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Updated Feb 7, 2020

Tunisia’s decision not to participate in the January 19 Berlin conference on the Libyan conflict was applauded as the right move by President Kais Saied, who interpreted the country’s late invitation—just two days before the conference—as a diplomatic insult, a view held by the Tunisian electorate as well. That Tunisia’s neighbor Algeria received an invitation a week in advance reinforced this perception, as it seemed to confirm that the international community regard Algeria as the dominant country in the region, with Tunisia playing second fiddle.

On the other hand, international observers and opposition politicians in Tunisia see the North African country’s non-participation as a missed chance to gain international support and assert Tunisia’s position toward Libya on the world stage. Tunisia currently sits as president of the Arab League, and has begun its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. 

Mohsen Marzouq, leader of the centrist party Machrouu Tounes, speaking with Al-Monitor, said that Tunisia should have been present in Berlin, not necessarily to influence the outcome of the conference but to meet with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and world leaders who were there, and to argue Tunisia’s position. Abdelhamid Jlassi of the ruling Ennahdha party expressed fears that Tunisia was lagging behind other Arab countries in terms of international diplomacy, with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia getting heavily involved in mediating the Libyan crisis in particular.    

William Lawrence, a professor of political science and international affairs at American University in Washington, told Al-Monitor that the Berlin conference was organized “without understanding the huge impact of Libya’s own immediate neighborhood on its future”. In his opinion, Kais Saied’s absence was a lost opportunity. “Tunisia’s success is critical for Libya’s success, and vice versa.” 

Tunisia has more at stake than many of the participants at the Berlin conference, given its shared border with Libya. The risk of terrorism spilling over from Libya into Tunisia’s northeast is a constant concern, and smuggling has taken a significant toll on the Tunisian economy. More than US$35 million in unpaid medical costs for treating injured Libyan soldiers in Tunisian hospitals has also exacerbated the losses Tunisia is facing due to the civil war.

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