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Algeria Wants a Role in Libya That It Can’t Afford

Bobby Ghosh

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the international cacophony over the civil war in Libya, the silence of Algeria has been easy to ignore. North Africa’s largest country has been too distracted by its own political upheaval to contribute to the conversation about the conflict raging to its immediate east.

Now, a new government in Algiers is trying to make itself heard amid the din — but its voice may not be strong enough, nor its pockets deep enough, to get the attention it deserves.

Consider all the countries that have a stake in the Libyan civil war. Each of the main belligerents — the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli, and the rebel Libyan National Army led by the warlord Khalifa Haftar — has a number of backers. The GNA receives substantial military support from Turkey, financial assistance from Qatar and some diplomatic backing from Italy. Haftar’s patrons include Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and France. The battlefield also features an assortment of mercenaries and Islamist fighters.

This is all deeply troubling for Algeria, which faces the consequences of political instability next door — a refugee influx, not only of Libyans but also of sub-Saharan Africans, and infiltration by Islamists. The costs of securing Algeria’s border with Libya have soared since a 2013 terrorist attack on a gas plant that killed more than 40 staff, most of them foreigners. Many of the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists are thought to have slipped into the country from Libya.

Algeria, which regards itself as North Africa’s linchpin, has historically been leery of any foreign presence in its neighborhood. The regime in Algiers would have been the logical mediator in the conflict that broke out after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011.

But the frail health of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for so long a colossus in the affairs of the Maghreb and the Sahel, meant Algeria could not impose itself on Libyan affairs. Even as other nations got involved, Algeria’s main claims to regional primacy — its oil-and-gas powered economy and stable government — weakened.

Even before a people-power movement forced Bouteflika’s resignation last spring, the protagonists in the Libyan drama were ignoring Algeria’s warnings about instability. The Algerians recognized the GNA, but tried to maintain neutrality, encouraging the warring sides to find a peaceful solution. Such efforts at diplomacy were no match for the arms and cash dispensed by the other players. 

In recent weeks, the new government in Algiers has tried to re-establish the country’s bona fides as regional arbiter. Last month, it hosted foreign ministers from nations bordering Libya to discuss the situation. The event yielded a photo-op, but was easily overshadowed by more meaningful Libya-related confabs in Moscow and Berlin.

Algeria’s new leader, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, is in no position to take up Bouteflika’s old mantle as a North African heavyweight. His political legitimacy at home is scant: Hirak, the protest movement that toppled his predecessor, has little confidence in him. Tebboune’s election was marred by protests and the smallest turnout in the country’s history.

His priority now is to address the problems that brought Hirak into the streets last year, and Libya isn’t one of them. Tebboune has released many prisoners and promised constitutional reforms, a purge of old regime loyalists in government, and the recovery of money embezzled by former grandees. But his long ties to the old regime render him suspect in the eyes of the young Algerians who make up much of Hirak. They have vowed to keep up pressure on the government.

Arguably Tebboune’s greater challenge is the resurrection of the Algerian economy, a task not aided by low oil prices. His prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, has described the health of the economy as “delicate,” noting that public debt has rised from 26% of GDP to rose to 45% in the past two years.

Djerad may be right that all this is the “disastrous legacy” of Bouteflika, but undoing the damage will doubly difficult as oil prices remain stubbornly low. Hydrocarbon revenues of $30 billion in the first 11 months of 2019 represented a 14.5% drop from the same period a year earlier. Foreign exchange reserves fell by $10.6 billion in the last nine months. Deep cuts in spending are unlikely: Djerad can’t touch subsidies for foodstuffs, fuel and medicine to avoid social unrest for fear of setting off another spasm of protests.

With such crises at home, Algeria’s hopes for a role in ending the one next door will have to wait.

To contact the author of this story: Bobby Ghosh at aghosh73@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gibney at avalbrun@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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