Egypt’s Divisive Influence in Libya and Tunisia

No two Arab transitions have unfolded the same over the last three years. Each transition is unique, but the societies are not insulated and the borders are not retentive; what happens in one place reverberates elsewhere. In the case of North Africa, developments in Egypt over the past year threaten to undermine consensus-building and the integrity of political processes in Libya and Tunisia.

This week, Egyptian authorities formally declared former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi winner of the country’s presidential elections. With the absence of public debate, marginalization and intimidation of certain groups, and mass detentions and death sentences, observers have explicitly noted the undemocratic climate in Egypt. Nevertheless, Sisi’s election represents the coming full circle of events beginning almost one year ago when the military sacked former President Mohamed Morsi’s government and embarked on a crackdown so widespread that it has since engulfed even activists who had spoken against the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. Much like how the constitutional referendum held in January promoted a “with us or against us” sentiment in which a vote for the document served as a public statement of one’s rejection of Islamists, this time around a vote for Sisi was conflated with a vote for Egypt and against its enemies. Voter turnout may have been noticeably low, but the electoral victory will provide the sufficient political cover that the new Egyptian government may use to continue the crackdown on Islamists and other activists.

This could have ramifications beyond Egypt’s borders: one, exacerbating political divides in Libya; two, threatening to shake Tunisia’s delicate stability; and three, making security the main prism through which the international community engages the region at the expense of longer-term goals.

Neighboring Libya is in the throes of the worst violence since the 2011 revolution. On May 16, 2014, retired Libyan general Khalifa Haftar launched an unauthorized campaign to purge the country of militant Islamists. Using government aircraft and supported by a loose coalition, he has bombarded Ansar al-Sharia and February 17 brigade strongholds in Benghazi. His supporters disrupted a session of the Islamist-dominated General National Congress in Tripoli, demanding its dissolution. Tensions and violence have only escalated as continued clashes have left several dozen dead and legislators dispute who is really prime minister. The foreign minister is in Cairo reportedly to seek Egypt’s support of the non-Islamist caretaker Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and its help in resolving the current crisis.

Events of the last few weeks have resulted in a fast and steady loss of nuance in the national discourse, with Islamists being treated as one homogenous group and undistinguishable from the jihadi and criminal networks that operate outside the law and are arguably the main destabilizers and spoilers. Indeed, Libyans are tired of a do-nothing legislature dominated by Islamist factions, but the emerging binary narrative threatens to undermine the political transitional processes – namely the Constitutional Committee and National Dialogue – that would help to forge a national identity and common goals for the country’s direction. Debate and disagreement are a natural part of the processes, but the resort to violence and subsequent demonization of the other shuts down the conversation altogether.

Perceptions of international interference or equivocation raise the stakes further. Speculation that regional actors are propping up their Libyan proxies is rampant. Meanwhile, western officials have been remarkably ambivalent in their response to events, stating that they do not condone Haftar the man but understand the grievances he is trying to address. Haftar’s actions mirror those of Sisi, most notably with his earlier pronouncement of a coup (that never quite was) and remarks about running for president if the Libyan people asked him to. The lack of clarity about what the international community deems acceptable or unacceptable courses of action by Libya’s stakeholders sends a dangerous signal already delivered in Egypt: that principles of inclusion suffer from double standards when it comes to Islamists’ political participation, begging the question whether they must resort to violence to ensure political survival.

In Tunisia, targeted assassinations of two high-profile secularist politicians drove thousands of citizens into the streets to call for the dissolution of the Islamist Ennahda-led government. The public pressure coincided with the military coup in Egypt, and Tunisia’s Islamists, careful not to have the same fate befall them, engaged the opposition at the negotiating table, resulting in a roadmap that ultimately produced an independent caretaker government and the adoption of a constitution. The country has indeed made great strides in using dialogue and compromise to achieve political gains – assisted by the absence of a politicized military in contrast with Egypt. Competition will naturally surface with electoral politics, but any violence could poison healthy competition, fueling pre-existing distrust and deepening polarization.

Most recently, suspected Islamist militants attacked the home of Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, resulting in an exchange of gunfire that killed four policemen. The brazen assault comes dangerously close to a third assassination, which could serve as a tremendous setback to the delicate political balance. Just as Egyptian events last summer impacted Tunisia, the “us versus them” narrative that has gripped Egypt may very well reverberate in Tunisia, amplifying external pressure on an already fragile domestic peace. There is always the risk that, under this added pressure, extremism could prompt a knee-jerk reaction that divides the citizenry rather than bringing it together.

As political rivalries escalate in all three countries (and national reconciliation seeming far out of reach in Egypt and Libya), foremost on the minds of the international community vis-à-vis the turbulent region is security. Hundreds of African migrants have died trying to reach the shores of Europe. A growing jihadist network smuggles goods, arms, and people across unmonitored borders. Egypt also grows increasingly concerned about the no-man’s land taking hold in its western border region with Libya. Undoubtedly, there are many security concerns that the international community needs to collectively address. If, however, inclusionary measures are not pursued in the political realm, then further marginalization and utter removal of Islamists from the civic sphere may play into the hands of extremists. This, in turn, will amplify the negative labeling and demonization of Islamists. As such, security problems are likely to grow, and overstretched and under-resourced international policymakers may find themselves with the bandwidth to respond only to urgent matters, giving far less attention to more strategic programs and policies that would address underlying grievances and could, in the longer term, help to achieve stability and prosperity.

Until now, the international community has been meek in its criticism of the handling of Egypt’s transition. Better late than never; it is important that policymakers deliver clear, robust calls for national reconciliation and inclusionary next steps – a standard to be upheld across the board. Not because Libya and Tunisia have little control over their transitions and are destined to go the direction of Egypt. Rather, as the largest country in the region, Egypt can influence the course of events elsewhere, and it is critical that the space and opportunity for peaceful, consensus-based governance throughout the region be maximized.

Lara Talverdian is a assistant director for research for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center with a focus on North Africa.