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In the Libyan conflict, Algiers stands up to France and Egypt

Algerian seeks to avoid the military option favoured by France, Egypt, the UAE and Italy, which could upset the first inter-Libyan talks held in Algiers

When in May 2014, Algeria provided 3,500 paratroopers and a logistical contingent of 1,500 men jointly with the US Marines and French Special Forces in order to eliminate elements belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sebha region, officials concluded that Algeria has just abandoned its defence doctrine of military non-intervention abroad.

While this operation proved that specific doctrine adjustments were possible when the threat was deemed serious enough, the fact remains: for Algiers, the priority lies in finding political resolutions to regional crises.

Views certainly differ within the Algerian diplomatic and military circles: “Some suggest that the system set up by the NPA [National Popular Army] on the eastern borders should be made use of to literally ‘unlock’ major Libyan cities and push back Ansar al-Sharia troops to the west where they would be dealt with by the Egyptian army. Others favour a scenario similar to that undertaken by Egypt - choosing targeted airstrikes on Daesh’s groups of fighters and infrastructure in Libya,” Algerian journalist Akram Kharief wrote in El Watan newspaper.

So far, this internal debate has not altered the classic defensive approach, whose primary function is to secure the country’s borders.

Paris-Algiers, a minimal operational partnership

Since French forces were redeployed in the Sahel in July 2014 as part of Operation Barkhane, France has been exercising pressure on Algeria to provide military support to crackdown on the Islamist strongholds in south-eastern Libya. Paris’s ultimate goal is to build up a broad coalition of Western, Arab and North African countries ready to militarily intervene in Libya.

Following the operational rapprochement between Paris and Algiers during the Serval operation in Mali, France was left with the impression that Algeria would welcome another French initiative in the North African region and the Sahel. The visits to Algeria by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the Chief of Staff aimed to gauge Algeria’s readiness and assess the level and nature of its contribution to a possible military action in Libya.

However, at the 5 + 5 meeting (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya in the south of the Mediterranean; Italy, Portugal, Spain, France and Malta on the northern shore) held in Madrid on 17 September 2014, Algeria categorically opposed France’s initiative: “We don’t want the parties [in conflict] to reach security arrangements that will protect the country’s people and property and at the same time create the conditions for the pursuit of the counterterrorism efforts, for this remains a major challenge,” the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs said at the time.

According to Algerian analyst Ali Boukhlef, Le Drian, during a visit to Niger, “made insinuations in favour of a military intervention in Libya [although] France primarily advocates a political solution. Some senior officers, however, do not rule out the possibility of coordinated airstrikes, as long as Egypt and Algeria gave the green light.”

Nevertheless, thanks to a bilateral defence cooperation agreement signed in February 2013, France may rely on Algeria’s prompt operational partnership limited only to border interventions in order to contain the expansion or stop the movement of criminal groups or armed jihadists from one country to another.

However, a wider Algerian military action in Libya is even more unlikely to take place, since Algerians are not welcomed by the thowar – Arabic for “revolutionaries”, young Libyans who took up arms to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 and who later organised in multiple militias – for they accuse Algeria of having sheltered members of the overthrown dictator’s family in 2011. Also, as long as Daesh’s strongholds are located far from Algerian territory, in eastern Libya, Algeria does not perceive the threat as imminent. Furthermore, NPA forces deployment and massive mobilisation along the Algerian-Libyan Saharan borders increasingly prevent infiltrations.

Indispensable compromises among neighbours

Algeria’s major advantage is to have been called upon by the Libyan parties themselves. Nevertheless, the task remains difficult since Algeria must negotiate with many internal and external actors whose interests often differ or even collide.

The G5-Sahel countries for instance (Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) had formally called upon the UN Security Council and the African Union to consider international intervention in Libya. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Sudan, one way or the other, are also stakeholders in the conflict in Libya.

Algeria, capitalising on its successful mediation in the inter-Malian dialogue, that led on 1 March to the signing of a peace agreement, seeks at all costs to avoid that the military option favoured by France, Egypt, the UAE and Italy. It believes this will jeopardise the smooth progress of the first inter-Libyan talks held in Algiers on 10 March under the auspices of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). This dialogue is the result of a months-long effort during which Algerian authorities have discreetly met with no less than 200 Libyan interlocutors.

Hence, it is no coincidence that among the actors handpicked by Algiers are the major tribes located in western regions (Warshafana, Gaddaffa, Warfalla, al-Megharha), long marginalised due to their loyalty to the old regime, whose role will be decisive in the formation of a national unity government. This is also the case of the Zintan tribe that maintains ties with Gaddafi loyalists, holds and protects Saif al-Islam, son of Muammar Gaddafi, and supported General Khalifa Haftar’s strikes on Benghazi. In fact, Saif al-Islam, who had already met with influential tribal chiefs in August 2014, could covertly play a significant role in the talks led by Algiers.

For Mustafa Fetouri, a Libyan analyst and journalist, “Algeria knows better than anyone about Libyan society. In that sense, it is much more qualified than France to comprehend the complexity of the situation and convince various Libyan actors of the need for a national dialogue. The majority of Libyans favour an Algerian mediation.”

This is also the view of Jean-Marie Géhénno, president of the International Crisis Group, who said: “Algeria has a profound knowledge of the region [...], a good base for political action.”

To reach its objectives in Libya, Algeria will have to deal with Egypt, Libya’s other influential neighbour. However, “while Egypt and Algeria agree on the objectives, namely to safeguard the unity of Libya and curb the threat of terrorist groups and organised crime’s expansion on the borders, the two countries diverge on the means to reach these objectives,” journalist Khaled Hanafi pointed out.

However, the Algerian government has no intention to dwell on these differences, which it considers as temporary and surmountable, as illustrated by Abdelkader Messahel’s statement during a visit to Cairo on 8 March: “Algeria and Egypt share the same position regarding the crisis in Libya. We support a political settlement of the crisis and back the fight against terrorism as well as efforts undertaken by the United Nations and neighbouring countries.”

The political aspect in Libya’s stabilisation process could be accompanied by a division of labour according to areas of security competence/jurisdiction/authority: the west assigned to Algeria and the east to Egypt. A strategic rapprochement between Algiers and Cairo appears therefore inevitable in the short term.

- Laurence Aïda Ammour is an Algerian sociologist and an analyst in international security and defense for the GéopoliSudconsultance consulting agency. Her fields of research include relations between north Africa and Sahel countries, the Western Sahara conflict, organised crime and violent extremism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

Photo: Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika claps during his inauguration ceremony as he is sworn as Algeria's President for a fourth term in Algiers on 28 April, 2014 (AFP)