While Tunisia consolidates the progress it has made domestically over the last five years, the situation in its immediate neighbourhood remains difficult and volatile. The government has sought to play a central diplomatic role in helping to resolve the intractable issues plaguing Libya and, further afield, Syria, without inflaming tensions. Indeed, as a founding member of the non-aligned movement, the country has largely tried to stick to the principles of that group. Although the Cold War, which spawned the movement, is long finished, the ideas of neutrality, state sovereignty, and the “achievement of peoples’ right to freedom and self-determination”, as the foreign ministry characterises it, are driving forces of the government’s international relations. In relation to Libya, for example, this means opposition to international military intervention and support for regional mediation to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Indeed, in February 2016 at a ceremony involving international diplomatic missions in Tunis, President Béji Caïd Essebsi stated, “We do not see another horizon for the settlement of the Libyan crisis but that of implementing inter-Libyan political agreement, formation of a national union government and the mobilisation of the international community to support the efforts of this government in practicing its powers, peacemaking, reconstruction of the state institutions and the satisfaction of the Libyan people’s needs.”
Libya remains a key issue for Tunisia because it has both security and economic ramifications. President Essebsi has pointed out that the failure of the Libyan state has fed terrorism within Tunisia, stating that weapons and terrorists have been smuggled across the 500 km border between the two countries. Furthermore, Libya was formerly a source of low-skilled jobs for Tunisians. However, this flow has recently been reversed, as Libyans fleeing violence at home have been blamed for driving up prices within Tunisia.
As such, the current chaos in Libya poses a serious threat to Tunisia. The current government’s response seems to be an attempt to build regional momentum to force a solution. In many ways, this collegial approach is a consistent thread running through Tunisia’s foreign policy in the post-revolutionary period. For example, former interim president Moncef Marzouki made efforts to resuscitate the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), a five-member regional trading bloc consisting of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Although the first meeting was held in 1988, the organisation had been moribund for the past two decades due to bilateral tensions within the bloc, namely between Mauritania and Libya, and Algeria and Morocco. Despite this, in his first foreign visit, Marzouki travelled to Morocco, Mauritania and Algeria in an attempt to breathe new life into the AMU. Prior to the trip, he stated, “Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria have a common future in the Grand Maghreb,” adding that, “2012 will be the year of the Maghreb.”
Although by 2015, much of the momentum has slowed, there have still been some notable steps towards regional integration, most recently with the roll out of the AMU’s Maghreb Investment and Foreign Trade Bank in December 2015. The current administration, led by Nidaa Tounes, has been characterised by a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy. In April 2015, for example, the government announced that diplomatic relations with Syria might be re-established. The overriding emphasis of Tunisia’s foreign policy, though, is one of non-confrontation and regional cooperation. Issam Matoussi, a member of parliament for Nidaa Tounes, told the website Al Monitor in April 2015, “The president … has always had a vision of foreign policy based on consensus.” This impulse, which has its historical roots in the non-aligned movement, is likely to be a defining characteristic of Tunisia’s foreign policy moving forwards.
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