Violence in Tripoli has forced diplomats next door to Tunis, where they gather in makeshift offices trying to solve Libya’s problems from afar. But a terrorist attack in their new home underlines the region’s fragility.
It is 09.45 and Nataliya Apostolova is on a conference call to Brussels and vigorously taking notes. The EU ambassador to Libya is being briefed on the outcome of the EU foreign ministers’ meeting the previous day. She wants to get a sense of the response among ministers to a plan being floated – if a political solution is reached – that could include sending an EU security mission to Libya. Resolute and direct, the 51-year-old Bulgarian likes to get things done. This morning she is chairing a meeting of 28 EU ambassadors to Libya. “Let’s start. We have a lot to do and the agenda is packed,” she says, and opens the meeting 12 minutes early.
On the wall behind her are the familiar flags of the EU member states. But instead of holding the meeting at the EU mission in Tripoli, Apostolova has had to get permission to hold it in a room on the ground floor of the EU mission to Tunisia. Like most of her diplomatic colleagues, Apostolova was moved from Tripoli to Tunis last summer when the violence in the Libyan capital made it too dangerous to work there. “It’s not easy,” she says. “Even our statute as diplomats has changed.”
She and her staff are now working out of a makeshift office in the library of the EU mission to Tunisia. Apostolova has a tiny office; the others are sharing an open space that is stuffed with books and cardboard boxes, some half unpacked and pushed against the walls. “Could you keep your voices down, please?” she asks colleagues as she sits down to meet monocle.
There are currently two Libyan governments both claiming legitimacy and fighting each other with their own militias. While the government in eastern Libya is recognised by the West, the Tripoli-based government led by Islamists is refusing to give up power and controls the capital. The chaos and division has helped Isis, which now claims almost exclusive control of two cities on the Libyan coast. The UN and EU are leading diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution.
“First we need to secure the stability of the country,” says Apostolova. “The more it descends into chaos, the more Isis is going to mushroom. After 45 years of dictatorship Libya lacks not only institutions but also a sense of political life. There are no real political parties.”
Being away from Tripoli is far from ideal for Apostolova but there is a reason for being in Tunis rather than Brussels. “We were dislocated by force majeure but Tunis is the place to meet Libyans,” she says. The next day one of her colleagues, British ambassador to Libya Michael Aron, is on his way to meet with a Libyan human-rights activist at a hotel in a northern suburb of Tunis. “Walking around in Tripoli by myself wasn’t really possible,” says Aron, who arrived in Libya the day after the attack that killed US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
Even though security details might be less constraining, it is obvious Aron finds it difficult to work without being in direct contact with ordinary Libyans. “I do like to engage; you can’t work without being able to get to talk to people at a local level,” says the jovial Arsenal supporter, who enjoyed Libyan life before being forced to leave. “It is frustrating not to be there,” he says. “It has led to a breakdown in the attitude toward foreigners.”
The opportunities for Aron and his colleagues to freely wander around Tunis might have come to an end though. Just one hour after his meeting with the Libyan human-rights activist, two Tunisian militants launched the deadliest attack in Tunisia in more than a decade, killing 21 people at the Bardo Museum in downtown Tunis. Despite this the diplomatic corps is committed to staying in Tunis, even if office space is hard to find.
Aron and his six members of staff are working from a small space in the “shed”, an annex to the residence of the British ambassador to Tunisia. The imposing residence dates back to the 1850s and Aron’s less impressive office is decorated with Libyan flags and a few pictures from Libya. “At the beginning we were working from the visa booths at the British embassy here,” he says.
The phone rings: it’s the Egyptian ambassador calling to check whether Aron will be attending UN-brokered peace talks in Morocco. The purpose of the talks is to encourage the formation of a national unity government that would establish one central government and a ceasefire.
“We need a political solution. We can’t just arm one side: that would create a 10-year civil war,” says Aron. “You need all moderate Libyans to work together against Isis otherwise it will not work.” A national unity government and moderation to unite against Isis as suggested by the UN might seem sensible to outsiders but some diplomats argue that Libya has become a pawn in geostrategic arm-wrestling between Egypt and the Gulf states on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other, both motivated by their respective political vision for the region. Turkey and Egypt accuse each other of empire-building and manipulation.
Tufan Hoebek, an affable career diplomat and lawyer by training, is now Turkey’s chargé d’affaires for Libyan affairs based in Tunis. For now Hoebek is operating as a one-man band. He insists that Turkey’s continued line of communication with the Islamist-led government in Tripoli is based on pragmatism and goodwill. “Talking is not recognition; Libya is now divided but we do want to help with dialogue,” he says from his office at the Turkish embassy in Tunis. “People are getting hung up on the question of legitimacy while Libyans are dying. Let me assure you we are pushing for a solution.” For Hoebek, Egypt’s military support for Tripoli’s rivals is an extension of President Sisi’s battle with the Muslim Brotherhood. “President Sisi’s problems in Egypt can not be solved in Libya,” he says. “Turkey has experienced coups; you need to solve tensions in a democratic way.” Hoebek points out that the Turkish ties to Libya date back to the beginnings of the Ottoman empire. “We have strong cultural, religious and historical bonds and our history is closely interwoven.”
Hours later, at the Egyptian embassy in downtown Tunis, ambassador Ayman Mousharafa invokes the same historical ties when he explains Egypt’s role in Libya. Mousharafa, a tall Copt, is enraged by the Turkish suggestion that Egyptian foreign policy in Libya could be politically motivated. “The Libyan state has crumbled, militias have hijacked the country and we want to limit the flow of arms and militias to Egypt,” he says. “As a consequence Isis has proliferated in Libya. What were we meant to do when 21 of our citizens were killed?” In February Isis released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians. It prompted swift military action by Egypt in co-ordination with a rogue Libyan anti-Islamist general who subsequently was appointed army chief. “We had the right to teach them a lesson,” says an incensed Mousharafa.
Western diplomats fear that a continued Egyptian military role will fuel the violence and hinder political progress. And even though Mousharafa insists that Egypt’s primary concern is its own security and stability for Libya, he doesn’t mask his disdain for Turkey’s President Erdogan and political Islam in general. During the interview he stops mid-sentence to flip over a magazine that shows the Turkish president and other political Islamists on its front page. “This irritates me,” he says, disgusted. “The Turks wants to build a new Ottoman empire in the Arab world.”
While the tense relationship between Egypt and Turkey is hardly helping to secure stability in Libya, western diplomats like to point to Tunisia as a role model. The successful formation of a national unity government that includes political Islamists is seen as the way forward. One of the men involved in trying to talk sense to the Islamist camp in Tripoli is the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi. He has earned the respect of foreign diplomats after steering his party through a difficult national dialogue, handing over power in a peaceful manner and joining a national unity government that includes secular forces as well as members of the former regime.
Even before the attack on the Bardo, Tunisian and western diplomats were concerned that the chaos in Libya could spill over into Tunisia and threaten political progress. “I am trying to help and tell my Libyan contacts that they need to disassociate themselves from groups that are focusing on violent interpretations of Islam,” Ghannouchi says. “The country needs to unify and seek dialogue.”
But Apostolova is adamant that if there is an agreement to form a national unity government, the EU needs to move back to Tripoli to provide support. “With all the constraints you have in the city – having to move around in armoured cars – all of us want to go back to Tripoli as soon as possible,” she says. “The moment there is a national unity government and minimal security, all of us are ready to go back to provide support. That’s our mandate. But I think it might take a year.”