Ismail Dbara

Ismail Dbara

Elections, Extremism, Libya, Tunisia

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As Libya descends further into the throes of a civil war, Tunisians are growing increasingly wary of their eastern neighbor, which many fear will become a failed state.

In the recent presidential election, no candidate won a majority in the first round, and therefore the country will hold a run-off election between Moncef Marzouki, the interim president, and Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, at the end of December. The victor will remain in office for five years and play an important role in shaping Tunisian foreign policy, as the new constitution stipulates in Article 77.

In the lead up to the election, it was clear that security and defense figured prominently in the candidates’ platforms. Given the chaotic situation in Libya -- two Tunisian journalists were kidnapped by militias, and there are frequent border clashes -- and the presence of terrorist groups in the mountains on the Tunisia-Algeria border, this will remain the case as Marzouki and Essebsi face off against each other.

For the most part, Marzouki and Essebsi’s rhetoric on Libya circles around three main issues. First, border security. Both candidates believe that as the security situation in Libya deteriorates, more weapons and extremists will enter into Tunisia. Tunisians believe that the absence of a strong central authority in Libya means that Tunis must bear the burden of protecting the border. The country’s interior ministry has revealed that thousands of young Tunisian men have ventured to Libya, some to undergo training with the intention of carrying out attacks in Tunisia, while others travel to Syria by way of Turkey. Even the leader of the Tunisian militant group Ansar al-Sharia, Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi, lives in Libya. His group is complicit in political assassinations and attacks against soldiers and security forces, and has vowed to carry out more attacks after its leaders and members gained support and protection in the turbulent region of eastern Libya.

Second, smuggling. While smuggling has long been the only source of income for many border town residents, the flow of dangerous and profitable goods from Libya, including drugs and weapons, has become a source of concern for Tunis. Smuggling has formed a parallel economy in Tunisia that is roughly half of the size of the official Tunisian economy. The International Crisis Group links the alarming growth in smuggling operations to the security vacuum left in the wake of the uprising against the Ben Ali regime and the chaos resulting from the Libyan war. Aside from being illegal, smuggling empowers jihadists, who bribe border and customs authorities to turn a blind eye toward the movement of goods into Tunisia.

Third, the Libyan refugee community in Tunisia. According to official estimates, around 1.5 million Libyans fled to Tunisia in 2011. The ongoing conflict in the country has prevented many from returning, and their continued presence in Tunisia has led to problems related to security, integration, and the supply of goods and jobs. On November 4, the interior ministry issued a decree prohibiting Libyans from organizing political gatherings or activities without authorization. Violators of this new law could face expulsion and immediate deportation.

In any case, it seems that Tunisia is inclined to work with Western and regional partners to counter the thorny Libyan issue. Tunis constantly encourages consultations with the Americans, Algerians, Egyptians, and Europeans in order to find a peaceful, non-military solution to the crisis. And given the current climate, it is likely that the new president, whether Marzouki or Essebsi, will take a similar tack.

Ismail Dbara is a Tunisian journalist and member of the executive committee of the Tunis Center for Press Freedom.

(Photo via Reuters)