From security to economics and international influence, the countries of the Maghreb are deeply interested in what is happening in Libya.
Libya has been locked in continuous civil conflict with differing intensity since the Arab uprisings in 2011. The state has struggled to create unified national institutions in the post-Gaddafi period. A decade after the overthrow of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya expected to hold elections in December last year to produce a unified government. However, it did not go as planned, and eventually, the elections were postponed indefinitely.
North African countries, especially Algeria and Egypt, suffered a great deal after Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow. Libya’s vast desert border, populated by communities with a long history of smuggling, presents a significant challenge to Libya’s neighbours. The abundance of weapons and ammunition following the 2011 war, and the ability of non-state actors to move and operate freely, have increased threat levels in the region.
The main reason behind neighbouring countries’ engagement in Libya’s stability is the security risk that continued turmoil represents. Libya continues to experience the interlinked political and economic crises, which have undermined state institutions by weakening its economy. As a result, competing militia groups, notably in the East of Libya, continue to fight for power. The weak surroundings of the state gave these armed groups to preserve their actions through illicit sales of oil.
For instance, Trans-Saharan smuggling routes have evolved from passageways for the informal trade of illicit goods to conduits for the smuggling of weapons, drugs, fuel, counterfeit cigarettes, and even people. The criminal activities and corruption associated with trafficking undermine domestic stability in Libya.
This is notably concerning for Algeria and Tunisia, which share porous land borders with Libya. Algeria has been concerned about a domino effect from Libya in this context. Algeria shares a border of almost 1,000 kilometres. Thus, insecurity in Libya can quickly spread to Algeria, and Algiers is particularly worried about the potential infiltration of radical groups, such as Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
It is imperative to note that in 2013, Algeria was the scene of a major terror attack that targeted the Tigantourine gas facility near Ain Amenas in the desert region. The attackers took captive about 150 Algerians and dozens of foreigners during the raid. The assailants also killed more than 40 staff, most of them foreigners.
Algeria’s policy towards Libya
Algiers’ historical experience under the French colonial era informs the Algerian view of non-interference in the affairs of foreign countries. The principles of national sovereignty, non-intervention, and diplomatic settlement of conflicts are still important to the Algerian regime.
Algiers has been among the key supporters of the UN-backed Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) concluded in Skhirat, Morocco, in late 2015. The former minister for the Maghreb, Arab and African affairs in Algeria, Abdelkader Messahel, said that only Libyans could build their country’s future, underlining the point that Libyans have to deal with the crisis themselves and have to do so by communicating with each other.
Recently, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stressed his country’s hope that Libya will hold elections, which would be a significant step in resolving its political crisis. Algeria wants to find a political solution in Libya, despite all the endogenous and extraneous factors that are standing at any peace talks process and holding elections.
Even though Morocco is not a country bordering Libya, the country has been impacted by uncertainty in Libya, especially in terms of the risk of terrorism. Rabat describes its position on the Libyan crisis as one of active neutrality and willingness to pursue and facilitate a political solution to the conflict. In 2015, the Kingdom facilitated the 2015 Skhirat agreement, also its known Libyan Political Agreement(LPA), which resulted in the international recognition of the previous UN-backed GNA(Government of National Accord) as Libya’s sole legitimate authority.
Yasmina Abouzzohour, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard, commented that: “By positioning itself as a key mediator in Libya’s political process, the Moroccan monarchy- which determines the kingdom’s foreign policy- hopes to advance its international standing by increasing its value to key allies as a regional security provider, to check rival Algeria’s influence in North Africa, and to improve its bilateral relations with Libya in the post-Gaddafi era”.
Tunisia’s interests in Libya
Tunisia’s policy towards Libya is driven by two main interests, including security concerns and economic considerations. Since the conflict occurred in Libya, Tunisia has experienced two significant challenges: fragmentation of the security landscape in western Libya and constant disruption of cross-border oil supply generated by Libya’s economic difficulties. Together, these two phenomena have severely disturbed the country’s economy.
The conflict in Libya continues to impact Tunisia’s economy significantly. Before the conflict, Libyan-Tunisian bilateral commercial relationships were at a historical high point, and many joint projects had recently been set. The two states were about to finalize the installation of a free economic zone between Ben Guerdane in Tunisia and Libya’s Ras-Jedir border development area.
Tunisia has been affected heavily by this conflict because of the security concern, which led to reduced tourism and investment and increased security spending. Consequently, according to the World Bank report, between 2011 and 2015, the Libyan civil war reduced Tunisia’s growth by 24%.
Maghreb countries suffered greatly in the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow. Libya’s vast desert border, populated by communities with a long history of smuggling, presents a significant challenge to Libya’s neighbours. However, some neighbouring countries will likely pursue their interests through their ties with Libya. But these countries still support a restart of the process of political negotiations to reach long-lasting political stability in the country, which will help increase foreign investment in the region, especially in the tourism sector.
From a security point of view, Maghreb countries seek the restoration of order on their borders with Libya, which have experienced some terrorist attacks and sustained arms trafficking. From a commercial standpoint, thousands of their people, especially Tunisian guest workers, were employed in Libya’s several sectors, including the energy sector, before the crisis in Libya in 2011, and Tunisia seeks their return to Libya and a continuation of the critical remittances that those workers contributed to the Tunisian economy.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The North African website.