Can Algeria be the peace-broker in Libya?

Can Algeria be the peace-broker in Libya?
Comment: Algeria appears to be playing a greater role in facilitating diplomacy in Libya. But what are its chances of being successful where others have failed? asks Guma ElGamaty.
7 min read
10 Jan, 2017
Algeria's Minister Delegate for Maghreb and African Affairs with Libyan deputy Prime Minister of GNA[AFP]

Algeria is a key neighbour for Libya. Over the last month it has witnessed a flurry of political activity, putting its full diplomatic weight behind concerted efforts to achieve a breakthrough in Libya's political impasse.

In December and earlier this month, Algeria received official visits from the main Libyan political and military protagonists, including the president of the Tobruk based Libyan parliament (HOR) (Agela Saleh); the head of the Tripoli based Presidential Council (PC) (Fayez Sarraj); General Khalifa Haftar and head of the State Supreme Council based in Tripoli (Abdurrahman Sewehli).

Many other key figures are believed to have visited Algeria for consultations as well.

It has been clear that the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), signed in Morocco just over a year ago, is facing colossal challenges to its implementation on the ground. The positions of the competing sides on the Libyan conflict are still deeply polarised, with no signs yet of the compromises needed to end the divisions and save the country from the abyss.

The Algerian consultations with the various Libyan individuals and groups are being co-ordinated by the experienced Algerian minister for Maghreb, Arab and African affairs Abdelkader Messahel, and are "part of a new initiative by Algeria to be more active in trying to find a solution to the Libyan crisis".

Algeria for its part, is clearly keen on increasing its influence, rather than allowing Egypt to play the guiding role in events in Libya. If Algeria can persuade Egypt - and the wider international players involved in Libya's politics - to support its current efforts, then a brokered political deal that can end the deadlock has a realistic chance.

An alignment between Algeria and Egypt could lead to dual pressure and persuasion on both Libyan sides

An alignment between Algeria and Egypt could lead to dual pressure and persuasion on both Libyan sides. Egypt can influence the groups it supports in the east, and Algeria, can use its clout with the groups based in Tripoli.

A legitimate question, however, is why should Algeria succeed in Libya when others have not succeeded so far?

There are certainly a few factors unique to Algeria that give it an advantage over any other country. It is one of the main stake-holders in Libya as the countries share a common border of 700km.

Consequently, as long as Libya is unstable - awash with weapons and harbouring many uncontrolled military groups including Al-Qaeda and IS - it poses a direct security threat to Algeria.

There has also been, generally, a common respect from all Libyan sides for the impartial position Algeria maintained throughout the Libyan conflict, since the February revolution of 2011.

The fact that Algeria commands the respect of and can talk to all sides in Libya puts it in a very strong position as an honest broker

Unlike Egypt and other Arab Gulf countries, Algeria was never accused of, or proved to be, supporting any side in the Libya conflict, with arms, money or other logistical support.

The fact that Algeria commands the respect of and can talk to all sides in Libya puts it in a very strong position as an honest broker.

Algeria also stands to gain most geopolitically from a stable united Libya. As one former Algerian diplomat puts it "this is the difference between Algeria and the rest of the world: We are in favour of a political agreement between all parties because we will be the first beneficiaries. We are the first to want a strong Libya."

Algeria, being a major oil and gas producer, has no economic or territorial interests in neighbouring Libya and its concerns are mainly security based, especially as Algeria has faced its own serious terrorist challenges and threats for the last 25 years.

According to the Jamestown Foundation, Egypt on the other hand "has a much wider range of interests in Libya, going well beyond the current conflict and instability. Egypt has historically seen eastern Libya as its immediate backyard".

  Read more: interview: The New Arab's interview with UN special envoy to Libya 

Egypt, which is facing chronic economic problems, also has major economic interests in Libya. Around two million Egyptians were working in Libya just before the Libyan revolution in 2011, and if each Egyptian worker supports an average family of four, then ten million Egyptians could derive their livelihood from Libya, with their remittances in foreign currency totalling billions.

While Algeria and Egypt are both key stakeholders in Libya's stability and political future, it is also no secret that both countries have taken some diverging stands vis-a-vis Libya.

Egypt has pursued a more partisan policy by favouring and directly supporting one side against the other in the Libyan conflict. As one senior researcher at the Egyptian Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies puts it "while Egypt was pursuing its momentary security interests, it was also manipulating the balance of power within the Libyan conflict and playing a divisive rather than a constructive or reconciliatory role".

The Al-Ahram researcher goes on to argue that "It is time for both Egypt and Algeria to stop playing a divisive role in Libya and start acting in a cooperative framework that would help resolve the conflict in the country."

During the Russian foreign minister Lavrov's visit to Algeria on 29 February 2016, his Algerian counterpart Ramatane Lamamra stated that the two countries "have made major moves towards establishing strategic partnership in different spheres".

For Algeria to succeed in Libya, it is vital that it reaches an understanding with Egypt

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that "Russia and Algeria both believe it is necessary to restore Libya's statehood through a truly national dialogue".

For Algeria to succeed in Libya, it is vital that it reaches an understanding with Egypt that sees both countries converge and pursue a common policy of positive involvement: Both can use direct diplomacy and persuasion to get the main factions to make the necessary compromises for the sake of preserving the unity, sovereignty and realising the potentially promising prosperous future of Libya.

Russia, being a common friend and strategic ally to both Algeria and Egypt, can use its international weight and give its support and encouragement to them to work constructively together. This would be in line with recent intense speculation that Russia has recently shifted to playing a more direct influence in Libya's politics.  

A possible outcome of the current intensive diplomatic efforts by Algeria is to hammer out a compromise between the government of national accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and the leadership of the Tobruk based parliament; and thus preserve the political agreement signed in Morocco as the framework, making specific adjustments to address the points of disagreement.

These points include who should assume the role of the supreme commander of the armed forces, the position and role of the general commander of the army (currently General Haftar) and the composition of the Presidential Council (PC) of the GNA.

It has been clear over the last year that the nine men PC is not working as a homogeneous unit that should provide vitally important political leadership to Libya in these troubled times. It may well be the case that changes to the composition of the PC are now needed.

Finally, in his recent visit to Algeria few days ago on 7 January 2017, UN special envoy to Libya Martin Kobler held talks with Minister Abdelkader Messahel and stressed the "key role of neighbouring countries, especially Algeria, in the search for a solution to the crisis in that country."

Kobler declared that the year 2017 "should be the year of decisions to reach a solution to the crisis that has been shaking Libya for many years".

So will the coming weeks and months prove that Algeria can play the peace-broker in Libya? Well, certainly if any country can, then Algeria is best placed to do so.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process.

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab