Algeria uses Islamist channels in pursuit of Libya settlement

Foreign ministers of Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia are due to meet this month in Tunis to draw up a plan for mediating Libya’s crisis.

2017/02/05 Issue: 92 Page: 8

The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi

Algeria, which has suffered greatly in the fight against radical Islam, is turning to Islamist leaders to help mediate the Libyan conflict.

One of the main conduits for its mediation attempts has been Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, who has met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at least 16 times in six years. Secularist critics blame Ghannouchi for what they consider “unjustified interfer­ence” in Tunisian-Algerian diplomatic relations.

Ahmed Ouyahia, a top Boutef­lika aide who is angling to replace the president, travelled to Tunis in late January to brief Libyan Islamist leader Ali al-Salabi about Algeria’s mediation efforts.

Government officials in Algeria argue their country’s experience in dealing with radical Islamists gives them insight into how to manage the Libyan conflict. Algeria’s civil war claimed an estimated 200,000 lives and deprived Algeria of an estimated $50 billion in the 1990s when Islamist militants waged a 10-year war against the country’s military.

After winning the presidency in 1999, Bouteflika introduced a policy of National Reconciliation and Peace, which granted amnesty to thousands of Islamist militants.

Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and other government officials said it was thanks to that policy that Algeria was able to “export peace” to neighbouring countries.

Algeria’s mediation efforts aim to bring together the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the speaker of the internationally recognised parliament, Aguila Saleh, and their mainly Islamist foes Abderrahmane Souihli, Abdel Hakim Belhadj and Salabi.

Prominent tribal leaders and loyalists of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi have been urged to join the negotia­tions, which Algeria hopes can result in a more broadly repre­sentative national government.

Algeria’s approach to mediation in Libya is twofold. First, it hopes to reach out to Libyan Islamists by relying on its Islamist links in the region. Second, it would like to lean on Egypt, which has influence with Haftar, to draw him into the negotiations, although he has consistently rejected Islamists as terrorists and vowed to eradicate them.

Tunisian Islamists are tempted to see Algeria as their “regional protector”. They are particularly wary of US President Donald Trump’s team’s hostile views to Islamists after years of favourable attitudes from the Obama administration.

In Algeria, where election boycotts and voter apathy threaten to destabilise the country, the powers that be seem to think that Islamists could play a larger role in the country’s political transition.

Algerian diplomacy in Libya is helped by the conspicuous absence of the Arab Maghreb Union. The group, plagued by tensions between Algeria and Morocco, is unlikely to play a more active role, especially since Morocco has rejoined the African Union.

While Tunisia has shown tacit support for Algeria’s approach towards Libya, it is unclear whether Egypt will endorse Algeria’s Islamist-based strategy. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi favours a role for official Arab armies, especially in Libya, calling them a “beacon of stability” in the region and sees them as part of Cairo’s fight against Islamists at home.

“Our priority is to support national armies, for example in Libya, so they can assert control over Libyan territories and deal with extremist elements,” Sisi recently told Portuguese broad­caster RTP. “The same with Syria and Iraq.”

Foreign ministers of Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia are due to meet this month in Tunis to draw up a plan for mediating Libya’s crisis. A summit is to follow in Algiers if progress is made.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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