Haftar at the gates: How Libya's crisis forced Algeria to come out of diplomatic hibernation

Haftar at the gates: How Libya's crisis forced Algeria to come out of diplomatic hibernation
Analysis: With the Libyan crisis knocking on Algeria's door, new president Tebboune has launched unprecedented diplomatic efforts. But questions about his legitimacy mean there are more than geopolitics at stak.
5 min read
21 January, 2020
The war in Libya is forcing Algeria’s new rulers to reanimate on foreign policy [Getty]
The rapidly escalating Libyan crisis is wreaking havoc on Algeria's doorsteps but President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has wasted no time since his inauguration in December to take the country out of its diplomatic hibernation to contain the growing threat to the east.

Prior to his removal from power following a popular uprising, chronically incapacitated former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika had caused his country, once a powerhouse of international diplomacy, to retreat on both the regional and international arenas.

The war in Libya however is forcing Algeria's new rulers to quickly reanimate the nation's formidable foreign policy machinery – albeit Algeria observers say they have domestic politics in mind too.

Read also: Key Libya middleman Tunisia is left out of the Berlin conference

The imminent threat

Ever since rogue general Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to capture the capital Tripoli from the internationally recognised government of Fayez al-Sarraj, there has been a sharp escalation of hostilities in Libya.

New international players have joined the fray, with Russian mercenaries assisting Haftar's campaign, already backed by Algeria's former coloniser France as well as the UAE and Egypt. Then recently, Turkey came out strongly on the side of the Tripoli government as part of its east Mediterranean grand strategy, sending Turkish and allied Syrian troops to help defend against Haftar's forces.

With their interests aligned towards stabilising Libya into a shared sphere of influence, Russia and Turkey organised peace talks in this month Moscow to end the latest cycle of violence in the 6-year conflict that began with the toppling of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi. A deal was put on the table detailing a withdrawal from both sides.

Haftar has shown a reluctance to buy into the deal, however, leaving Russia without officially signing the ceasefire agreement. Haftar then agreed to attend peace talks in Berlin on Sunday, also attended by the Algerian president.

Hafter threatens Algeria's geopolitical interests [Getty]

In fact, Algeria has emerged as a key diplomatic actor, along with the other players in Libya.

Aware of this, Libyan Prime minister Sarraj and his supporters Turkish President Erdogan and Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, have all recently flocked to Algiers to woo the waking North African giant to their side.

Algeria's geopolitical goals

But while Algeria has stated the fall of Tripoli to French-backed Haftar would be a red line, its goals in Libya do not necessarily align with those of Turkey.

"Algeria is trying to maintain neutrality and wants to be seen as a neutral leader in resolving or mediating the conflict in Libya," Dr Sarah Yerkes, a Carnegie Fellow and expert on the region, told The New Arab.

"That said, I would say Algeria is closer to Russia than Turkey."

Algeria is casting a wide net for diplomatic mediation, dispatching Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum on a Gulf tour to discuss Libya with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

President Tebboune earlier this month indicated a strong desire to move away from any military solution in Libya, calling on "the international community, particularly the United Nations Security Council, to carry out its responsibilities by enforcing an immediate ceasefire and putting an end to the military escalation" in Libya.

"The solution lies in consultations between all Libyans, with the mediations of all the neighbouring countries, especially Algeria," Sabri Bogadom, head of the caretaker government in Algeria said at the time, echoing his boss.

"Because of its history, Algeria is very cautious to intervene in other countries. We suffered so much from colonialism and international foreign interference I think this is kind of a solid principle," said Tin Hinane El Kadi, an Associate Fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, downplaying the possibility for Algeria to cross the border into Libya to achieve its goals.

"I don't think you will see Algerian troops going into Libya," she said. "It's not part of the mentality of the army."

However, she said that if at any point the sprawling Algerian border with Libya including the permeable Sahara is threatened "I think you would then see an intervention".

"It's everywhere on national TV, on the news, and military statements that Algeria will defend its border". 

'International legitimacy'

Algeria's goals in Libya may also include domestic politics.

For Algeria's new rulers, Libya presents an irresistible opportunity to gain international legitimacy, with Tebboune using the conflict to bolster his position.

Since the presidential elections last year, Libya has figured highly on Tebboune's agenda, even when he was prime minister.

But Tebboune's inauguration remains a point of contention for Algerians across the country who see him as a holdover from the old order and his participation in brokering a peace deal, therefore, may be hindered by the perceived dubious credentials of his presidency.

It comes as no stretch of the imagination to argue then that the president's enthusiasm for Libya's peace process may have less to do with altruism and national safety and more to do with legitimising his claim to the president's seat.

Each time an international leader reaches out to Tebboune they are confirming his position as leader of Algeria – a precarious and delicate position so far.

Hundreds of thousands of Algerians take to the streets every Friday – with student protests occurring every Tuesday – in a democratic movement aimed at putting an end to the political elite governing the country.

Protests have been raging in Algeria for almost a year [Getty]

Tebboune, whose presidency was bolstered by the military and the late chief Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaid Salah is very much a part of that elite – a fact Algerians refuse to paper over.

"The Libyan conflict serves the interests of the current administration and Tebboune," said El Kadi, the Chatham House associate fellow .

"There is this narrative used to legitimise...regime survival and renewal in the sense that...if we go through deep democratic reforms with a constitutional assembly for instance, or if we introduce deep and thorough changes within our constitution or rules, it is going to destabilise Algeria and we cannot afford to do this now considering what's happening in Libya."

Does that mean that Libya is being used to try and distract Algerians from the threat within? 

El Kadi thinks so.

"The regime has been using this narrative and instrumentalising the Libyan conflict to argue that there are huge dangers in the region: 'People should stop contesting the regime and should stop contesting the current administration and leave the government to do its job because Algeria is under threat.'"

Narjas Zatat is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @Narjas_Zatat

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