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A Light at the End of the Libyan Tunnel?

Interview with Youssef Chahed

INTERVIEW - 2 June 2021

A decade ago, Tunisia’s "Jasmine Revolution" opened the way for the Arab Spring in the region, creating both new opportunities and raising new challenges. In the midst of this democratic wave, the Libyan people found new political aspirations. But among the countries that attempted to reach political evolution, if not revolution, Libya paid the highest cost: political instability, civil war, and migratory crisis. In the second part of our interview of Youssef Chahed, Prime Minister of Tunisia between 2016 and 2020, we reflect on the Libyan situation. 

Hakim El Karoui: Let’s begin with the Libyan Crisis that still blights the region. What impact does the Libyan situation have on Tunisia? How do we interpret the stance taken by the Europeans? What about the Arabs and Turks? 

YC: The situation in Libya has had major consequences for Tunisia, particularly in terms of security. The 500 km border between Libya and Tunisia has often been a critical concern due to its permeability, and it has been facilitating the circulation of weapons and radicalized fighters. Almost all the attacks perpetrated in Tunisia were actually prepared in Libya, by Tunisians. The insecure border also allowed the crossing into Tunisia of foreign fighters who had travelled to combat zones-including some 3,000 Tunisian nationals. The implementation of electronic surveillance has now largely secured the border; however, we are still facing the risk of those going back to Libya from Syria and to Tunisia from Sudan. Dealing with these foreign fighters, even if they are incarcerated, is a complex issue in which we’ve gained great expertise. 

The collapse of the Libyan state has also had a strong economic impact on Tunisia. Almost 300,000 Tunisians who worked in Libya found themselves unemployed. Libya was also Tunisia’s second-largest trading partner after France, and bilateral trade ending was a massive loss. Southern Tunisia - a prosperous area that benefited greatly from Libyan trade - was particularly affected by the border closure and loss of business opportunities. 

What’s more, a number of factors led to interference from foreign powers on our borders. The international response between 2016 and 2019 was poorly coordinated, most notably the notorious absence of the United States in addressing the Libyan issue. Meanwhile, Europe’s stance was inconsistent and support from UN representatives was weak. There has been no dialog between the region’s countries, who are best placed to provide a clear understanding of the realities on the ground. In this sense, Tunisia can play a key role in resolving the Libyan conflict. Historically close to the Libyan people, Tunisia has good relations with both parties to the conflict and could take part in finding a sustainable solution. But maintaining its historical position of neutrality, Tunisia did not get involved. 

HEK: Is the formation of an interim government and the announcement of parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2021 a sign that the deadlock in Libya has been broken? 

YC: In the past weeks, there have been some positive signs indicating an end to the deadlock in Libya, in particular the establishment of a new interim government. But we still need to closely monitor some major issues.

The risk is creating a democracy in name only - which provides nothing - and reaching the kind of constitutional deadlock we are now experiencing in Tunisia. 

Libya is a major stabilizing force for Africa and southern Europe; it is extremely important that the Libyan experiment succeeds. That’s why we must avoid the pitfalls of the experiment in Tunisia. Our biggest mistake in Tunisia was failing to thoroughly consider the democratic transition and its implications, the constitution and the organization of powers. This is the source of our institutional deadlock today. Just nine months after the departure of Ben Ali in January 2011, Tunisia held elections.

Drafting the constitution then took three years. And ten years later, we are at an impasse. We made mistakes in the beginning, and now we are paying for them. 

Let’s hope Libya doesn’t go down the same path. Libyans will be called to elect their new leaders on December 24, 2021, which is great news. But, in my opinion, there are still considerable challenges to overcome beforehand, such as national reconciliation and unification of the army. The risk is creating a democracy in name only - which provides nothing - and reaching the kind of constitutional deadlock we are now experiencing in Tunisia. Democracy is not a race against time. It needs content to evolve.

Logistically speaking, it is currently difficult to ensure a secure and safe election. There are still a great number of militias and weapons. Even if the organizational challenge of holding elections were to succeed, there would be a risk of opening power up for anyone to take. 

The root of the problem is that there is a lack of consensus within the Libyan political class on important issues, for example which form of government the Libyan people wish to adopt. While some want a republic and others a monarchy, there are differences when it comes to the voting system as well. The country is very disparate.

The root of the problem is that there is a lack of consensus within the Libyan political class.

We should start by beginning a discussion on issues such as national cohesion and the unification of the country. For example, a first step could be reaching a consensus on issues such as how power will be organized, and the form that government will take. This step could be followed by drafting a constitution and then holding parliamentary and presidential elections. I say all this with the aim of seeing the Libyan experiment succeed, which is crucial for this part of the world. 

Libyans have been through a lot and deserve to live in peace and prosperity. While we all want peace and democracy for Libya as soon as possible, I can see the same mistakes we made in Tunisia looming over the horizon. I’m kind of raising the alarm here. To bring the Libyan people peace and prosperity, the Western world needs to ask tough questions and focus on the issues at hand. For example, underprepared elections could end up being contested or not even recognized. The UN plan has created hope. There is a sense that we are nearing the end of the war and moving towards increased stability. Yet time must allow time for deeper reflection, which the Libyans themselves would lead, to decide which system they want to implement.

The Western world has a responsibility and must learn from the Tunisian experiment. 

HEK: Is there a solution? 

YC: The UN-sponsored solution - with a consensual head of government that would be responsible for overseeing the transitional period and demilitarizing the country, at the end of which elections would be held - has definitely provided hope. However, holding elections at the end of the year, as planned by the UN, should not be an end in itself. We must also think about building a democracy that delivers peace and prosperity to Libya and the wider region. Europeans are currently focused on the withdrawal of foreign forces, but this isn’t something that will happen immediately. And France can play a more central role by identifying which representatives to prioritize. 



Copyright: Mahmud TURKIA / AFP


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