As Tunisia withdraws its diplomatic staff from Libya following the kidnapping of consular staff, relations between the two countries are growing increasingly tense.
On 12 June, the Tunisian foreign ministry reported that ten consular officials from its diplomatic mission in Tripoli had been taken hostage by an armed militia group. The Tunisian ministry declared that the act was “a cowardly violation of Tunisian sovereignty, international conventions, and diplomatic traditions which guarantee the security of diplomats and consulate employees.”
In exchange for the safe passage of the hostages, the group demanded the release of Libya Dawn brigade leader Walid Kalib, the son of Tripoli’s Minister of Justice Mustafa Kalib, who last month was arrested on terrorism charges in Tunisia. According to the news site AP, Jamal Zubia, a Libya Dawn official, wrote on his Facebook page that: “The page of the Tunisian consulate will be turned and they will return to their families and the revolutionary hero Walid Kalib returns to his family.”
The following Wednesday, a Tunisian court ruled that Kalib would be extradited to Libya. Last Friday, Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Bakouch told Reuters that all ten members of the consulate staff had been released and were back in Tunisia, three of whom were freed prior to Kalib’s release. Bakouch denies that a deal was made with the kidnappers, arguing that the release of Kalib was based on an autonomous juridical decision. “But we know from different sources that there were negotiations between the Tunisian authorities and representatives from Tripoli government, which led to the liberations,” explains political analyst Youssef Cherif.
Kidnappings in exchange for ransom demands have become commonplace in Libya and are now taken to an international level, explains a European embassy employee to Libya who would like to remain anonymous. Last month, 245 Tunisians were taken hostage by a militia group in Tripoli, allegedly linked to Kalib, but were later released unharmed.
“It’s a worrying development,” adds Cherif. To him there is a clear connection between the freeing of Kalib and the release of hostages.
In the oil-rich Mediterranean country, torn by a power vacuum since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, different groups currently fight for power. Political power is disputed between two rival governments, one operating from Tripoli and the other, the internationally recognised House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk. In the power vacuum radical Islamist groups such as the Islamic State continue to gain ground.
“Libya-Tunisia relations have been heavily strained by the developments of last year,” explains Libyan political analyst Mohamed Eljarh. “The Tunisian authorities have tried to be pragmatic and deal with both sides to protect what they perceive as Tunisia and Tunisians’ interests in Libya.” But according to the analyst, Tunisia’s connection with the Tripoli authorities has irritated the administration in Tobruk and Bayda, which Eljarh argues could explain the lack of interest from the Tobruk authorities in the kidnapping of the Tunisian consular workers. While the Tripoli administration condemned the kidnapping, the Tobruk government’s Media and Culture secretary Omar Gweri briefly mentioned the incident.
“The kidnapping is yet another complication in the already strained relations between Tunis and Tripoli,” explains Cherif. The incident strengthens those arguing for the closing of borders and cutting all contact with Libya Dawn, which in turn has been critical of the Tunisian administration – which they consider as less friendly than the Troika government led by the Islamist party Ennahda, and Moncef Marzouki, who while in power had more leverage with parts of Libya Dawn. Consequently, there have been threats from Libya Dawn to close the border from the Tripoli side and stop all economic exchange. “On their social media, Libya Dawn are definitely hostile to the current Tunisian government,” says Cherif. However, a crisis with Libya Dawn will exacerbate the economic situation for Tunisia’s southern population, as well as the security situation. “I wonder if the government is willing to take this risk, close the border and stick to full recognition of the Tobruk government,” he speculates.
Tensions are also apparent on the ground in the war-torn country; many Libyans consider Tunisians to be behind suicide attacks in Tripoli, Misrata and Sirte, explains a Libyan political analyst currently in Tripoli. In addition, many Libyans feel increasingly threatened and targeted when visiting their neighbouring country. “The majority of Libyans would complain and share stories of mistreatment and humiliation of Tunisian police whether they are traveling to Tunisia or just passing through it to fly to Europe or elsewhere,” he says.
Tunisia was, prior to the kidnapping, one of a limited number of countries still with a diplomatic presence in Libya. However, as a result of the incident, Tunisia has called for all its citizens in the country to leave and will withdraw its diplomatic staff and close its consulate.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.