The Libyan crisis cast its shadows over Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s recent visit to Egypt to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The leaders have different approaches to Libya, and Essebsi’s October visit ended without any agreement on how to calm the chaos in Libya and stop terrorists’ expansion there Even so, the men agreed on the importance of strengthening bilateral relations and reaching a political solution to the crises experienced by countries in the region.
Ayman Mousharafa, Egypt’s ambassador to Tunisia, described Essebsi’s visit as historic. “This is the first official visit of the president of Tunisia to Egypt in 50 years,” he told Al-Monitor.Egyptian-Tunisian relations have improved markedly this year, as the leaders smooth over tensions that rose after Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was removed from office by the military July 3, 2013. When that happened, Tunisia responded the next day with an official statement: “The Egyptian military’s direct intervention in political affairs and in civil institutions’ activities is unacceptable internationally and as per the charter of the African Union, since [such intervention] may exacerbate the political crisis rather than resolve it.”
During a UN General Assembly meeting Sept. 26, 2013, former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki said, “I would like to address the authorities in Egypt and call on them to release Mohammed Morsi and all political prisoners.” Marzouki’s comments stirred Cairo’s wrath, and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement the same day denouncing Marzouki’s UN speech, describing it as a challenge to the will of the Egyptian people who had taken to the streets June 30 calling for the establishment of real democracy.
Two days later, Egypt called Mousharafa for consultations on bilateral relations between the two countries.
The tension continued until Essebsi was elected Tunisian president in December 2014. Around that time period, Essebsi told journalist Ahmed Abu Zeid, “Egypt is a sister country and we appreciate its geographical and political importance in the region.” Speaking in a phone interview on Egyptian satellite channel Online TV Live, Essebsi said, “Relations between Tunisia and Egypt will only be brotherly relations, relations of cooperation and excellent relations. Any disagreement that may occur at some point will be deemed a temporary obstacle.”
Sisi rushed to congratulate Essebsi, affirming “Egypt’s full support to Tunisia and its aspiration to strengthen the cooperation and brotherly relations between the two countries.”
“Relations between the two countries improved greatly after Essebsi took office, since he is committed to the principle of noninterference in Egyptian internal affairs,” Mousharafa said. “Marzouki’s interventions were unacceptable, and his speech at the United Nations in 2013 caused a diplomatic crisis. At that time, I was summoned for consultation in Cairo.”
He added, “The Libyan crisis was the main topic in the October talks between the two presidents, who exchanged their views on this matter. The presidents emphasized that the situation in Libya is a matter of national security for Egypt and Tunisia.”
For his part, Mokhtar Ghobashi, deputy head of the Arab Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said, “There is a major disagreement between Tunisia and Egypt on the situation in Libya. Tunisia absolutely refuses the principle of intervention in Libyan affairs, while Egypt believes it is possible to intervene if necessary.”
Ghobashi told Al-Monitor, “Tunisia is dealing with the two Libyan governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk, while Egypt only recognizes the national Libyan army, [which is] the internationally recognized government of Tobruk and the elected House of Representatives. This is a radical disagreement between the two countries.”
The Libyan crisis will only be resolved when neighboring countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria agree on a strategy, Ghobashi added. He agreed with Mousharafa’s assessment that the situation in Libya was the main reason for Essebsi’s recent visit to Egypt.
Sisi and Essebsi also tackled the economy. During a press conference following the Oct. 4 meeting, Sisi said, “We confirmed the need to promote trade and strengthen economic and investment relations through the optimal use of the advantages provided by the frameworks governing bilateral trade and economic relations with emphasis on the role of the private sector in this regard.”
According to the website of Egypt State Information Service, Egypt’s official media and public relations apparatus, trade and economic relations between Egypt and Tunisia are governed by several frameworks, including the free-trade agreement signed between the two countries in March 1998; the Agadir Agreement signed between Egypt and Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan in February 2004; and the Greater Arab Free Trade Area Agreement signed in January 2005.
It is worth mentioning the agreement that former Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb signed during his visit to Tunisia in September, which included the signing of 16 memoranda of understanding on cooperation between Egypt and Tunisia. The most prominent of these memoranda were in the fields of irrigation, the stock market, industrial cooperation and tourism.
However, Medhat Nafei, an economist and finance professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “The volume of trade exchange between the two countries is very limited, about $317 million.” He said, “Politics prevail over economy in the relations between Tunisia and Egypt. The economic problems of both countries are caused by instability in the region.”
He added, “Economic talks will be more realistic if the Libyan crisis is solved, since it will be possible then to create land routes and railways between Egypt and Tunisia.” He said, “Activating any economic agreements between the two countries will be difficult without solving the Libyan crisis.”
This article was originally published by Al-Monitor