The death of President Essebsi was a major loss for Tunisia, but the U.S. remains deeply invested in advancing democracy in the country. Alternatively, looking to the instability in Libya, Hill says, “The U.S. is not involved at all, [even though some] Libyans are pressing for the U.S. to do more … The most productive way the U.S. can be involved is not militarily or financially, but rather diplomatically.”

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Let's focus on the international right now. We want to shift to stories that are not getting as much probably as they need, in terms of air time: what is happening in Libya and what is happening in Tunisia. In Libya there are continued – there's unrest there, a siege on Tripoli, a looming battle for southeast of Tripoli. The area of Tarhunah as a possible inflection point in the conflict there in Tunisia. The death of the president, Beji Caïd Essebsi, a loss for those who favored political moderation and incrementalism. That's the take from our guest, Tom Hill, who's here to expand on this. Tom is the senior program officer for North America at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is tweeting @USIP. Tom, welcome back. Thank you for being here today.

Tom Hill: Thanks for having me. Tim Farley: Let's take this one at a time. First in Libya, because clearly the death of Muammar Gaddafi a few years ago has not led to anything other than unrest, chaos and disorganization in that country. What is the state of the nation right now in Libya?

Tom Hill: What you have is essentially a stalemate in terms of ground forces between the internationally recognized government that's based out of Tripoli and the insurgent force, or Libyan National Army, guided by General Haftar, and neither is able to make significant headway in terms of ending the conflict militarily. But, outside actors, principally the United Arab Emirates, now France, in smaller ways Turkey, Saudi and Egypt, keep fueling the conflict by pumping money into their respective proxies.

Tim Farley: Why France?

Tom Hill: I think France and Italy have a vested interest in the stability of Libya because they, as you'll recall, there was a great deal of hysteria in Europe about the number of migrants that were leaving Africa, or departing from Libya, but most of them were sub-Saharan Africans and entering into Europe. The xenophobia and the perceived instability that these migrants create, not only from a demographic perspective but also the potential for terrorism, created a lot of energy within the French populous to do something about Libya. And so, the French obviously have historical ties to the continent. They are very active in countries that border Libya on the southern frontier. So, being active in Libya is part of not only France's continued activities on the continent but also this immediate migration issue. Bringing stability is really their primary concern.

Tim Farley: You mentioned the internationally recognized government. It doesn't sound like it's internationally recognized by everybody, and one wonders what exactly it means if you're internationally recognized.

Tom Hill: Well, it's interesting. The Emirates, Egyptians, Saudi Arabia, all the other external patron states all rhetorically support the government in Tripoli and have repeatedly supported U.N. resolutions that have identified the government in Tripoli as the sole legitimate governing body of the country. And yet, they continue to support groups inside Libya that are trying to overthrow that body. So, there is an inconsistency between the rhetoric and their actions. But, nominally, the government in Tripoli is still the internationally recognized one.

Tim Farley: You have also noted the United Nations has imposed arms embargoes, but that's being violated left and right. It doesn't seem that there are many consequences for those violations.

Tom Hill: That's exactly right. So, the U.N. has passed multiple resolutions that prevent the transfer of weapons and material and support into Libya. There are at least five, probably six or more countries, that are regularly violating that, most prominently would be Turkey on the side of the government based in Tripoli, and then the United Arab Emirates in backing the LNA and General Haftar. But, you have France, Saudi, Egypt, the Russians all playing an active role.

Tim Farley: What role is the U.S. playing right now, and what, in your estimation, what role should the U.S. be playing?

Tom Hill: Well, it's a strange situation where the U.S. is not involved at all. And, here you have a situation where there are Libyans actually pressing for the U.S. to get deeper involved. So, there has been a series of high-level visits from the internationally recognized body based in Tripoli. As they come through Washington, their principal talking point is: please get involved, please help us. I think the most productive way the U.S. can be involved is not militarily or financially but, rather, diplomatically. Part of the problem, and what has helped prolong this conflict, has been an inability to get all countries that are, except for I guess you could say Russia, all countries that are allies of the United States around the table to discuss what a productive way to bring stability to Libya might look like. And really, the U.S. is the only country that has the ability to convene those countries and hold them accountable. The French and Italians have both tried and have failed to do that. I don't think they have the leverage with the Gulf countries to actually implement anything. Tom Hill: The U.S. is really uniquely placed to play a productive diplomatic role, and that's a very low cost but high yield intervention.

Tim Farley: Once again, Tom Hill with us, senior program officer for North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace. Let us shift to Tunisia where the death of the president, Beji Caïd Essebsi, caused elections, which now have been moved up to September 15th. Some people look at that as a positive sign. How do you view this?

Tom Hill: Well, Essebsi's death is a major loss. He was a dominant figure in the political system and really was a force for moderation. I think he did a lot behind the scenes to ensure that things were done by consensus. While that may have made the political process rather slow, I think that it ultimately has yielded what arguably is the only true democracy in the Arab world. So, his presence I think will be a major loss. Now, they were already going to have elections this fall. His death has accelerated the timeline for those elections. What you see is an extreme fragmentation of the political space. Rather than having parties coalesce around ideologies and really building out a series of platforms with proposed reforms and things they want to do to improve the country, what you're seeing is a lot of personalities emerge and parties built around personalities. That's really not helpful. In the run-up to the elections, we'll see who actually starts to gain traction. Right now the person who's gaining the most traction is kind of a billionaire media tycoon, almost cut from the same cloth as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy several years ago.

Tom Hill: It'll be interesting to see what happens, but Essebsi's death is a major loss.

Tim Farley: To that point you were making before about the proxies, once again, we find Egypt and the United Arab Emirates sticking their fingers in this particular pie.

Tom Hill: In Libya or Tunisia? Because I don't think I see Egypt and the UAE playing a role in Tunisia so much.

Tim Farley: Are there any on the outside then that are trying to do that?

Tom Hill: Not that I can tell in terms of Tunisia. Tunisia is bordered by two states that got enough on their own plate right now, in terms of what's going on inside them, with Libya on its east and Algeria on its west. By and large, the countries that would be capable of playing a role in Tunisia are occupied with other things that are going on in the region, and Tunisia is considered kind of small potatoes. But, the U.S. is deeply invested there, and we spend a lot of money and effort trying to advance democracy there. So, we have a very deep stake in seeing Tunisia's transition continue to go smoothly and democratically.

Tim Farley: That would be my next question, is whether or not the U.S. role, as you've just described a little bit, but whether that is the appropriate level of engagement in this particular conflict, or I say conflict in this particular area.

Tom Hill: Yeah. I perceive Tunisia to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise fairly bleak environment, where you see strong men and anti-democratic forces playing extremely negative roles in all these countries. And here, you have Tunisia that has really made progress towards becoming a truly democratic state – one that is pluralistic and actually pushing the society forward rather than backward. We have a great opportunity, I think, to help them. Not that Tunisia is a model that can be exported, but they can serve as an inspiration I think for other people in the region who want something different than the despotic rule that many of them currently live under.

Tim Farley: We're about out of time, and I know this is not nearly enough time to cover these issues. But, just a general question, whether or not the State Department is now at a point where you think it is staffed appropriately under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to be addressing these issues? There had been a concern at one time that the ranks of diplomats were being decimated and that there was not enough to really do the grunt work that's required behind the scenes to take care of, at least paying close attention to these areas. Any changes been made there?

Tom Hill: Not that I've seen. The tragedy is that North Africa has always been I think overlooked by what's happening in the Middle East and then massive development projects on the continent of Africa. So, you have North Africa always in the shadows of these much, much larger engagements. Both Libya, Tunisia, but also Algeria and I would argue Egypt, are places that necessitate a lot of attention and investment, not just financially but diplomatically. It's unfortunate that right now North Africa continues to suffer from this kind of marginalization within the State Department, but within the broader U.S. national security framework, which has been consistent for several presidents now. So, it doesn't help that there aren't people in a lot of those seats, but a couple of more bodies – I don't think it's sufficient. There really needs to be a greater appreciation and prioritization of North Africa.

Tim Farley: Tom Hill, I do appreciate you being with us. Thanks for setting us straight on a few things and giving us the information we need. I appreciate it.

Tom Hill: Thank you.

Tim Farley: Tom Hill, senior program officer for North Africa, The U.S. Institute of Peace on the ongoing situations in Libya and Tunisia. Tunisia with its elections September the 15th. Tom, either way, the Twitter handle @USIP.

Related Publications

How Commemoration Can Help Unite a Divided Libya

How Commemoration Can Help Unite a Divided Libya

Thursday, August 24, 2023

By: David Wood;  Mehdi Bchir

In the al-Washishi district of Benghazi a burnt-out car stands in memorial to a slain Libyan National Army (LNA) special forces fighter, serving as a city-wide reflection of the country’s 2014-2017 civil war. The car belonged to Salem (Afareet) Al-Naili, whose father was brutally murdered, one of the many victims of terrorist violence in the city. Inspired by the personal loss of his father, Salem threw himself into the fighting in the city’s civil war and was ultimately also assassinated.

Type: Analysis and Commentary


Citizen State and Community Relations in Building Local Governance

Citizen State and Community Relations in Building Local Governance

Monday, August 21, 2023

By: Andrew Cheatham;  Mohamed Fortia;  Nathaniel Wilson

Since the revolution in 2011 and the toppling of the long-standing regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has experienced various degrees of political instability and conflict. A succession of internationally supported “transitions” have failed to bring the Libyan people a functioning state with a clear social contract based on a shared vision for the nation. This paper discusses the present challenges for good local governance as perceived by Libyan citizens and institutional actors. Through this lens, recommendations are offered for immediate, short-, and medium-term initiatives that can support the improvement of citizen relations with the three traditional arms of the state—the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Type: Discussion Paper

Democracy & Governance

Libya Can Move Past Its Political Deadlock, But It Will Take Work to Maintain A ‘Deal’

Libya Can Move Past Its Political Deadlock, But It Will Take Work to Maintain A ‘Deal’

Friday, May 19, 2023

By: Andrew Cheatham

Since 2012, multiple failed political transitions have taken their toll on the Libyan people. The continued and increasingly complex internal divisions and external vectors affecting Libya threaten to send it into another spiral of crisis and violence. Local and national leaders working in good faith to stabilize the country have inevitably grown cynical as ruling elites and their international partners fail to deliver local security and good governance.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionPeace Processes

Beyond Elections: Libya Needs Unified Institutions and Reconciliation

Beyond Elections: Libya Needs Unified Institutions and Reconciliation

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

By: Mehdi Bchir

Last week, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss its Libya mission and its new plan to end the country’s political impasse through elections. While credible polls will be a critical step in forging a path to peace, they are not a panacea for addressing this byzantine conflict’s deeply rooted drivers and the intense, bitter rivalries and factionalism that have surfaced since 2011. Indeed, previous efforts to hold elections have buckled under the weight of the intricate dynamics at play. Over a decade after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, resolving Libya's complex conflict will require a multifaceted approach that prioritizes building trust among Libyans.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionDemocracy & Governance

View All Publications