Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs "extremely worried" about developments in neighboring Libya
By Jake Jaffe | Jun 5 2014Abou Iyadh ,Ali Aroui ,Ansar Al Sharia ,Khalifa Haftar ,Libya ,
As Tunisians look toward presidential and legislative elections this fall, the deteriorating situation in neighboring Libya could exacerbate Tunisia’s own security challenges.
Islamist militias have clashed with paramilitary forces, led by renegade general Khalifa Haftar, in recent weeks in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and its environs. Haftar has claimed a popular “mandate” and has gained pledges of support from swathes of Libyan society. Street battles have also shaken Tripoli, the Libyan capital, amidst a dispute over the conditions of Ahmed Maetig’s appointment as prime minister. The sitting office holder, Abdullah al-Thinni, has so far refused to allow his successor to take office.
We are extremely worried about the situation in Libya. [...] Libya’s stability means stability for us.”
Recent weeks have witnessed a number of security incidents, including the May 27 assault on Minister of the Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou’s home, which resulted in the deaths of four security officers, as well as the arrest of eight individuals suspected of entering Tunisia from Libya and receiving training from groups there. Security experts worry that such occurrences could become increasingly common as Tripoli’s ability to control its 459-kilometer border with Tunisia decreases.
Tunisian authorities have expressed ongoing concern with the activities of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), which the Tunisian government designated a terrorist organization on August 27, 2013. The Ministry of the Interior has accused the group of involvement in the assassination of two politicians in 2013 and shootouts with security forces. While the extent of AST’s coordination with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is unclear, the porous nature of the two countries’ shared border has security experts worried.
“Extremist groups in Libya help extremist groups in Tunisia, whether militarily, logistically, or with individuals,” said retired Senior Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr, a former Ministry of Defense spokesperson. “There is a fear of terrorists entering Tunisia if they are cornered in Libya,” he added, referring to Haftar’s efforts to reduce the group’s influence in the region.
“The [Ansar al-Sharia] organizations are allied,” said Mazen Cherif, a security expert at the Tunisian Centre for Global Security Studies. “It’s as if they are one organization breaking geographical borders, which is very dangerous.”
Tunisian authorities arrested three suspected Islamist militants on May 25 believed to have been living in Libya with backing from armed groups which train Tunisians in militant camps, Mohamed Ali Aroui, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, said, according to an AP report.
AST leader Abou Iyadh is wanted by Tunisian and American authorities for orchestrating the attack on the American Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012. He is believed to be based in Libya. The group denied reports of his arrest last December.
Tunisian Interests in Libya
In spite of its various economic and other interests in Libya, the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling on all Tunisians to avoid travel to Libya and for those residing in Benghazi to leave.
Meanwhile, Tunisian communities near the Libyan border may be subjected to renewed refugee flows should the security situation take a drastic turn.
“We have the experience, and until the crisis is over, we will treat [Libyan refugees] in the same way that we treated them during the revolution,” Cherif said, referring to the refugees who were taken in after the 2011 uprising.
Unofficial reports have suggested that plans to reopen the Shousha refugee camp, set up to accommodate people displaced during the 2011 uprising and closed in summer of 2013, are under discussion, according to the Libya Herald.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) “is coordinating with the Tunisian authorities to explore response mechanisms in case of any possible influx from Libya,” UNHCR spokesperson said in Tunis.
Limited Tunisian Response
The response to events in Libya has been muted. According to Al Monitor, reports are circulating which state that around 5,000 Tunisian troops have been mobilized to reinforce Tunisia’s border security.
“Security measures have been decent, and the proof is that there are no daily explosions,” Ben Nasr added.
Cherif was less optimistic.
“According to what we have seen [in the attack on Jeddou’s house], we cannot see a clear and strong strategy which can combat these groups strongly, and which would include anticipation and preemptive systems,” he said.
“Weapons have entered Tunisia since the revolutions,” he added. “These groups are waiting for the convenient time to use them.”
Tunis has yet to enact a serious diplomatic initiative to address the situation.
Despite having proclaimed his country’s readiness to work with regional governments to provide assistance to Libya, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki canceled what was to be two days of international meetings on Libya. Intended to bring together ministers from North African ministries of foreign affairs, these were scrapped just one day before they were scheduled to begin, The Libya Herald reported.
According to the same source, Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Mokhtar Chaouachi told the Associated Press that with two prime ministers in Libya, there were no clear representatives to represent Libya at the meetings.