How Algeria Faces the Libyan Conflict
By Jalel Harchaoui
This Briefing Paper explores the underpinnings of Algeria’s foreign policy, and how it has evolved with respect to the ongoing crises in Libya, and offers insight into future prospects.
Many Algerian decision-makers perceive political inclusion as having been instrumental in helping the country exit its own civil war in the early 2000s. This perception originated an approach that
Algiers continues to utilize to this day domestically. It consists in granting dissidents deemed willing to contemplate political compromise a degree of recognition that enables them to renounce violence, while withholding recognition from those who remain committed to jihadi means.
This has two perceived benefits. First, it helps decrease the chances of an escalation or a hardening of armed resistance. Second, Algiers expects the truce to split the opposition into two camps: it peels the sociopolitically oriented actors away from moreviolent ones.
The underlying intent is to placate and weaken the Islamists. Many decision-makers in Algiers believe that this type of co-option will help the state eventually prevail over its challengers.
Algiers uses a similar rationale in its foreign policy. When anarchy spread in Algeria’s near-abroad, the government applied the logic above beyond its borders, including in Libya.
The inclusivity play does not always work in Algiers’ favour, as illustrated by the January 2013 offensive led by Malian Tuareg leader Iyad ag-Ghali, which went ahead despite months of engagement by Algiers.
Algerian diplomats believe that the exclusion of some non-jihadi groups from the official political process increases the probability of armed confrontation and an eventual break-up of Libya.
That would in turn open the door to foreign intervention, which is a scenario that Algiers dreads.
Algiers’ diplomacy in Libya
In practical terms, the inclusive approach entails that Algiers views Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood movement as a political current like any other. In stark contrast, Haftar and his main foreign backers, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization.
In 2013, Algiers had carried out a rapprochement with Tunisia’s Islamists (Jeune Afrique, 2013). It was then able to use some of this momentum to establish direct lines of communication with Libya’s Islamists, 93 such as Ali al-Sallabi (Meslem, 2017; Ammour, 2015a).
Algeria’s new Libya policy first became visible in September 2014 when Abdel-hakim Belhaj visited Algiers (Mustafa, 2014). The Afghanistan-war veteran with a jihadi pedigree was deemed a politically important leader in Libyan society at the time of the rapprochement, which likely began in early 2014.
Eighteen months before he was welcomed in Algiers, Belhaj was suspected by some Algerian officials of having assisted the jihadi attack on In Amenas (El Badil, 2013).
At the same time as it extended a hand to the Islamists, Algiers has courted their adversaries. Agueela Saleh Issa, the chairman of the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, visited Algiers in Novem-
ber 2016, although he has been closer to Rabat and Riyadh (Bensaci, 2016). Similarly, Aref Ali Nayed, a pro-Haftar, pro-UAE Libyan politician, visited Algiers in February 2017.
Often in secret, Algiers has forged (or revived) relationships with hundreds of Libyan actors (Dilmi, 2015). This approach is guided by a desire to exert leverage over all Libyan groups with a modicum of political legitimacy that control their respective territory and that do not seek to assist jihadi groups within that territory.
In pursuing these rules with a degree of flexibility, Algiers has succeeded in establishing a wide variety of relationships it can use to its advantage. A Misratan politician opposed to Haftar described the policy as follows:
In 2011, the Algerians’ main thrust was to try and stay as neutral as possible in Libya until they could see a clear winner they could support.
That’s essentially still the Algerians’ position to this day and hour. They have contacts with so many Libyan sides—almost all of them. Yet, I believe the people in power in Algiers, for obvious reasons, don’t want to see democracy in Libya, because it’s against their interests.
They want calm, but not democracy. At the same time, the Algerians are against Cairo extending its influence in Libya. They want the Egyptians to stay away from their borders.
Western-Libyan tribes and groups into which Algiers has a channel include the Megharha, Qadhadhfa, Tubu, various Tuareg factions, Warshefana, Werfalla, and the Zintanis (Ammour, 2015b).
With regard to political and armed groups, Algiers maintains a dialogue with former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) leaders, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, the Special Deterrence Force (Radaa) led by Abdulraouf Kara, and a number of others.
Algiers’ current Libya diplomacy consists in working with, and exerting leverage on, contending non-jihadi Libyan factions so as to reduce the probability that they will enter into violent clashes near its borders.
Algiers seeks to deploy its influence in opposition to entities that seek to impose ‘stability’ through military force and exclusionary policies in west Libya.
Support for the Skhirat Agreement
Algiers has been among the key supporters of the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) concluded in Skhirat, Morocco, in late 2015. A senior diplomat covering Libya under the authority of Secretary of State John Kerry recalled how the mediation work undertaken by the Algerians in Libya became visible more than a year earlier, in September 2014, when the crisis was discussed at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
In March–April 2015, as the UN-led peace talks in Morocco began to gather momentum, the grassroots networking and diplomatic efforts that Algiers had been engaged with since the previous summer proved useful and contributed to the process that culminated in the LPA being signed on 17 December 2015.
An Algiers-based US diplomat recalls that, since the early stages, ‘the Algerians have been involved alongside the UN’s peace process. [We] see eye to eye on what they’re trying to achieve in Libya; we agree with the inclusivity angle they take.’
In evidencing an awareness of this inclusive inclination, Haftar, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi have sometimes been tempted to leave Algeria out of their own diplomatic forum (El-Gamaty, 2017).
For instance, in January 2017, Haftar refused an invitation to meet GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in Algeria, and instead preferred to meet his rival in Abu Dhabi four months later (Cremonisi, 2017; AskaNews, 2017; Gambrell, 2017).
A tangible example of how Algeria’s strategy helped form and install the GNA was provided in March 2016, when the Sarraj and his government peacefully arrived at the Abu Setta naval base in Tripoli.
The UN-backed head of state is still partly based there. To help achieve this outcome, Algiers drew upon its relationship with Belhaj (Africa Intelligence, 2016, p. 2). This is not the only example.
In Libya, jihadi violence is only one of a number of threats. Other concerns include intensification of the civil war, a possible partition of the country, and an adverse change in the migration flows. In each of these respects, Khalifa Haftar and his armed coalition are potentially relevant political actors. This in turn raises the question of how they are regarded by Algiers.
What if Haftar gets closer?
The Algerians have henceforth supported UN-backed inclusive compromises such as the GNA as the way out of the conflict, although Haftar opposes this course of action.
Algiers did not choose this policy because it wanted the Islamists in power in Libya, but rather because it deemed Haftar and his foreign sponsors to be incapable of easily wiping them out through a direct, forceful confrontation.
Algeria was in favour of Haftar’s anti-Islamist military campaign (‘Operation Dignity’) during its first months. But the relationship between Algiers and Haftar became more uneasy after Emirati warplanes, with Egypt’s logistical support, bombed the international airport of Tripoli in late August 2014 to assist Operation Dignity.
The Algerian government resented the foreign air strikes and revealed its boldly inclusive diplomacy the subsequent month by inviting Belhaj for a visit.
Algiers’ rapport with Islamists such as Belhaj, Sallabi, and others has frustrated Haftar and led many within his camp to consider Algeria to be pro-Islamist. The idea that Haftar, or a leader with similar attributes, may end up ruling all of Libya, did not elicit a strong controversy among the Algerians interviewed for this Briefing Paper.
The Algerians are distinguished from the other states that provide military support to Libya’s counter-revolutionary factions by their scepticism about how, when—and at what costs to regional stability—Libya’s counter-revolutionaries will arrive at this final outcome (Cristiani and Rekawek, 2014).
Algeria’s lack of enthusiasm for Haftar is more methodological than ideological. This is not to say that Algiers is indifferent to the ideological ramifications of a Haftar-ruled Libya.
An assertive Haftar cannot be separated from the foreign powers that back him. He also brings with him a mode of governance that potentially increases the influence of Madkhali Salafist ideology, as these rigorist Salafis form a vital component of Haftar’s forces (Luck, 2018).
If this current of thought gains strength in Libya, it may disrupt Algeria’s own domestic landscape, which already features a growing rigorist Salafi movement.
In the current environment, the number of Algerians loyal to Saudi sheikh Rabi’ al-Madkhali and his closest collaborators is a source of concern for the Algerian authorities (Makedhi, 2018).
As Madkhali Salafis become more powerful in Libya, whether through the rise of Haftar or some other process, their Algerian counterparts will feel emboldened. From Algiers’ perspective, Saudi leaders issuing instructions to their Algerian followers, as they often do, amounts to geopolitical interference.
Algerian disquiet extends to Madkhali activities in Libya as well; Haftar’s camp has already issued a fatwa against Ibadi followers in Libya (HRW, 2017). The Ibadi school of Islam has already created tensions in south-central Algeria (ICG, 2016a, pp. 8–10).
If Haftar’s camp persecutes Ibadis in western Libya, as it seems intent on doing, reverberations will likely be felt inside Algeria, and may extend to the M’zab region.
One foreign diplomat observed that ‘the Algerians aren’t enamoured with Haftar. They find him a bit too bellicose’. His military coalition is also viewed as lacking cohesion and efficacy, and his narrow political base is a source of concern.
If the eastern-Libyan forces led by Haftar advance into the western half of Libya, Algeria fears he will duplicate what he did in Benghazi, Ajdabiya, and Derna—namely, a destructive war of attrition involving protracted sieges near the Tunisian or Algerian borders.
Were Haftar to advance, Algeria foresees a resurgence of jihadi groups, a spike in the flow of refugees going into both Tunisia and Algeria, and the further polarization of Libya’s political spectrum.
In attempting to address security concerns in western Libya, Algiers privileges a pragmatic, network-based approach, and the leveraging of actors already based there.
One former Algerian minister observed:
We [the Algerians] have a relationship with all political factions in Libya. We talk to everybody who’s not a jihadi… including someone like [Abdelhakim] Belhaj. When Haftar came to Algiers in December 2016, it wasn’t his first visit here. Haftar came to Algeria multiple times prior to that.
We’ve known him since 1984 in fact. Why did he come? Haftar knows full well that in order to rule the western half of Libya, he needs Algeria’s help.
Libya’s 2011 war and its aftermath inflicted a substantial shock upon Algeria’s physical security. Partly as a consequence, Algiers has nearly doubled its defence budget and maintained it at that elevated level despite financial difficulty.
After the January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility—which the Algerians attribute to the Libyan crisis in a number of respects—a doctrinal shift began to occur. Although not always consistently, the Algerians now engage more in their near abroad, including in Libya.
That diplomatic push since 2014 has had an impact, most notably by assisting the UN in its peace process and the installation of the UN-backed GNA in Tripoli. In addition to these benefits, this diplomatic effort has also provided Algiers with a wide range of relationships and dialogues that it can utilize unilaterally.
Algiers intends to exert its diplomatic clout for the purpose of promoting entente among non-jihadi Libyan factions and acting as a counterweight to entities seeking to impose ‘stability’ through military force and exclusionary policies inside Libya.
The Algerians view exclusionary and securitized policies as being responsible for their neighbour’s current failed-state status. In this context, small ad hoc incursions by Algerian forces on Libyan soil, whether overt or clandestine, can no longer be ruled out.
With regard to politics, the Algerians are not, in principle, opposed to seeing Khalifa Haftar or someone with a similar ideology succeed in imposing his rule over all of Libya. They are however skeptical that Haftar’s camp will succeed in achieving this without causing bloodshed and destabilization in west Libya.
More broadly, the Algerians are concerned by the side effects a militarized approach in the western half of Libya may have on Tunisia and Algeria itself. They continue to be concerned about the possibility of a de facto partition of Libya.
Several foreign states interfering in Libya’s civil war remain attached to military force and exclusionary policies. Algiers places France in this category. Moreover, in the Algerians’ perception, France’s sphere of influence increasingly surrounds their country.
Even though both states wish to see Libya become stable, the divergence of Algerian and French doctrines and methods is likely to become increasingly pronounced as time progresses.
Prospects for the future
If the support of France and other foreign states for the exclusionary and securitized methods of Libya’s counter-revolutionary factions persists, Algeria will feel more and more marginalized. Indeed, Algiers opposes the use of such methods in west Libya because it sees it as a source of yet more instability in the future.
In further compounding this concern, economic stagnation could combine with uncertainties over succession and may divert Algiers’ attention away from foreign policy. Its response to future potential shocks emanating from Libya may be different from what observers of the Maghreb-Sahel watchers were accustomed to before 2014.
One possible scenario could see Algiers bolster its existing friendship with Moscow in an effort to limit French influence. Even though both Russia and France have thus far favoured Haftar’s military campaign in Libya, they have done so as competitors, not as coordinated partners.
Algiers might try to exploit that rivalry by ramping up its security partnership with Moscow so as to undermine what it perceives as an almost-continuous swath of French influence extending from Morocco, to Mali, to Egypt, and beyond.
Jalel Harchaoui is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geopolitics of Université de Paris, France. His doctoral research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict. A frequent commentator on Libya, Harchaoui has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Middle East Eye, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Sada.