Algeria and Egypt review their options as they face off with Turkish presence next-door

Turkey has acquired strategic locations in North Africa, enabling it to pose a threat to the security of countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan.
Wednesday 20/05/2020
Vehicles are seen outside a hangar at al-Watiya airbase, southwest of the capital Tripoli, on May 18. (Reuters)
Regional implications. Vehicles are seen outside a hangar at al-Watiya airbase, southwest of the capital Tripoli, on May 18. (Reuters)

CAIRO/ALGIERS--In just six months since signing its agreement with the government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Libya, Turkey has been able to tactically overturn the tables of war against the commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Even more, it has changed the strategic game in North Africa, stunning Algeria and Egypt. This could push the two countries to push back against the new Turkish presence on their borders.

Turkey’s control of the strategic al-Watiya airbase in western Libya cannot be looked at as a limited operational success that Ankara won thanks to its drones.

It is much more serious than that. The fact of the matter is that Turkey has acquired strategic locations in North Africa, enabling it to pose a threat to the security of countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan.

Analysts said countries in the region have not seriously dealt with Turkey’s intervention, failing to understand that its shipment of weapons and mercenaries to Libya is indicative of ambitions broader than limiting Haftar’s power.

Turkey’s new influence in Libya has imposed a new balance of powers to be reckoned with, both for North African and European countries.

These same analysts point out that the Turkish president’s plans to secure Libyan oil and control the long Libyan coast impacts the interests and security of countries in the region and the security of international navigation in the Mediterranean.

Fighters loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord after taking control of al-Watiya airbase, May 18. (REUTERS)
Fighters loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord after taking control of al-Watiya airbase, May 18. (REUTERS)

So far, official reactions of concerned countries regarding the fall of al-Watiya base has been lukewarm.

On Monday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held an urgent meeting with Defence Minister Mohamed Zaki, in which he stressed the need to keep the Egyptian armed forces on high alert, a reaction that some considered a symbolic message to show that Cairo rejects the new reality on the ground. During an African event Tuesday, Sisi said security in Libya was a priority for Egypt.

Many Egyptian sources said the prospect of Egyptian military intervention in Libya has not been so far in the cards. They say that Cairo will not fall into the trap of being drawn into a war in the neighbouring country, whose tribal structure complicates the struggle.

Egyptian sources point out that Turkey’s battle is not with Egypt, but with the international powers that supported the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime to serve their own interests in Libya and the region, such as Italy, France and the United States. Surely, these countries will not accept a strong and strategic Turkish presence in Libya that risks giving Ankara control of the waters of the Mediterranean and opens the door for further pressure and blackmail.

A Turkish military presence at al-Watiya base or on the Libyan coast is seen as a threat to southern European countries bordering the Mediterranean, especially when coupled with Russian-Turkish coordination in Libya. It also threatens the national security of North African countries bordering the Libyan West, such as Algeria. The latter surely cannot be content with ignoring Turkey’s presence in a region that it believes represents a strategic extension of its security, as Algeria maintains advanced security and economic relations with tribal and social activities in the border region.

Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune has stressed that it is not possible to talk about a solution in Libya that does not take Algeria’s interests into account. This means that sooner or later, Algeria will be drawn to clash with Turkey in order to protect its national security.

Observers in Algeria pointed out the proposed constitutional amendments aimed at freeing the Algerian army from old constraints that have prevented it from playing external roles may become a golden opportunity for the country to move freely to protect its national security, including inside Libyan territory where the Turkish army and allied militias are stationed.

Libya and its neighbours.
Libya and its neighbours

The deteriorating security situation in Libya will definitely help Algeria justify this expected shift from one of its most prominent diplomatic and political tenets.

Even though Algeria’s reactions to recent developments in Libya have so far been only rhetorical, the country could eventually be compelled to abandon its stance of neutrality in light of increasing signs of insecurity due to Turkish military presence in Libya. Meanwhile, Turkey is dispatching Islamists in Algeria to pressure Algerian authorities to accept Turkey’s military presence in Libya as a fait accompli. But outside interference, after all, runs counter to the anti-colonial spirit of the Algerian revolution.