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Libya an Obstacle on Tunisia’s Path to Stability

In an interview, Tunisian foreign minister says Western-led action in Libya in 2011 was reckless.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui attends a meeting with his Algerian and Egyptian counterparts to discuss the Libyan conflict in Tunis on Dec. 17, 2017. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui attends a meeting with his Algerian and Egyptian counterparts to discuss the Libyan conflict in Tunis on Dec. 17, 2017. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui says his country is still feeling the effects of what he described as a reckless NATO-led campaign in neighboring Libya in 2011—a military intervention that led to the ouster of dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi but left behind violence and instability.

In an interview with Foreign Policy during his recent visit to Washington, Jhinaoui said Tunisia’s security is dependent on stability in Libya but that foreign powers were now using Tripoli as an arena for their own proxy war.

“What happened in 2011 was almost a hit-and-run policy,” Jhinaoui said, describing the intervention by American, British, and other forces in the civil war in Libya following Arab Spring protests.

“There was no exit strategy; they toppled the government, but they didn’t help create the conditions to help the Libyans elect or choose another government,” he said. “Now Libya finds itself in the mess … it is because of what happened in 2011.”

Tunisia is widely considered the lone success story of the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. But it’s still struggling to consolidate its democracy and jump-start its economy. The years of violence across its eastern border have not helped.

Jhinaoui visited Washington in July to try to boost economic and security cooperation with the United States and push for a political solution in Libya, which has effectively become a failed state.

“It’s of prominent importance to us to see Libya stabilized because our security is interlinked with the Libyan one,” he said.

Jhinaoui said Libya has some of the ingredients required for stability and prosperity, including natural-resource wealth and a relatively homogenous society.

“What is complicating the situation is the foreign interference in Libya,” he said. Though he declined to name the countries involved, the dynamic of European and Middle Eastern players vying for power and influence in the oil-rich nation is well delineated.

Qatar and Turkey support the internationally recognized Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli, where a nominally loyal militia cartel runs the capital. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have thrown their weight behind the Tobruk-based House of Representative and its Libyan National Army led by mercurial Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The United States, meanwhile, has been ramping up a counterterrorism campaign in Libya, with airstrikes targeting al Qaeda and Islamic State operatives.

Libya is also a flashpoint for Europe’s migration crisis; the International Organization for Migration estimated in July that there are 662,000 migrants in the country. The migrants face violence from trafficking groups and gangs as they seek to make their way across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The death toll for the Central Mediterranean migration route, which passes through Libya, exceeds 1,100 so far this year, according to the IOM.

Tunisia and the Libyan GNA have both taken steps to limit the movement of people across their border—but that hasn’t prevented Tunisia from getting caught in up the migration crisis. A group of 40 migrants ended up moored off the Tunisian coast last month after Italy, Malta, and Spain all denied their passage.

Tunisia had barred them from entering the country, but in late July, after two weeks in limbo, it let the ship dock in the southern port of Zarzis. Jhinaoui said the Tunisian government supplied the migrants with food, humanitarian supplies, and medical aid.

Tunisian officials insist, however, that this action should not be read as a green light to open migrant screening centers in Tunisia, an initiative backed by the European Union.

“We don’t like to be a platform for camps … for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” Jhinaoui said.

Jhinaoui had another mission while he was in Washington: to pitch Tunisia as an economic opportunity for American businesses, which he did in meetings with members of Congress.

He also said Tunisia is boosting its training of military and security forces to address threats emanating from its eastern neighbor, with the help of the United States and its European allies.

From 2012 through 2015, Tunisia suffered a spate of deadly attacks before investing heavily in professionalizing its security forces.

“Most of the perpetrators of the high-casualty terror attacks in 2015 … had spent time in Libya and received weapons and training there,” said Sarah Feuer, an expert on North Africa at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The threat has ebbed but has not ended. “Our forces are better trained now, better equipped, and they are preventing these terrorist attacks instead of reacting to them,” Jhinaoui said.

While Tunisia has largely escaped the violence and political backsliding—a fate many other Arab Spring countries now face—its fledgling democracy is still fragile. None of the nine cabinets that have led the country since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster in 2011 have managed to remedy the structural economic challenges that precipitated the revolution.

Its economy has recently seen some modest growth but has yet to return to pre-revolution levels. Inflation and unemployment remain high and Tunisia has grown reliant on lenders such as the International Monetary Fund.

Youssef Chahed, Tunisia’s seventh post-revolution prime minister, has come under fire for failing to raise the standard of living.

Feuer said the succession of heads of government “may reflect a degree of political accountability.” But it has had the effect of political instability, which is “undermining the very reforms needed to build the capacity of state institutions,” she said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

Humza Jilani is an editorial intern at Foreign Policy. @humza_jilani

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