Libya, containing the danger

The chaos in Libya will not be stopped by lazy rhetoric or easy options. The country's neighbours, Tunisia and Algeria, can teach the west a lesson. 

Francis Ghilès
28 February 2015

Many influential voices sound as if they are spoiling for a fight against Libya's violent militias and their friends in the region. Italy's interior minister Angelino Alfano predicts that the Vatican, as “the centre of Christianity”, is likely to be the next target of Islamic State. The Egyptian president, General Abdelfattah al-Sisi, is keen to intervene in Libya following the ritualised murder of twenty-one Coptic Christian migrant workers there. This incident followed a string of bloody attacks on security forces in the ungoverned Sinai peninsula by the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group, and rising acts of terrorism in Cairo and northern Egypt (where al-Sisi's forces have targeted members of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemning hundreds to hang in kangaroo courts). 

The Islamic state is doing everything it can to provoke Egypt, Jordan and the west. The killing of the Copts was also preceded by the burning alive of the downed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. Such acts may be bestial but they are not mindless: they are calculated to bring the "crusaders" - that is, European troops - into Arab lands. This jihadi dialectic is no different from al-Qaida’s flying civilian planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2011.

Egypt's head of state may try and convince Rome, Paris and Washington to play hardball in Libya. But his enthusiasm is not shared in Tunis or Algiers. In those capitals, cool heads argue that Libya is in a state of metastasis - the spreading of cancer from one organ to another not directly concerned with it. Both countries’ leaders believe their duty is to prevent the violence which racks Libya from spreading west.

Tunisia's caution

Tunisia is on the frontline, and has much to lose from any Nato-backed intervention in Libya. It hosts at least half a million Libyan refugees. Many of them currently have the means to live on, but at some point will run out of cash as Libya's hard-currency reserves decline in the absence of oil-and-gas revenues. Tunisians showed immense solidarity with Libyan refugees in 2011-12 and received very little help from the European Union or international organisations for their pains. Today, though, patience is running out in Tunisia. Many Tunisians fear these Libyan “guests” will become a burden on a country which is trying to put down democratic roots and get its economy moving after four years of turbulent politics.

Tunisia's experience, after all, was very different to Libya's. The downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 was engineered by a revolt of the Tunisian people, with no outside interference. Tunisia's new head of state, Beji Caid Essebsi, is mindful of this inheritance and of the results of the elections which brought him to power in December 2014. The southern Tunisian provinces of Medenine, Ben Guerdane and Tozeur voted massively in favour of his predecessor, Moncef Marzouki. In the parliamentary elections a few weeks earlier they had voted for the Islamist An-Nahda party, which may have lost out to "Si Beji’s" Nidaa Tunes party but has the second largest block of deputies in the new assembly.

Southern Tunisia has traditionally looked more towards Egypt and Saudi Arabia than the richer coastal towns and the capital Tunis. After independence in 1956, people in the south had dreams of pan-Arabism, which set them on the collision course with the founder of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba. This pan-Arabism has mutated into pan-Islamism. The new Tunisian president is the heir of Bourguiba’s conviction that women be granted equal rights to men. Tunisia recognises the internationally recognised Libyan government in Tobruk but many in southern Tunisia incline towards the Islamist dissident government in Tripoli, a city which lies close to the frontier. The south has long depended on jobs in Libya rather than Tunisia. Any western intervention could set southern Tunisia ablaze.

Algeria's experience

Algeria for its part was humiliated when terrorists from Libya briefly overran the gas field of In Amenas, close to the border, in January 2013. Forty workers were killed and production was interrupted for over a year. The border between Algeria and Libya has since being reinforced and new weaponry deployed. This fits in with the Algerian army’s massive shopping spree since 2000 which aims to replace ageing Soviet weaponry with more modern hardware - largely Russian but also German, Italian and American. A new drone will be built with South Africa as Algeria absorbs the lessons of Kosovo, Iraq and Syria; in other words, of asymmetrical warfare. In the process Algeria has become one of the ten largest importers of weapons in the world and the largest in Africa.

The army has also been redeployed geographically. Since the late 1990s, Algeria's security priorities have changed and attention turned away from Morocco, where a dispute over the international status of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara has opposed the two countries since 1975. Instead, the fight against Islamist terrorism has moved to the top of the agenda - in Algeria itself, and along the borders of Mali, Niger, Libya, Tunisia and beyond. This has meant a refocusing of concern, and the deployment of troops, on the country’s long desert frontiers to the south and east.

It was Algeria’s failed attempt to usher in bold political and economic reforms in 1989-92  that forced its security forces and army to learn the hard way how to confront radical Islamism. Once the object of suspicion in western capitals, the country which trained the commandoes of the South African ANC and the Palestinian PLO, Algeria has become a country keen on maintaining the status quo in north-west Africa. Its leaders warned western states of the likely consequences of  their intervention in Libya in spring 2011, but their advice was ignored. In Paris, London and Washington, the art of geostrategic thinking appeared, in the words of an American ambassador who knows the region, seemed to have been “all but forgotten".

Since the country became independent in 1962, Algeria’s military doctrine has been very reluctant to condone armed intervention beyond the borders of Africa’s largest country. Today its foreign minister is Ramtane Lamamra, a former ambassador to Washington, the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity, who thus has deep knowledge of the area and is mindful of the intractable nature of the Libyan crisis. He knows there is no immediate answer to the huge mess the western intervention in Libya has spawned.

It is a caution is shared by his president as well as by Tunisia's. Algeria and Tunisia cooperate closely today as they try to secure their common border. Loose talk of military intervention in Paris and Rome is easy, but Europe is unwilling to put boots on the ground. The European Union and the United States understand that neither Tunisia nor Algeria share Egypt’s agenda. They could do worse than listen carefully to and cooperate fully with the two Maghreb countries, which have most to lose by growing chaos in Libya.

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