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Key Libya middleman Tunisia is left out of the Berlin conference Open in fullscreen

Alessandra Bajec

Key Libya middleman Tunisia is left out of the Berlin conference

Tunisia has played a pivotal neutral role in Libya [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 January, 2020

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As Libya's closest neighbour with common interests and close relations, the absence of Tunisia at the Berlin conference can be seen as detrimental to the country.
Despite being directly concerned by the conflict in Libya next door and known to be a neutral actor, Tunisia was oddly still not invited to attend this Sunday's Berlin conference, while a number of African and Middle Eastern states are participating.

The much-delayed Libya conference in Berlin, originally proposed by the German government last summer, is finally taking place on Sunday.

The summit is going ahead even though talks in Moscow failed on Tuesday after Libya's eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar left without signing a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia and Turkey to end hostilities in Tripoli. 

Read also: Europe will face terror threat if Libya government falls, warns Erdogan

The latest push to resolve the conflict in Libya should see Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, heading the UN-backed Government of National Accord [GNA] based in Tripoli, and rogue general Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army [LNA] attend the event.

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They are to be joined by the five permanent members of the Security Council (the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China), Italy, the EU and the UN. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also extended an invitation to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria and the Republic of the Congo, as well as the African Union and the Arab League.

However, one country missing from the guest list is Tunisia, which cannot go unnoticed, irrespective of its 450 kilometre shared border with Libya – making it directly affected by the war while it prepares to receive thousands of refugees if the conflict intensifies.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle on Wednesday, the Tunisian ambassador to Germany expressed disappointment at not having been invited to the forthcoming meeting. His consternation was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign ministry.   

The security and economic challenges Tunisia faces mostly originates from Libya, underling how the small North African country is concerned by the deteriorating situation in Libya

Ambassador Ahmed Chafra stated that the security and economic challenges Tunisia faces mostly originates from Libya, underling how the small North African country is concerned by the deteriorating situation in Libya. 

"Tunisia is the first country to be affected by the situation in Libya, in 2012-2013 Tunisia hosted 1.5 million Libyan refugees. Why exclude it from this conference?" Tunisian politician Nadia Chabaane tweeted a few days ago. 

More strangely, the exclusion comes after recent phone consultations between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tunisian President Kais Saied, in which the two sides tackled the Libyan file, including the path to the Berlin peace conference.

"It's a real shame that Tunisia has not been invited. It's almost being penalised for not playing a major role," commented Anas El Gomati, Director of Sadeq Institute, an independent think-tank specialising in Libyan affairs.

"I think the health of the Libyan dialogue will suffer as a result."

He reminds that Tunis has been the venue for hosting the majority of diplomatic missions to Libya over the last years.

Considering that Tunisia is Libya's closest neighbour, and given the common interests and close relations between the two countries, the absence of Tunisia in Berlin is arguably detrimental to the country and its foreign policy.

The absence of Tunisia in Berlin is arguably detrimental to the country and its foreign policy

Tunisia, which took over its seat in the UN Security Council, has long held a posture of diplomatic neutrality on the Libyan crisis.

Saied reiterated on Monday its stance in favour of a peaceful and rapid settlement of the conflict through the engagement of an inter-Libyan dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations.

The head of state assured that the country will continue to play a positive role in bringing the different Libyan protagonists closer together. 

Observers note that Tunisia has no leverage in international affairs which would explain Germany's reluctance to invite the North African country.

The non-invitation has raised questions over Tunisia's diplomatic weight on the Libyan conflict.

Tarek Kahlaoui, former director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies [ITES], thinks its diplomacy has proved "inactive" and "lacking a clear posture" on the Libyan dossier, with a very limited in-country presence.

This has possibly made the conference organisers in Berlin consider its participation "irrelevant". The Tunisian Consulate in Libya has remained closed since June 2015.

The political analyst also suggested that Tunisia could be reticent about taking part in the event because, without a new government in place, "the president may not yet be ready to engage in major strategic issues like Libya".

He however criticised the ambiguity around why Tunisia has been kept out of the planned peace event.

According to Rafaa Tabib, a geopolitical expert and specialist in Libyan affairs, an important reason for the exclusion may well be that the absence of a clear diplomatic policy translates to a "total lack of visibility" of the country's strategies and objectives in the region.

"With such a lack of visibility, what could Tunisia bring to the conference? Almost nothing," Tabib argued. 

Speaking to leconomistemaghrebin.com, former diplomat Mohamed Ferid Cherif maintained that "the Tunisian state should unify its position on the Libyan conflict."

Tunisia has been in the spotlight for Libya's crisis after Turkey deployed military forces to support the GNA against Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and thought to be supported by Russia with weapons, money and mercenaries.

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Earlier on December 25, Turkish President Erdogan made a surprise visit to Tunisia to meet President Saied, reportedly agreeing to back the GNA and announced his country was ready to send troops to Libya. 

In an attempt to clear up doubts about the Tunisian stance, the office of Saied last week said Tunis refused to be used as a transit country for Turkish deployment and logistical support to the GNA.

"Tunisia categorically rejects any foreign interference in Libya, including the Turkish intervention. This is Tunisia's position from the start, and has not and will not change," presidential office spokeswoman Rachida Nayfer said.

Despite that, many critical voices have slammed the Tunisian diplomatic silence in the face of the Libyan developments, calling on officials to play an effective role in any mediation efforts aimed at ending the conflict in the oil-rich country.

Early last week, the Tunisian Free Destourian Party parliamentary bloc attacked the Tunisian nebulous stance as well as the presidential silence on the latest events in Libya.

Talking on Mosaique FM, MP Safi Saeed stressed that Tunisia "should seek to establish itself in the coming period since the Libyan issue is directly related to all of the Arab Maghreb countries."

Adnan Monser, director of the Center for Strategic Studies on the Maghreb, told Al-Monitor that Tunisia must play an effective role in looking for peaceful solutions, as countries neighbouring Libya proceed to discuss the crisis caused by the Turkish intervention and Haftar's escalation against the GNA.

Tabib emphasised that there is a "huge gap" between official statements and Tunisia's de facto relations with Libya noting its long-held position leaning towards the government in Tripoli.

"The real danger today in Tunisia is if we get to the point where there's a public posture of non-interference, then on the ground logistical assistance is provided for Turkey's military campaign," the Libya researcher warned.

He recalled that back in 2011, notwithstanding its declared neutrality in the Libyan war, Tunisia saw arms supplied by NATO, Turkey and Qatar being smuggled via its territory to fall in the hands of Libyan rebels.

Last week, the Tunisian Interior Ministry said it had seized arms and cash coming from Turkey en route to neighbouring Libya.

With the Tunisian state's diplomatic attitude widely deemed apathetic, some MPs fear that the country may align itself behind Sarraj's GNA, under Erdogan's pressure.

For Kahlaoui, there is no indication that Tunisia may shift from its non-intervention policy. "I don't think it's going to engage in any military action," he opined. "It will continue to adopt its same passive foreign policy in Libya."

Similarly, El Gomati said it was unlikely that the country would change its neutral line. "I don't see Tunisia having the desire to politicise its role or exploit the situation like others have done, even if he supports Sarraj's government nominally," Sadeq Institute's director argued.

He believes that the Tunisian head of state must evaluate carefully what security cost the country would pay if it had to line up with the GNA in a much more robust way.

Saied stressed that the situation in Libya is likely to become more complicated, especially in the light of foreign interference.

Many are pressing on Tunisia to step up its diplomacy in the Libyan field and return to being a place of dialogue

But with much criticism against the president's neutrality and poor handling of the Turkish decision to intervene in Libya, many are pressing on Tunisia to step up its diplomacy in the Libyan field and return to being a place of dialogue.

Sunday's talks come as international powers head towards a peaceful settlement after nine months of fighting around Tripoli. Since last April, Haftar's forces have been engaged in a push to take control of the Libyan capital.

The oil-rich North African state has been in turmoil since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that overthrew long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, with multiple foreign powers now involved.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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