The political scene in Tunis is living some very tense days as some parties have criticized Parliament Speaker and head of the Ennahda party Rached Ghannouchi for his problematic diplomatic ties with Turkey, in relation to the Libyan conflict.
Ghannouchi was questioned in parliament on June 3 over his alleged Turkish connections and attempts to direct Tunisia’s Libya policy.
“Libya’s neighbors cannot live in carelessness. If there is a fire at your neighbor’s, you cannot be neutral.”
“Libya’s neighbors cannot live in carelessness. If there is a fire at your neighbor’s, you cannot be neutral; extinguishing the fire is a duty and necessity, so passive neutrality makes no sense,” the leader of Ennahda said in an interview with Anatolia News Agency the day before the parliamentary hearing.
The questioning of the speaker came in the midst of condemnation after his recent visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his phone call in May with the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, to congratulate him on reclaiming the Al-Watiya military airbase from the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by ex-General Khalifa Haftar.
Some Tunisian parties have criticized Ghannouchi for exceeding the limits of his institutional role venturing into foreign policy matters which fall within the competence of the President of the Republic, based on the Tunisian Constitution.
Additionally, his actions run counter to Tunisia’s long-standing diplomatic neutrality. In particular, it defies its strategy of non-interference in the Libya war.
Ghannouchi’s controversial contacts with the Turkish-GNA axis in Libya sparked the anger of part of the opposition last month.
Ghannouchi’s controversial contacts with the Turkish-GNA axis in Libya and his intervention in diplomatic affairs sparked the anger of part of the opposition last month and tension has been rising as Tunisian voices from within as well as outside the government recently demanded his dismissal from parliament’s presidency.
Opposition groups staged a protest in front of the parliament building two days before the hearing session devoted to scrutinizing the president of the legislature over his support for Libya’s Turkish-backed GNA.
Political parties and rights groups inside Tunisia have raised fears about slipping into the policy of axis and alignment, with the head of the Ennahda movement allegedly backing the government in Tripoli and known to have good relations with Turkey’s president and the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
“Rached Ghannouchi has never concealed his alignment with Turkey and Qatar. But he is now the speaker of Parliament and Tunisian institutions are now dragged into this axis,” Hamza Meddeb, an expert with the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Agence France Presse (AFP).
The Tunisian parliament failed to pass a resolution prohibiting meddling in Libyan affairs at the June 3 plenary session.
Bringing more doubt and concern to the political atmosphere, the Tunisian parliament failed to pass a resolution prohibiting meddling in Libyan affairs at the June 3 plenary session. Members of Parliament rejected the draft motion put forward by Abir Moussi, head of the Free Destourian Party (PDL), on the refusal by the assembly of any foreign interference in Libya and opposition to the establishment of any foreign logistical base on Tunisian soil.
While deputies were unanimous in rebuffing regional and international interference in Libya, they expressed divided opinions on the motion underscoring tense polarization between Islamists and their opponents, both within and outside parliament, on the neighboring conflict.
Anti-Islamist Abir Moussi, who is well known for her opposition to Ennahda and calling a ban to the Muslim Brotherhood from the Tunisian Parliament, has been particularly virulent as she is behind most of the protests aimed at Ghannouchi. One may think that her hostility to political Islam stems from her liberal ideas. But that is not the case, the positions and methods deployed by the Destourian party and its leader are often closer to conservative Islam than to a progressive party.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Sami Hamdi, an established commentator on MENA affairs and geopolitical risk consultant, pointed to the “domestic infighting” between President Kais Saied and Ghannouchi as the factor that “sums up” Tunisia’s uncertain voice on the Libyan file.
He made reference to Saied’s statement, in late May, in which the head of state said that Tunisia has only one president both nationally and internationally in response to the parliamentary speaker’s biased diplomacy, and his misuse of his position in overstepping the prerogatives of the president.
Although Tunisia officially rejects any foreign military presence, it “has allowed foreign forces to use its territory in past years.”
Although Tunisia officially rejects any foreign military presence or the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil, the geopolitical analyst stated that the North African state has allowed foreign forces to use its territory in past years, including last month.
“It’s like the worst kept secret,” Hamdi said hinting at the landing of a Turkish plane at Tunisia’s southern airport of Djerba-Zarzis, in early May, to deliver medical aid to Libyans at the Ras Jedir border crossing.
The recent Turkish shipment triggered outcry in Tunisia among political parties and civil society organizations who viewed the operation as a violation of Tunisia’s sovereignty as well as an attempt by Ankara to involve the country into the Libyan crisis.
“It shows the extent to which Turkey believes Tunisia is not an influential power, and mostly relies on Ghannouchi to make sure he doesn’t act against Turkish interests,” Hamdi argued noting that Tunis no longer carries weight as a mediator in foreign policy, including in regional affairs.
Tunisian political analyst Mondher Bendhiafi spoke to The Arab Weekly and emphasized that there were essentially two strategies towards the Libyan crisis within Tunisia: one opposed to any involvement in the conflict, represented by Saied, the other aligned with one side of the conflict which is embodied by the Ennahda party.
Turkey previously proved its will to use its Islamist partisans in Tunisia to carry out its plans in Libya.
Turkey previously proved its will to use its Islamist partisans in Tunisia to carry out its plans in Libya. President Erdogan made a surprise visit to his Tunisian counterpart in December to discuss Libyan developments.
The Turkish president requested the use of Tunisian land, air, and maritime spaces for military deployment in Libya and asked the Tunisian president to facilitate the logistics of Ankara’s military intervention in Libya. Aware of the strong opposition at home, Saied turned down the request.
However, with Turkey’s growing role in Libya, and the ambiguous approach by Tunisian authorities vis-à-vis Turkish activity in the region and the Turkey-GNA alliance, whether Tunisia is able to stick to its policy of neutrality or shift its position remains the question. Eventually, it may have to choose.
Hamdi observed that what drives the fears of the Tunisian public with regards to an involvement in the Libyan war is “ideological.” The risk of entering a battlefield in a conflict that “benefits one group,” the Islamist camp via Turkey-Muslim Brotherhood cooperation— where Tunisia sees no national interest.
Ultimately, it is not in Tunisia’s interest to get involved and take sides in the protracted and destructive conflict next door, lest it becomes the target of hostilities from opposing groups in Libya. The last thing the country needs is to turn its border into a new theater of war adding to its enormous economic predicaments.