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Source: Jamestown Foundation

The progressive deterioration of security within Libya represents a major concern for a number of regional actors, most notably Libya’s two powerful neighbors, Egypt and Algeria. Algeria has already directly experienced some of the destabilizing effects of the Libyan upheaval, with the terrorist attack on In Aménas and the war in neighboring northern Mali. The war in Libya and its outcome had a number of effects on Egypt also: with the situation along the border remaining unstable, it is widely believed that weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenals have inundated the Sinai Peninsula. This has contributed to the deterioration of security there, making that part of Egypt one of the most difficult regions to control for the post-revolutionary authorities. While both Egypt and Algeria both have an interest in a stable Libya, this does not imply automatically that the two countries will deepen their relations. While there may be some tactical convergences and a substantial agreement on a “Libyan solution to Libyan problems,” the prospect for a deeper and more strategic cooperation on Libya and other regional issues remains grim.

The Algerian Response – Testing Foreign Policy Principles

During the Arab Spring, Algeria adopted a rather conservative stance, both internally and externally. Internally, the regime worked to guarantee its survival using a number of instruments such as raising public expenditures and tightening security to cool down the potential threat emanating from the revolutionary wave that engulfed its three eastern neighbors, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Externally, Algeria adopted its traditional principle of non-interference, an approach very much in line with the nation’s historical foreign policy attitude and strategic culture. With non-interference remaining a major pillar of post-colonial Algeria, authorities maintained a rather cold stance toward the efforts of external powers to support the rebellion mounting in Libya in 2011 despite a history of troubled relations between Algiers and the Qaddafi regime.

Nevertheless, Algeria perceived the destabilization of Libya as a major threat and its intelligence services likely had a much more accurate picture of what constituted the Libyan rebel front than the NATO nations that supported the revolt. However, in line with the pragmatism often showed in its foreign policy, Algeria coped with the new reality on the ground by collaborating with the new post-revolutionary government, developing relations that were described as “solid” by both sides despite some initial tension associated with the presence of members of Qaddafi’s family in Algeria (Algeria.dz, March 12, 2012).

The rising instability in northern Mali as a result of inflows of militants and weapons from Libya, and above all the attack on Algeria’s In Aménas gas plant by terrorists operating from across the Libyan border, significantly changed the way Algeria looked at what was going on in Libya. A prolonged period of instability in Libya will significantly stress Algerian security resources. An arc of diplomatic tension and instability at its borders surrounds Algeria, including its western borders, where tensions remain high with neighboring Morocco over the status of the Western Sahara and a number of other issues.

The rivalry with Rabat remains the defining and central regional issue for Algeria. As such, the need to devote security resources to face the wave of instability coming from the east is perceived as an element that may weaken Algeria vis-a-vis Morocco. The Algerian army is already mounting a great effort to manage the instability coming from Mali and the opening of a new front on its eastern border with Libya is considered a major burden that should be reduced as soon as possible. Reports of an unlikely joint Algerian, American and French military operation in eastern Libya emerged in early June, but the existence of the operation has been denied between all the parties alleged to be involved and no further confirmation has been available (El Watan [Algiers], June 6; al-Arabiya, June 6).

In a meeting with American secretary-of-state John Kerry, Algerian president Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika stressed the need to eradicate the terrorist threat along the Libyan border. Moreover, it is not by chance that two major heavyweights of the French government, Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian and Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, visited Algeria in May and June 2014 respectively (Tout sur l’Algérie, May 20; El Watan [Algiers], June 7; Le JDD [Algiers], May 21).

For Algeria, the eventual support of General Khalifa Haftar and his effort to take over the Libyan government may be simply a pragmatic move to reduce Algeria’s degree of involvement in Libyan affairs, though this would not necessarily imply a wholesale change in Algeria’s historical policy of non-interference. Signs of cooperation with the United States and France, two of the main actors in the deposal of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, and Algeria’s growing pro-active attitude in the region are dictated by tactical circumstances and are required to avoid more problematic strategic consequences. The extent to which Algeria supports Haftar will depend on his capacity to represent an element of stability, rather than a further element of destabilization in Libya’s already complex strategic equation.

The Egyptian Response – Containing Islamist Militancy

The other regional power particularly interested in developments within Libya is Egypt. Haftar seems intent on copying the Egyptian military’s methodology in his quest for power in Libya. [1] Not only does he phrase his actions in terms which should theoretically please Egyptians (his intervention is a “fight against terrorism” represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Libyan-based jihadist groups), he also, like General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi in July 2013, asked for popular support to justify his crackdown on the Islamists and even borrows the name of the his political wing – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – from the military entity that governed Egypt between 2011 and 2012. All of this, however, does not automatically endear Haftar to Egyptians who are wary of the rogue general of a barely existing army, operating in a dysfunctional state on Egypt’s border while trying to imitate the success of Egypt’s June 30, 2013 revolution. [2]

In Cairo’s view, Haftar’s intervention, which was preceded by his alleged “television coup” in February 2014, complicates the internal situation in Libya and could further destabilize Egypt’s western neighbor. Consequently, this would endanger the safety of the ever-shrinking Egyptian workers’ community in Libya, whose members have endured killings, kidnappings and illegal detentions at the hands of local Islamist groups (Mada Masr [Cairo], March 25). Furthermore, a destabilized Libya, with unprotected borders, remains the main source of weaponry for Egyptian criminal or terrorist networks, with an estimated one million weapons smuggled into Egypt after Qaddafi’s downfall. [4]

Most importantly, Egypt views Libya as a sanctuary for terrorist groups operating in northern and Sahelian Africa, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun movement and various Egyptian-based terrorist networks. According to some estimates, up to 12 “Afghan-style” camps for would-be Egyptian jihadists exist in eastern Libya. [5] These camps offer Egyptian jihadists from Sinai and other parts of the country (like the much-touted Nasr City Cell dismantled in 2012) access to the community of global jihadists, support from the likes of AQIM and strategic depth if they find themselves under too much pressure in Egypt. [6] The alleged trainees found in these camps, whose numbers are disputed, do not however constitute a “Free Egyptian Army,” an alleged Muslim Brotherhood military organization in exile which is said to be waiting for a chance to “return” to Egypt. This entity is a bogeyman of some of the pro-Sisi Egyptian press but pro-government analysts dismiss it as a creation of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ahram Weekly, April 24). [7] 

Both Haftar and Egypt deny cooperating in Haftar’s Operation Dignity. Egypt cautiously stresses the importance of international assistance to Libya that would enable the country’s authorities to re-impose control over their territory. [8] That does not include, despite President Sisi’s pre-election statements on the Egyptian Army as a guarantor of security to Egypt’s “Arab brothers,” direct Egyptian military intervention or unilateral cross-border attacks on jihadist strongholds in Libya (Cairo Post, May 15). What can be expected, however, is intensification of counter-terrorism efforts within Egypt to combat local networks stretching into eastern Libya and on into northern and Sahelian Africa, followed by intense public exposure to garner international support for Egyptian actions.

Conclusion

Theoretically, Algeria, which has been combating its own Islamist extremists for more than two decades, should be an ideal partner in Egypt’s quest to eradicate terrorism emanating from Libya. Some in Algeria have suggested Egypt could follow the pattern of political development that Algeria undertook over the past 20 years (La Nouvelle République [Algiers], July 3, 2013). However, the extent to which the two countries and their security sectors would be ready and willing to co-operate on the Libyan file is debatable. Egypt may not view Algeria as the best counter-terrorism partner in relation to the threat emanating from Libya in view of Algeria’s prolonged and unsuccessful effort to combat its own domestic terrorist threat.

In short, despite the fact that seemingly similar eradicationist political and security mindsets prevail in Algeria – and from 2013 – in Egypt, does not automatically mean that the two independent minded countries, with a history of troubled relations, are bound to implement mutual co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism. Both nations have an interest in reducing volatility and insecurity in Libya, but for different reasons.

Egypt needs to reduce the security threat at its border and work towards internal consolidation after the troubled post-Arab spring period while devoting resources and soldiers to boost government control of the unstable Sinai Peninsula. Algeria’s concern is that a destabilized Libya will drain economic, political and military resources needed to confront more urgent issues such as northern Mali and historically more important issues such as its ongoing rivalry with Morocco. While some degree of tactical convergence remains possible between North Africa’s largest militaries, a deeper and more strategic cooperation on Libya at a political level remains improbable.

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