Coordinating on Libya (Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt))

Egyptian-Algerian coordination over the Libyan crisis is a fundamental regional axis in the fight against cross-border threats caused by the political and security instability in Libya.There are mounting fears that Libya will fragment as a country. Along with the proliferation of militias, secessionist tendencies and jihadist militant groups, there is organised crime, including arms and people smuggling. In Egypt’s case, there is also concern over the fate of the hundreds of thousands of its nationals who live and work in Libya.The two countries have worked together on Libya in both the bilateral and regional frameworks ever since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited Algeria in June last year. But their views have differed considerably on strategies for managing the crisis.This emerged clearly following the Egyptian air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group targets in Derna on 16 February. Algiers indicated its opposition to a military approach to a solution and its preference for a Libyan national dialogue.While Egypt and Algeria agree on aims — the need to safeguard Libyan unity, to curb the danger of terrorist groups and prevent the spread of the threats of terrorism and organised crime across borders — they do not agree on how to achieve them. The differences can be observed in their approach to three chief issues.The first of these issues is the management of the relationship with Islamist factions in Libya. Algeria espouses an open approach that seeks to bring on board all influential parties in a political settlement, including the Islamist factions allied with Misrata in Tripoli.It negotiates with Islamists affiliated with the Libya Dawn operation that now controls the capital, including Mohamed Belhaj, the head of the Nation Party and former leader of the Libyan Combat Group, and with the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Sawan, head of the Construction and Justice Party.It simultaneously negotiates with former leaders from the former Gaddafi regime and with representatives of the parliament currently sitting in Tobruk. Nevertheless, Algiers draws certain lines in its openness to Libyan Islamists and their allies in Misrata, differentiating between these and other terrorist groups such as IS and Ansar Al-Sharia.Egypt, meanwhile, regards Libya Dawn as an integral extension of and supporter of other terrorist groups, including Ansar Al-Sharia and the 17 February Brigades in eastern Libya, which are fighting Operation Dignity and its allies in the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani and the Tobruk parliament.For Egypt, both types of Islamists are two sides of the same coin, especially in light of evidence pointing to coordination between Libya Dawn and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries via the Libya Shield 1 militias (one of the Libya Shield militia formations affiliated with Libya Dawn), led by Wisam Al-Hamid in Benghazi.The second issue is management of the relationship with rival regional forces involved in Libya. Since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on 30 June 2013, Cairo’s relations with countries such as Qatar and Turkey have been tense. The two countries supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and support the Islamist-Misrata alliance and their militias in Libya.Algeria, by contrast, maintains close and open relations with both the Qatar-Turkish axis and the Egyptian-UAE alliance, which supports the Libyan government and the Tobruk parliament.Both countries, however, maintain open attitudes toward Sudan in the context of the Libyan crisis. While Khartoum has demonstrated support for the Islamist-Misrata alliance, Egyptian interests have compelled Egypt to remain open towards Sudan.These interests include the crucial importance of Sudan in the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis and Sudan’s influence in the Tabu-Zawi tribal conflict in southern Libya. Khartoum, for its part, remains consummately pragmatic in its determination to avail itself of all avenues, however contradictory, to perpetuate the regime led by President Omar Al-Bashir.The third issue is the approach to resolving the conflict in Libya. Egypt supports the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the internationally recognised government of Al-Thani and allies in Operation Dignity. It believes that the solution to the Libyan crisis includes recognition of the legitimate government and strengthening its governmental and security institutions.As a consequence, Egypt has become a party in the Libyan conflict, at least from the perspective of the Islamist-Misrata camp and its allies in the Libya Dawn militias, and the General National Congress (GNC) and parallel government in western Libya.Algeria holds that the solution to the Libyan crisis is to create a national consensus government that includes all factions. It presents itself as an impartial mediator that maintains an equal distance between the warring parties.Algeria has demonstrated its willingness to host Libyan dialogue conferences, as was the case in November 2014 when it invited representatives from both the Tobruk parliament and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood to talks.Algeria believes that once the influential players agree to forge a national consensus government it will be possible to rein in their militias and unify them against terrorist groups such as Ansar Al-Sharia and IS.INDICATORS OF DIVERGENCE: There are a number of indicators that testify to the divergent points of view between Egypt and Algeria, even as they continue to coordinate closely on the security dimensions of the Libyan crisis.First, while Algiers condemned the recent murder of Egyptians in Libya, it refused to take a clear stance on the Egyptian retaliatory air strikes. But it did indirectly hint that it had opposed such strikes. Three days afterwards (on 19 February) Algerian Foreign Minister Ramadan Belamamra told his British counterpart, Philip Hammond, that his country preferred political dialogue and that no military action would resolve the Libyan crisis.Second, Egypt sought to follow through on its air strikes against Derna by trying to use its influence to tilt the balance of forces in Libya in favour of the government and Tobruk legislature. On 18 February, Cairo appealed to the UN Security Council to lift the arms embargo on the Libyan government and to help it build its army in order to confront extremist groups.It also urged the council to take measures to tighten naval and air controls to prevent arms from reaching nongovernment militias and parties. In that same Security Council session, the Algerian minister for African and North African affairs, Abdel-Qader Mesahel, said that his country would continue working within the framework of UN efforts led by envoy Bernardino Leon aimed at reaching a consensual agreement that safeguards Libya’s territorial integrity.Third, some writers in the Algerian press criticised Al-Sisi’s call, following the Egyptian air strikes against Derna, for a UN resolution to give a mandate to an international coalition to intervene in Libya. The critics held that such an action conflicted with Algerian aims and principles, which oppose foreign intervention.Fourth, at the time when Egyptian-Qatari relations were growing increasingly strained over the situation in Egypt and the Libyan crisis, Algeria was drawing closer to Qatar. Qatari Assistant Foreign Minister for International Cooperation Mohamed bin Abdel-Rahman bin Jasem Al-Thani met with Algerian officials on 17 February 2014 to discuss economic and security issues, especially in relation to Libya. Subsequently, on 23 and 24 November 2014, the Qatari-Algerian joint committee met in Doha to discuss ways to enhance mutual cooperation.Fifth, in like manner, and in contrast to the tension prevailing between Cairo and Ankara, Algerian-Turkish relations saw a significant development when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Algeria in November 2014. Although the purpose of that visit was essentially to renew contracts for Algerian liquid gas exports to Turkey and to expand Turkish investments in Algeria, Erdogan took the opportunity to express support for Algerian efforts in the Libyan crisis. He and his Algerian counterpart, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, issued a joint statement in which they rejected foreign intervention in Libya.Algeria is aware of Turkey’s importance in the Libyan crisis, especially given Ankara’s close political and economic relations with Libyan Islamists, and particularly the Islamist businessmen in Misrata, one of Libya’s economic capitals.REASONS FOR DISPARITIES: Egyptian-Algerian differences over the Libya crisis stem from a number of essential factors.First, the repercussions of the crisis are potentially more severe for Egypt than for Algeria. Although Islamist influence has increased in western Libya following the Libya Dawn’s seizure of Tripoli, in alliance with some of the western tribes, the greater weight of the jihadist and takfiri groups is in the east, especially in Benghazi, Derna and Ajdabiya.In addition, while the tribal factor helps counter the Islamist weight in the west, this is much less the case in the east. As a result, cross-border threats from the Libyan crisis are more acute and more dangerous in the direction of Egypt.Egypt has much closer social, economic and tribal ties with Libya than does Algeria. This, together with the more than million Egyptian workers in Libya, makes the threat to Egypt far greater than to Algeria.Egypt and Libya are more closely linked by the rise of Islamist political parties and groups following the fall of the Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes in 2011, and by the gap between the situation of the Islamists in the two countries following the clash between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, than are Algeria and Libya.Algeria, by contrast, remained relatively immune to the Arab Spring revolutions. More significantly, it also confronted the threat of Islamist militants much earlier on, in the grim decade that opened with the government’s annulment of the results of the general elections and its banning of the Islamist Salvation Front in 1991. Only much later did it assimilate the Islamist factions into a multi-party system that is kept under control by and operates within the framework of the ruling regime.Algeria in general is keen to cool down the regional climate, whether in the direction of Libya or of northern Mali, so that the Bouteflika regime can focus more closely on controlling domestic events and addressing various economic, social and political crises.From the Algerian perspective, this entails opposing foreign intervention, minimising the windows for military solutions and isolating extremist groups from those it believes can be assimilated into the political process. Algiers’s success on 19 February in brokering a ceasefire between the Mali government and six Tuareg militia groups may have been part of its attempts to isolate religious militias in northern Mali.At all events, Algeria realises that international intervention generally leads to counterproductive results for which the countries of the region pay the greatest price. It is therefore extremely cautious on this question, which is why Algiers only agreed reluctantly and after considerable pressure from major world powers to cooperate with international intervention in northern Mali and Libya, especially as regards the use of Algerian airspace by fighter planes.Algeria simultaneously fears that attempts to marginalise Islamist groups in Libya will lead to the growth of even more radical groups that refuse all negotiated solutions. Recent months have brought worrisome indicators of this possibility.Most notably, the attack against the Corinthia Hotel on 28 January 2015 was staged by Islamist gunmen claiming to be affiliated with IS against the parallel government in Tripoli. Other attacks followed, including one against a local radio and broadcasting company, and more recently clashes have erupted between Islamist militias in western Libya.Regardless of how and why the Egyptian and Algerian views differ, given the growing capacity for the Libyan crisis to spill over into neighbouring countries, it is in Egypt’s immediate interest to maintain close political and security cooperation with Algeria.Algeria possesses important political and security cards, not only in Libya but also in adjacent coastal and desert areas. Moreover, Algeria has considerable influence within the security structures of the African Union, and it has relations with the tribal leaders in western and southern Libya. Egypt also needs to have good relations with Algeria for other reasons, including its rising domestic demand for energy.
The writer is a researcher at the quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya published by Al-Ahram.