Libya: Egypt and Algeria need to coordinate

Ziad A Akl
Friday 29 Jul 2016

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

Although the origins of the Arab Spring are pretty much the same in different cases that witnessed mass mobilisation in 2011, the outcome of those events varies significantly from one place to another.

In each case, a number of factors have dominated the specific developments of fundamental events, and in turn, directly contributed to shaping the trajectory each country has taken.

These factors can be divided and classified along many lines depending on questions raised and answers sought. However, in a very broad sense, these dominant factors were internal in some cases and external in others. The development of events in Egypt, for example, was shaped primarily by the role of the military, whether as a force of coercion or as a political actor.

In Tunisia, elite alignments and interactions between political forces were determining factors in the country’s post-revolutionary trajectory.

In other cases like Syria, Libya and Bahrain, regional and international actors had special significance in the development of events via direct military or political intervention. Understanding how and why each revolution diverged from its intended course, or simply failed to meet the expectations it once stirred up, lies within analysing the extent of influence and the policy impacts of those factors.

In Libya, the current image cannot be detached from the wider framework of regional and international influence and intervention. It is true that the country’s division into two factions with two governments is, in essence, an internal division between Libyan political elites. However, it is also true that the political materialisation of the division and its militarised aspects are not free of foreign influence and behind-the-scenes politicking.

Each of the two factions is supported by a number of regional and international actors, and each of these actors are engaged in an unofficial system of interaction with the faction they support. Whether oil sales, intelligence, arms supply or diverse empowerment, regional actors are present in overall developments of the Libyan conflict.

Therefore, it is time to rethink their presence and reframe their interests in Libya in a cooperative framework that would have more positive effects on resolving the conflict.

Although the map of regional actors in the Libyan conflict includes several countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Tunisia, the central roles are still played by Egypt and Algeria. However, the interests of the two most powerful regional actors in the Libyan conflict are opposing without any tangible efforts at coordination.

Regional actions of both Egypt and Algeria towards Libya follow the same rationale, favouring momentary border security and minimal direct intervention. However, this rationale is manifested differently by each actor due to geopolitics and domestic concerns.

Egypt has a range of interests in Libya, ones that transcend the current conflict and its security implications. Apart from the political considerations of the conflict in Libya, Egypt had a massive labour force working in Libya, reaching as high as two million Egyptian workers in 2010.

Assuming that each of those workers supported a family of four, at least 10 million Egyptians were benefiting from work in Libya in 2010. The number of Egyptian workers in Libya today is less than 700,000 and of course they suffer from an extremely insecure working environment.

Stability in Libya would mean serious benefits for the Egyptian economy, whether through the Egyptian labour force in Libya, the range of opportunities available to Egyptian investors in Libya, or Libyan investment in Egypt.

However, these vital economic interests are overshadowed by the Egyptian regime’s war on political Islam. One of the pillars of the post-30 June regime in Egypt is its unwelcoming position towards political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood of Libya were not happy with Mohamed Morsi’s ouster from the presidency in 2013, and the movement wanted to take a vote in the General National Congress to impeach then Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on account of his visit to Cairo, a visit the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood called “an acknowledgment of the coup”.

These reasons must be put next to the security threat that instability in Libya represents for Egypt, specifically during the second half of 2013 when Egypt was under frequent terrorist attacks.

Issues related to border security and the Egyptian regime’s war against terrorism (a fundamental pillar for the regime) made Egypt more and more interested in instilling relative security in the eastern part of Libya. Those are the facts and incidents that shape and explain Egypt’s current position towards the conflict in Libya. Motivated by its anti-Islamist sentiments and resting on international recognition, Egypt has supported the House of Representatives in Tobruk, its government and its military arm.

The military and intelligence cooperation between the Libyan National Army and the Egyptian regime has helped in reducing the extent of the threat posed to Egyptian border security. However, the inability of the Libyan National Army to monopolise force in the eastern part of Libya makes border security relatively fragile despite all measures taken over the past two years.

But 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.

In a similar manner, Algeria has been proceeding with its role in the Libyan conflict. Algeria is not known for its endorsement of political Islam. On the contrary, the Algerian regime has had more feuds with political Islam than the Egyptian regime.

However, the reforms implemented in Algeria in 2011 allowed for more tolerance towards the idea. But more important than the regime’s position on political Islam is its interest in its border security, which supersedes any political considerations.

Algeria sees a serious threat posed by the geographical expansion and consolidation of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb in the southwestern region in Libya. Similar to the case of Egypt, militias in the west of Libya have been able to offer Algeria momentary, though fragile, security in that matter.

Both Egypt and Algeria are part of this exchange process with Libyan factions. It’s important in this regard to notice that neither the Libyan-Egyptian border nor the Libyan-Algerian border have witnessed any manifestations of the Islamic State group throughout that time.

Therefore, trying to rethink the role of regional actors in Libya must start with envisioning a strategy to reconcile the interests of Egypt and Algeria and direct the support they both offer towards one legitimate and unified entity.

In order for this to happen, this strategy must rest on designing a concrete security structure capable of delivering border security for both countries.

However, the security structure must not be dominated by an Islamist faction, as a precondition for Egyptian involvement.

At the same time, the long-term interests of both states must be served, which is something that could start with official military cooperation between Libya and both Egypt and Algeria in border security and counterterrorism issues.

If the Presidential Council in Libya receives actual and not mere diplomatic support from Egypt and Algeria, it could politically administer border security provided that it exerts sufficient authority over a capable military arm. 

Finally, both the EU and the Arab League should pressure both governments to participate in mutual talks on the Libyan crisis with the purpose of coordinating their efforts.

Many Libya specialists believe that both Egypt and Algeria are walking in opposite directions when it comes to Libya. However, it is not too difficult to imagine that securing the interests of both parties is possible, and at that time less behind-the-scenes meddling and more constructive regional involvement in Libya could be achieved.    

The writer is senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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