairo announced on 13 March the signing of an agreement with Egypt to facilitate the entry of Egyptian workers into Libya. Tunis, for its part, will be able to provide labor and materials such as cement and bricks. Stability and reconstruction in Libya should benefit Tunisia, which seeks to protect its border with Libya from the infiltration of jihadist forces.

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