By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook explores some of the critical elements driving Algeria’s foreign policy concerning the on-going conflict in Libya.
Algiers’ Diplomacy in Libya
Algiers has been among the key supporters of the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) concluded in Skhirat, Morocco, in late 2015.
The former minister for Maghreb, Arab and African affairs in Algeria, Abdelkader Messahel, stated that only Libyans could build their country’s future, stressing the point that Libyans have to resolve the crisis themselves and have to do so by communicating with each other.
A wide range of Libyan representatives, including members of the HoR and GNC, as well as prominent public figures from Libyan political parties and civil society, attended the signing.
The resulting political agreement led to the establishment of a single Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj. The Algerians have henceforth supported UN-backed inclusive compromises such as the GNA as the way out of the conflict.
Following a popular uprising against the incapacitated former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria, once a powerhouse of international diplomacy, has retreated from both regional and international arenas.
“From January 2019 Algeria has adopted a passive stance towards the crisis in Libya, allowing Haftar’s offensive in southern Libya. This phase mainly coincided with the internal turmoil in Algeria. However, since the swearing-in of President Abdelmajid Tebboune, the new government has shown increasing attention to the Libyan crisis. The Algiers conference in January 2020 has been a sign of the renewed diplomatic activism of the new authorities, concerned about the proxy war and the expanding influence of new players in the Libyan arena”, asserted Profazio in an interview with the author.
The drastically escalating Libyan conflict is posing a great danger to Algeria. Hence, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has wasted no time since his inauguration in December to take the country out of its diplomatic hibernation to contain the increasing threat to its border security.
“Algiers is taking a larger and active role, particularly folowing the election of the new President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, whose foreign policy doctrine is: pre-emption and action. This would create a new vision of its military dimension to bridge it to national security imperatives and new foreign policy objectives. Political stability is vital for the country’s national security, which could be an indicator in this case through the mechanism of democracy. In a post-ex-president Bouteflika transition, requirements from the new President’s administration include military and diplomatic resources to protect the southern provinces, and to provide developments and create jobs, not just protect gas and oil production plants and facilities”, Abdennour Toumi, Researcher at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, told TRT World Research Centre.
According to Toumi, “the latest developments on the Libyan dossier is making Algiers more active, such as the meetings series of Algeria’s foreign affairs minister, Mr Sabri Boukadoum, with the LNA as with GNA members in Algiers, Benghazi and Tripoli, preceded by the meeting of Algeria’s President with Libyan Prime Minister Saraj in January in Algiers. All these signs lead to let one feel that Algiers wants to find a political solution in Libya, despite all the endogenous and extraneous factors that are standing at any peace talks process. Algiers’ initiative, which was planned in February 2020 for the main Libyan belligerents to meet in Algiers, was postponed because of the Coronavirus. Thus, Algeria’s ties to tribal chiefs and Islamist leaders in Libya, and close cooperation with the new political leaders in Tunisia, would also enhance its position for direct talks”.
After years of apathy, the new government in Algiers has adopted a more assertive policy towards the war in neighbouring Libya.
Algiers seems to be willing to play a more pronounced role in terms of facilitating dialogue between Libyan rival groups as the on-going Libyan conflict is seen as posing a severe threat to its national security.
For Profazio, “there are also important political and geopolitical aspects to be underlined. The fact that the uprising against Gadhafi led to a state of civil war in Libya has been portrayed by the Algerian regime as evidence of the negative consequences of the Arab Spring, a narrative reinforced following the start of the opposition movement known as ‘Hirak’ early in 2019. Likely, the regime will not allow the Hirak to go any further, instrumentally using the Libyan case as a reference to indicate the chaos that a revolution would bring”.
Germany’s foreign minister also attended the meeting. Indeed, Algeria apparently maintains good contacts with all sides in Libya. “Algeria would like to remain neutral as long as they can. Increasingly, Algeria is finding itself the lone voice of non-intervention in the Arab world. From Tunisia to the UAE, everyone seems to have their hands in the Libyan crisis. Algerian leaders are thus faced with a dilemma: they want to influence the course of events in Libya in a constructive way but don’t want to get sucked into a proxy war with their neighbours. Algeria has good relations with all the other parties involved — Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, etc. So it is a difficult balancing act for Algiers”, asserted Dr. Mundy.
Several other foreign leaders and foreign ministers from Arab and European states and Turkey have all visited Algeria in the last few weeks to discuss the Libyan crisis.
Recently, at the invitation of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Algeria for talks on the conflict in neighbouring Libya and to discuss plans to boost trade links.
President Erdogan was the first foreign head of state to undertake an official visit to Algeria since the December 12 election of Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune Algerian president to discuss the conflict in Libya. During the meeting, Tebboune called Tripoli the aforementioned ‘red line’, after forces loyal to warlord Haftar reportedly shelled a military academy in January this year, killing 30 people.
Algeria has adopted the principle of finding a political solution to protect the unity of the Libyan people and the territorial integrity of the country.
Algeria was invited by Germany to participate in the Berlin Conference on Libya to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis, which has been seen as a positive development since all relevant actors should be on the negotiation table to contribute to reaching a permanent agreement.
The conference ended with a 55-point communique calling for a permanent ceasefire, the implementation of a UN arms embargo, the dismantling of militias, and the resumption of the political process, all under the auspices of the UN Support Mission in Libya. However, many Libyans have very low expectations that these talks will lead to any sort of long-lasting peace on the ground in the coming days.
Case in point, soon after the conference Haftar’s militias relaunched a fresh offensive on the Libyan capital.
Following the Berlin peace conference, Algeria hosted foreign ministers from Chad, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia’s chief diplomats in Algiers to discuss plans for resolving Libya’s conflict.
“The renewed diplomatic activism of Algeria comes after, and is an answer to, months of isolation due to pressing domestic issues. In this new phase, the Libya policy of the new authorities in Algiers is fluctuating, having lost its previous predictability anchored to the traditional support to the GNA. The visit of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Algiers in January seemed to suggest that Algeria was drawn in Turkey’s gravitational pull to defend the government of Fayez al-Sarraj and oppose Haftar’s advance on Tripoli. However, the Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum’s early February visit to Benghazi to meet with Haftar himself surprised many obser some distance with Turkey’s staunch support for the GNA and to adopt a more balanced policy towards the main rival factions in Libya; a policy not dissimilar to those adopted by the Italian government”, stated Profazio to the TRT World Research Centre.
The Algerian government has stressed that the toppling of the GNA would cross Algiers’ ‘red line’. This statement may indicate that Algeria supports the Turkish military assistance to the UN-backed government in Tripoli; Turkey is defending the GNA that Algeria, along with the United Nations, recognises as Libya’s legitimate government.
Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, has recently written “Algeria has greater problems with Abu Dhabi’s actions in Libya than anything that Turkey is doing in the North African country. With Algeria respecting the GNA’s legitimacy and Abu Dhabi backing Haftar as he attempts to topple that government in Tripoli, Algiers’ perspective on Turkish versus Emirati interference in Libya is understandable. Nonetheless, it is inaccurate to conclude that Algeria has embraced Turkey’s role in Libya, even if Ankara along with Rome and Doha would like to see Algiers align more closely with them on the Libya file”.
Algiers has supported UN-backed inclusive initiatives, including the GNA, as a solution to the conflict, seemingly believing that Haftar is incapable of bringing stability to Libya.
Furthermore, Algeria seems adamant that Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli will likely worsen the security situation in North Africa and the Sahel. The latter is the soft underbelly at its southern border and the source of its worst security concerns.
Algiers seems to view the Haftar forces as a ragtag of different militias, mercenaries, and radical groups, including Salafi Madkhali groups. These Salafis form a vital component of Haftar’s forces.
If this Salafi ideology gains more prominence in Libya, it may destabilise Algeria’s own domestic landscape, which already features a growing number of Salafi movements.
In this respect, the number of Algerians loyal to Saudi sheikh Rabi’al-Madkhali and his closest collaborators are a source of concern for the Algerian authorities.
Through the rise of these constituencies in Libya as part of the Haftar apparatus, their Algerian counterparts would undeniably feel emboldened. As a consequence, officials in Algiers believe that this aspect of Haftar’s approach is also unlikely to bring long-lasting peace and stability.
In the past, Haftar had accused Algeria of trying to exploit the state of war in order to impose its hegemony upon Libya. Haftar also threatened that “he was capable of transferring the conflict from Libya to Algeria within minutes”.
On December 18, 2016, Haftar was banned from entering Algeria in his military uniform because the country did not recognise him as commander of the Libyan Armed Forces, as it only recognised the Presidential Council.
According to Profazio “From a geopolitical perspective, the Algerian regime cannot allow the establishment of an unfriendly government in Tripoli for strategic reasons. Considering the uneasy relationship with Morocco, it is important for Algiers to have good relations with the authorities in Tripoli. That’s the main reason why Algeria has so far been close to the GNA and wary of the manoeuvres of Khalifa Haftar to take control of Tripoli, especially following Haftar’s criticism of and his threats against the Algerian army in 2018”.
to contiue in Part 3
Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.