Will Libya-Tunisia ‘unity’ talks end chaos in North Africa?

M. Nasir Jawed |


Libya seems back in news for all the right reasons. A government is in place that will oversee the country heading to presidential and parliamentary elections in December this year; and nearly all the warring factions have rallied round to support the transitional arrangement. Yet it will be too early to speculate any constancy, or smell any rat, in the present political setup that has been the result of a series of UN-backed negotiations.

Nonetheless, “The unexpectedly smooth transfer of power is seen as an important step to end the chaos in the oil-rich North African country,” said Dr. Mohammed Issam Laarousi, who is professor of international relations and is a senior researcher at Trends Research & Advisory in Abu Dhabi.

Experts like Robert Satloff and Sarah Feurer, associated with the Washington Institute, advise the US administration to reach out to the region – as they face challenges “from economic strains exacerbated by the pandemic to potential instability arising from the conflicts in Western Sahara and Libya.” The US can reap huge dividends, they suggest, from the region’s strategic opportunities offering the US to advance “a range of key US interests.”

Tunisian President Kais Saied however becomes the first leader to arrive in Tripoli to meet Abdul Hamid Dabaiba, the interim prime minister and Mohammad Younes Menfi, the head of Libya’s Presidency Council. The talks were meant mainly to bring back the regional ties on track – thus focusing not just on the economy and trade between the two nations, but also on issues of regional importance.

“It’s time to overcome all causes of estrangement,” said Saied without elaborating, but indicating to repair relations that were under fire due to Tunis’ wavering support to rival administrations in Libya in the east and west that fought themselves to a bloody standstill before making way for the new UN-recognized unity government.

The visit was also meant to send a message to the Tunisian people as well as the outsiders that the Tunisian leader meant business: To those at home he is setting the foreign policy agenda with Libya in priority; and to the region he is sending hopes of reviving North Africa’s dream project – the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) – that would unite the region on the basis of an integrated approach on the region’s glaring issues like sagging economy, dire security concerns and betraying political integration.

“In the strategic, security and economic overview, the Tunisian president’s visit to Tripoli is about looking for good opportunities of cooperation. The long years of conflict have resulted in prolonged border closures that have hit the volume of business, particularly in the informal trade in consumer goods that is an economic mainstay in border areas,” Dr. Mohammed Issam told Arab News.

Saied is also seen to be in a race against time to beat Tunisia’s regional competitors for Libyan market opportunities especially in matters of trade and employment. The repatriation of the families of Tunisian militants is also among the issues of common concern of the two countries’ leaders.

But what seems to have caught the eyes of the planners, policy makers and commenters is the two countries’ seemingly concordance on reactivating the AMU, which merits attention in the larger interests of the North Africa, which remains among the most fragmented regions in continent today. It has its own set of problems like most of the regions in the world, but a will to have the regional unity to deal with problems of common interest is strikingly lacking. These were the reason the five countries – Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania – came together to create the AMU in 1989 and that became very reasons for the project to collapse. In contrast, other regional associations in Africa not only worked, but thrived, like the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS).

According to Issam, “The Maghreb Union remains unrealizable project even with the eventual political peace agreement in Libya and Tunisian president’s visit to Tripoli. In spite of the intentions of integration, the North African region remains among the most fragmented regions in Africa today.”

The professor said that the stagnation and eventual failure of Maghreb cooperation in different productive sectors has resulted in losses for Maghreb countries that exceeded 7.5 billion dollars annually, especially regarding intra-regional trade among Maghreb countries, which currently makes up less than 0.5 percent of the total imports and exports for these countries.

Besides the economy of the crisis, the complicated and fragile security situation also hampered the integration project.

Issam said: “The power games being played in Libya has complicated any possible solution to the crisis” and Qaddafi’s 40-year-rule simply compounded the problem.”

The professor thinks that Morocco and Algeria’s re-entry into the regional diplomatic and security fray is to be welcomed because “the country’s leaders are surely right to point out that conflicts should, where at all possible, be resolved regionally.”

This should have been the case with the Maghreb countries in general, but the countries chose to associate with external alliances with major international powers than sticking to the idea of a united Maghreb.

Can the Union be reactivated? Issam thinks otherwise. There is an absence of political will, internal political conflicts between Arab Maghreb countries, and a rise in security concerns due to stepped up terrorist activities and extremism following the revolutions of the Arab Spring. These were the challenges that caused the idea to collapse, he said and added that the region is facing the same challenges.

There is no denying the fact that the very idea to come closer and form the AMU had become the rallying point among the peoples of the Maghreb countries. This must be uppermost in the minds of the leaders of Libya and Tunisia when they met in Tripoli on March 18 and decided to make public the idea to reboot the Union, may be with the hope to integrate the region once again; and to instill confidence in the peoples of the region of a possible united Maghreb.

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