Maghrib Relations

Libya Table of Contents

Although some analysts classify Libya as part of the Maghrib, only the province of Tripolitania shares a common history and culture with other Maghribi countries. The lack of a Maghribi heritage, together with the revolutionary government's predilection for Mashriq affairs, has caused the Maghribi area to be of secondary interest to Libya since 1969. In 1970 Libya withdrew from the Permanent Maghrib Consultative Committee, an organization founded by the Maghribi states to foster the eventual development of an economic community. Nonetheless, Libya pursued an active foreign policy toward the Maghrib, a policy that usually revolved around the issues of Arab unity and the Western Sahara dispute.

During a December 1972 visit to Tunisia, Qadhafi publicly called for its merger with Libya. Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba rejected the idea and chided Qadhafi for his youthful naiveté. In January 1974, only a few months after the failure of the Libyan-Egyptian merger, Qadhafi pursued a new unification plan during a meeting with Bourguiba at Jerba. Bourguiba first accepted the proposed Arab Islamic Republic, but then reversed his decision. He later stated that he had agreed only to the concept of eventual Maghribi unification, not to any specific bilateral union at the time. Relations subsequently deteriorated and became more strained in 1975, when Tunisia supported the partition of the Western Sahara territory by Morocco and Mauritania.

In March 1976, Libya began expelling several thousand Tunisian workers. Later the same month, Tunisian authorities announced the discovery of a plot aimed at high government officials (perhaps even Bourguiba) and alleged that Libya was involved, despite Qadhafi's denials. Tunisia later accused Libya of providing military training to opponents of the Bourguiba regime. Now and then, Tunisia (as well as other neighboring countries) has protested against alleged Libyan subversion attempts. In 1976, for instance, Tunisia charged Libya with attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Hadi Nouira. And in February 1980, Libya was accused of instigating the abortive uprising by Tunisian insurgents in the town of Gafsa in central Tunisia, a charge that Libya promptly denied. Nevertheless, diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed.

As Tunisia's economic and political difficulties grew in the 1980s, dissent became more vocal, particularly in the poorer southern region, paving the way for increasing the links between the Jamahiriya and the Tunisian dissidents. Two issues caused problems for the Libyan-Tunisian relationship. The first, concerning maritime boundaries between the two North African countries, was settled by an International Court of Justice ruling in favor of Libya in 1982. The Court reaffirmed its ruling in 1985, at which time it rejected Tunisia's appeal for reconsideration. The second problem resulted from the expulsion from Libya in August 1985, of 40,000 Tunisian workers, partly as a result of the downturn in the Libyan economy as a result of shrinking oil revenues. The expulsions were also partially based on political considerations because Qadhafi has considered expulsions a political weapon with which to threaten uncooperative governments. In retaliation, Tunisia expelled 300 Libyans, including 30 diplomats.

In the early months of 1987, there were signs of improvement in Libyan-Tunisian relations. In March, Major Khuwayldi al Hamadi spent three days in Tunisia as official guest of the government and met with President Habib Bourguiba, Prime Minister Rachid Sjar, and other high-ranking officials.

Libya's closest Maghribi bilateral relationship has been with neighboring Algeria. Both countries share similar revolutionary Arab ideologies, state-controlled economic systems, and Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil policies, and both have undertaken Third World leadership initiatives. Furthermore, both countries have comparable relations with the United States and the Soviet Union. Algeria has concentrated on internal development, however, whereas Libya has pursued internal development and external activities almost equally. The two countries' bilateral ties were strained by Libya's 1974 attempt to merge with Tunisia, Algeria preferring to have its borders shared by relatively weak states rather than by states that have been strengthened and enlarged through unification.

Although Libya and Algeria have been allies on the Western Sahara issue, differences in their positions became increasingly pronounced in late 1978. Both countries originally had pressed for Spanish evacuation from the area and supported the local independence group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (Frente Popular por la Liberacion de Saguia el Hamra y Rio de Oro--Polisario) toward this end. Algeria wanted the area to become an independent state. Libya felt Arab unity would be better served if the area merged with a larger state, preferably Mauritania, with which it had close relations at the time (Libya had been the first country to recognize independent Mauritania; Mauritania was the first country to recognize Libya's revolutionary regime.) Libya opposed the forceful repression of Western Saharan nationalism, however, and when Morocco and Mauritania decided to partition the area by force (Morocco obtaining the larger share), Libya joined Algeria in supporting Polisario's struggle against the two partitioning countries. Together with Algeria and thirty-six other countries, Libya has recognized the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), formed in Algeria in 1976. Libya also supported the SADR's bid for membership in the Organization of African Unity (OAU), along with twenty-five other African states.

Libyan-Moroccan relations have, on the whole, been unfriendly. A wide gulf separates moderate, monarchist, pro-Western Morocco from the revolutionary, pro-Soviet Jamahariya. Rabat has often protested Tripoli's attempts at subversion, for example, during the 1971 military coup attempt. Morocco's foreign policy goals have usually been at odds with those of Libya. Qadhafi, for instance, denounced Moroccan assistance to the government of Zaire when rebels staged an invasion from neighboring Angola. In an abrupt about-face, however, Morocco signed the Oujda treaty in August 1984, which called for unity with Libya.

For Morocco's King Hassan II, the union restored the regional Maghribi balance of power, which had tilted in favor of Algeria, Morocco's main rival and the primary supporter of the Polisario. Algeria consistently supported the right of Western Saharan to self-determination in the SADR. The SADR was proclaimed on February 27, 1976, one day after the Spanish withdrawal. King Hassan put forward his country's claims over the former Spanish-ruled territory, led 350,000 of his citizens in 1975 on a peaceful "Green March" to key areas in the Saharan territory, and subsequently occupied the former Spanish colony.

In view of their sharp ideological differences, the accord between Qadhafi and King Hassan was evidently the result of expediency. The king expected to persuade the Libyan leader to cease supporting the Polisario and wanted access to Libyan oil. For his part, Qadhafi regarded Morocco as a source of human resources and support. Apparently, Qadhafi stopped his support of the Polisario, albeit only temporarily.

More about the Government of Libya.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress