By Ferhat Polat
This policy outlook explores some of the critical elements driving Algeria’s foreign policy concerning the on-going conflict in Libya.
An Apprehension for the Arab Spring
Since the Arab Spring occurred, the Algerian regime’s posture has been broadly seen as driven by a desire to prevent democratic contagion at its borders. They were concerned about the possible disintegrative effects of these winds of change.
The Algerian authorities considered the collapse of autocratic structures in neighbouring countries as a threat to Algeria’s internal stability and its status in the regional balance of power.
Some governments, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, engaged in a crusade against the forces emanating from the Arab Spring, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In comparison, Algeria had a more nuanced approach.
The government avoided the post-2011 wave of change that hit the MENA region thanks to high oil prices at the time. Therefore, the state managed to buy social peace through spending on big projects and cheap housing.
In addition, the Algerian authorities were not worried about the MB. Over the last three decades, they had developed special relations with the various local chapters of the MB and co-opted them to a large extent.
The Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), Algeria’s self-declared branch of the MB, has been regularly part of the different governments since the late 1990s.
While the Algerian authorities were not particularly worried about the MB, they were more apprehensive about the “chaos of the Arab Spring” and being surrounded by severe crises in the vicinity (the upheaval in Tunisia, a failing state in Libya, security problems in the Sahel, etc.).
Extrapolating this position to Libya, the MB is not the primary source of concern for Algeria. While the GNA is believed to represent a range of political forces, including members of the MB, this factor is not the driver for Algerian policy in the country. Even Haftar’s threats to Algiers were not a decisive factor.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Research fellow at Clingendaelorg, wrote: “The Algerians are not opposed in principle to eastern-faction leader Khalifa Haftar ruling all of Libya at some stage. But they are concerned about the uncompromising, polarising, and inconclusive nature of his aggressive approach, along with his fragile coalition”.
For Harchaoui, “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”.
The Algerian Foreign Minister’s meeting with Haftar on February 2020 is particularly significant. It signals that Algeria aims to adopt a more balanced policy towards the different Libyan protagonists.
According to Profazio, “This change in Algeria’s policy is particularly important. It represents an unexpected opening towards Haftar that would be welcomed by its main regional sponsors, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. At the same time, it would also reinforce Russia’s role as a power broker in the Libya conflict, already highlighted by Moscow’s recent diplomatic initiatives. Considering Moscow’s special relations with Algeria and its enhanced partnership with Egypt, it represents a major opportunity for Russia to align the policy of its two main allies in the region (which also happens to be Libya’s neighbours) and drive them together according to its interests”.
Algeria is likely to demonstrate a strong aversion to interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. However, the non-interference approach has limited the strategic alternatives of Algeria to deal with the on-going conflict in Libya.
For Profazio, “it is difficult to imagine that any larger role for Algeria in the conflict, due to its traditional non-interventionist stance. At the same time, in Algiers’ view, this policy also needs to be strictly applied to the other powers involved in the Libyan conflict. For these reasons, it is likely that Algeria would continue to strongly oppose any military intervention or foreign meddling in Libya, including Turkey’s security and military cooperation with the GNA, even though both Algiers and Ankara’s policies seem to be aligned”.
The Algerian economy is considerably reliant on hydrocarbons for its exports and government revenues, standing at 95 and 75% respectively.
The plunge in oil prices in 2020, owing to the Saudi-Russia feud and worldwide demand destruction, has affected Algeria significantly, with prices dropping to an 18-year low of $21.65 a barrel at the time of writing.
As a result, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad has stated the country faces an extraordinary “multi-dimensional crisis”, calling on Algerians to make fewer demands of the government. With the country facing compiled complex socio-economic problems, there will be little appetite for any prominent role in Libya.
According to Profazio, “if Algerian leaders were to take sides in support of Haftar or Serraj’s administration, that would be quite the change in position. I suspect heightened Algerian interest is being driven by the extent to which other outside powers are blatantly fuelling the conflict in Libya with arms and financing. The Algerian regime is also more confident that the Hirak mass protest movement has been contained. But if the Saudi-Russian oil war continues to depress prices further, the Algerian regime might be facing a significant fiscal crisis of its own and could turn inward again”.
Algeria is a significant actor in North Africa, and its role in Libya continues to be pivotal. However, the Algerian state’s traditional doctrinal principles of non-interference have prevented any prominent role thus far in Libya apart from mediation.
Algiers’ considerable socio-economic difficulties also deter a more enlarged role in Libya, even if the latter has been a national security issue for Algeria since 2011.
The on-going civil war in Libya and the drastic inflow of weapons, radical groups, and foreign mercenaries have long been a source of concern for the Algerian government.
In light of this situation, Algeria is likely to step up its efforts to strengthen border security and to act as a facilitator to bring the Libyan protagonists to the same table.
While Algeria remains sceptical of Haftar and his rise as a potential new strongman in Libya, Algiers is also deeply concerned that Haftar’s assault on Tripoli is likely to exacerbate the security situation in North Africa and the Sahel.
All things considered, Algiers is playing a delicate balancing act in Libya. Judging from the evolution of the situation on the ground (the GNA’s recent military successes in April 2020), and bar any unforeseen circumstances, the Algerian position on the Libyan conflict is not expected to change.
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.