Expert Commentary

Algeria Takes the Lead in Libya

Geoff Porter
President, North Africa Risk Consulting

That Libya is a mess is beyond doubt, but who is actually trying to resolve the conflict is a harder question to answer.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently said that he sees no role for the U.S. in Libya and there seems to be no urgency to appoint a new U.S. Special Envoy for Libya after the previous one left four months ago. Paris is entirely preoccupied with its presidential elections, the outcome of which will be momentous for France and for the EU. To the extent that Italy engages with Libya, it is focused on Libya’s role as an entrepôt for human trafficking. Even Martin Kobler, the UN’s Special Representative to Libya, is on borrowed time. He was supposed to have been replaced earlier this year, but the proposed candidate was nixed. An alternative candidate was also rejected.

Russia, it goes without saying, is more intent on prolonging the conflict than resolving it. The UAE may have brokered something of a deal earlier this week, but the agreement involves so many conditions that it is unlikely to ever be implemented. Plus, it so blatantly favors the UAE’s preferred Libyan stakeholder that it will be dead on arrival in Libya itself.

And then there’s Algeria, whose diplomatic corps is firing on all cylinders trying to get all warring Libyan factions to the negotiating table. Why Algeria? Well, lots of reasons. For one, the stakes are high. Algeria has already lost blood and treasure because of the chaos in Libya. The worse Libya gets, the greater the risks to Algeria itself. Second, Algeria very much wants to restore its role as a global diplomatic power, a mantle it used to hoist high in the 1970s. Lastly, there is an internal battle in Algeria for control of the country’s foreign policy and one of the contestants – the Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs – is leveraging the Libya crisis as a means of boosting his domestic standing. 

Algeria genuinely wants to see a peaceful political resolution to the conflict. It blames the deadly 2013 terrorist attack on the Tigantourine natural gas facility at In Amenas on the collapse of governance in Libya after the 2011 revolution. It is also extremely concerned about the Islamic State’s presence in Libya, even though it is greatly diminished since the terrorist group lost its stronghold in Sirte in October 2016. Algeria has struggled with terrorism in the past and is loath to allow instability next door to drag it backward. A string of recent arrests of Islamic State supporters in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine underscores just how tenuous circumstances are.

In addition to its immediate concerns, Algeria is pursuing a larger strategy. Although Algeria’s commitment to dialogue is often dismissed as being hot air and lofty rhetoric, Algiers does believe deeply in the power of diplomacy. In fact, only when Algeria is brokering the peace is Algeria fully what it wants to be. It has realized what it sees as its real role in the world only a handful of times. Once was when it brokered the release of U,S. hostages held in Iran in 1981. It did it again in 2015 (with less success) when it negotiated a peace settlement for northern Mali. And it is trying to do the same thing for Libya. Algeria’s approach in the past and in Libya at the present is predicated on talking to everyone and giving every party to a conflict a seat at the table. And this is where Algeria differs from others like the UAE. The UAE engaged in Libya to advance the standing of its privileged Libyan stakeholder – Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar – in the guise of trying to broker the peace. The Algerians’ emphasis is on resolving the conflict – not who ends up in charge of Libya once peace breaks out.

But diplomacy can never be fully disentangled from politics and there is a domestic political component at play in Algeria’s intense engagement in Libya. Algeria has a Minister for Foreign Affairs, but it also has a Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs and the Arab League. The remits of these two ministers often overlap. Determining who is responsible for what is frequently challenging. Abdelkader Messahel, the Minister for Maghreb and African Affairs, is ambitious and is using the Libya issue to demonstrate his capabilities and his suitability for a larger role in the Algerian administration.

This doesn’t mean that Messahel isn’t genuinely working. In fact, he’s working quite hard. He recently undertook a whirlwind trip to Libya. He went to Tobruk to meet with the House of Representatives, to al-Marj to meet with the Libyan National Army, to Benghazi to assess conditions there, to Zintan to talk with local leaders, and to Misrata and Tripoli. All in less than a week. Algeria is walking the walk. It’s pounding the pavement and doing the legwork.

But the way forward is not easy and the chances of success are limited. Algeria is in the midst of forming a new government after the 4 May legislative elections. This could result in new roles for Algeria’s diplomatic heavyweights and the potential loss of momentum for Algeria’s initiatives. In addition, Algeria isn’t able to bring its full force to bear on resolving the Libyan crisis. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is undoubtedly supportive of his government’s efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya and is reportedly following developments closely, but his poor health has prevented him from becoming publicly involved, leaving Algeria without one of its most capable tools.

A well-informed source in Algiers recently said that the real indication that Algeria may be close to achieving its goal will be if Haftar comes to Algiers. Unlike the UAE deal, which involved only two competing Libyan stakeholders, the Algerians want discussions to be broader, involving the whole gamut of violent non-state actors in Libya. While Algiers can easily convene a meeting between some of these actors, it’s much harder to do so with all of them, including Haftar. The Algerians know they now have to wait for the UAE deal to disintegrate before they can try again to get everyone to the table and even then, they know they only have one shot. Until then Libya’s conflict is likely to grind on.

The Author is Geoff Porter

Dr. Geoff D. Porter is the founder and president of North Africa Risk Consulting, a political and security risk consulting firm specializing in the extractive industries in North Africa. In addition, Dr. Porter is an assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

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