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What does Haftar want with Tunisia?

April 2, 2020 at 4:45 pm

A woman holds the national Tunisian flag during a rally on 14 January 2016 [FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images]

Tunisian social media sites, quoting Libyan websites, circulated a video of officers belonging to retired Major General Khalifa Haftar’s militias threatening Tunisia and its people. Haftar’s followers, who seem to belong to the religious extremist groups, appeared to threaten to take control of Tunisia, after completing their control over the rest of Libya. One of the officers in the video hysterically shouted, “We are coming for Tunisia.” Amid the officers chanting takbirs, another fighter vowed to annihilate the Tunisian people, saying, “You want to annihilate us with the coronavirus, we will annihilate you with this,” pointing to his weapon.

The video provoked condemning reactions from the Tunisian public. Although everyone is preoccupied with the quarantine due to the spread of the coronavirus, social media has focused on the video and mocked it. On the other hand, and despite the official authorities avoiding commenting on the video, the border area with Libya, especially the areas bordering the Ras Jedir crossing, witnessed Tunisian military and security reinforcements, and a state of alert and preparedness, with news spreading about Khalifa Haftar’s militias attempting to move towards the crossing to control it from the Libyan side, about 15 kilometres from Tunisian soil.

READ: Egypt accuses Turkey of sending extremists to Libya

It is not surprising that Khalifa Haftar’s militias are expressing such hostility and tension towards the Tunisian people and their country, in light of the media campaign that the Haftar television stations are carrying out, portraying Tunisia as a potential enemy. This is despite the fact that there are no official Tunisian indications justifying this aggressive stance.

Since the outbreak of the Libyan crisis, Tunisia has been keen to commit to defending legitimacy and dealing with the party that has international recognition, i.e. the government in Tripoli this government controls the border points linking Libyan soil to Tunisia. While the former president, Moncef Marzouki, was clear in his condemnation of Haftar’s coup attempt in 2014, the policy of the late president, Beji Caid Essebsi, remained cautious, and tried to find outlets for dialogue with the conflicting parties in Libya. He received Khalifa Haftar in September 2017, in the same manner as he met Fayez Al-Sarraj, the head of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord. He stressed in both meetings that Tunisia’s policy is based on non-interference in the Libyan internal affair and promoting the idea of dialogue between the conflicting parties.

Libya Chief of Staff, Marshall Khalifa Haftar in Paris, France on 29 May 2018 [Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images]

Libya Chief of Staff, Marshall Khalifa Haftar in Paris, France on 29 May 2018 [Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images]

With the arrival of the current President, Kais Saied, to office at the end of 2019, Tunisian foreign policy remained in a state of stagnation, and Tunisia was absent from the Berlin conference. The president only met with Libyan tribal leaders, who have no weight or influence, and the Tunisian position has increased in obscurity and shrinkage, especially given the priority of domestic affairs and combating the global pandemic as a main concern. This is despite the fact that any Libyan conflict over the Ras Jedir border crossing would indeed constitute a threat to Tunisian security, which requires great care and caution.

READ: Hit by war and oil blockade, Libya prepares for pandemic

Despite the official Tunisian stances that do not express hostility to any of the conflicting parties, and despite the presence of figures and media channels loyal to Haftar in Tunisia, the state of hostility Khalifa Haftar is expressing towards Tunisia and its political system is interesting. In an interview with France24, aired in July 2017, Haftar admitted to releasing many members of the terrorist organisation Daesh and forcing them to enter Tunisia. This is a hostile measure revealing his disregard for neighbourly etiquette and the importance of combatting terrorism rather than using it as a means of political pressure to extort supportive positions from neighbouring countries. Haftar’s hostility may be explained by his state of great discomfort towards the Tunisian democratic government and the harmony and accord the major political forces in the country managed to achieve, despite their ideological conflicts and political differences. This could be a political example the Libyans are setting their sights on to resolve the violent conflict experienced in their country. Therefore, it is not strange that there are attempts to distort the image of Tunisia’s government in the media outlets loyal to Haftar, both in Libya and Tunisia, which have hopped on the bandwagon of coup-led governments and called for ending the democratic transition in Tunisia.

READ: Humanity and responsibility are needed in the fight for Tripoli

What is strange is that some Tunisian parties, especially those loyal to the UAE, are openly calling for cooperation with Khalifa Haftar, and are even inciting against the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. They are ignoring the threats that Haftar’s militias make from time to time. These parties sometimes justify their defence of him with Arab nationalist slogans or by claiming to defend Tunisian interests at other times. However, any objective observer is aware of the danger posed by Haftar’s militia’s domination of Libya, in light of his utilisation of religiously conservative groups, such as the Salafi Madkhalists, and his dependence on regional tyrannical forces, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This poses a serious threat to the model of social coexistence in Tunisia and to its democratic transition.

This article first appeared in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed Arabic in on 2 April 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.