Algeria dismisses Islamist’s role in Libya as Haftar takes centre stage
Tunis - If the numerous, albeit unnamed, Algerian official sources cited by the media are any indication, the mood has changed in Algiers regarding the role of Tunisian Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi in mediating a solution to the Libyan crisis on its behalf.
“Algeria does not need Ghannouchi to reach out to the Libyans,” an unnamed Algerian diplomat was quoted as saying by at least six Algerian newspapers.
The denial of any role by Ghannouchi signalled a shift in Algeria’s relationship with the Ennahda Party president, who has been a frequent guest of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Ghannouchi’s supporters have commended the Islamist leader for using his standing to influence regional and domestic policy but detractors have criticised him for “unjustified interference”.
“Diplomacy is the sole responsibility of the president,” the unnamed diplomat was quoted as saying. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the tool to implement his policy.”
“Algeria has no parallel diplomacy,” he said.
The comments were said to reflect the feelings of top Algerian government officials, who were frustrated with Ghannouchi after he gave interviews suggesting he had a direct channel to the Algerian president, said reporters who attended an Algerian Foreign Ministry briefing on February 12th.
Ghannouchi has appeared to insist that Algeria is on the side of the Islamists controlling Tripoli and western Libya. The stand contrasts to the position of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has backed the anti-Islamist camp in the east led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar has branded Islamists “terrorists” and vowed to eradicate them from the country.
Previously seen as an obstacle to resolving the Libyan conflict, Haftar is now being viewed as part of the solution by members of the European Union and Libya’s neighbours, which, concerned about potential spillover effects, have stepped up efforts to bring the conflict to a close.
Foreign ministers from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt are to meet March 1st in Tunis after talks with Libyan officials over the past four months. They are particularly concerned about the fallout from Libya’s crisis in Egypt, which entrusted its military’s leaders with handling negotiations between the Libyan factions.
A scheduled meeting between Haftar and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the UN-backed government in Tripoli was cancelled on February 14th. Libyan media reported the meeting fell through after Haftar set conditions that Islamists and their allies in Tripoli would have no role in the discussions.
Despite the lingering tensions, the two sides were said to have made progress.
Reuters quoted Egyptian sources involved in talks in Cairo between Egyptian officials and Libyan leaders from the two sides as saying Sarraj and Haftar had committed to creating a joint committee to negotiate reconciliation efforts and an election by February 2018.
“The two sides have agreed. I have doubts about the implementation as the atmosphere between them is… tense but we hope the opposite happens,” one of the sources told Reuters.
Sarraj, who also leads the UN-backed government’s Presidential Council, said in a statement on February 15th that he had been informed that Haftar refused to meet with him “without the provision of any justifications”.
“We hoped that it (the meeting) would be an entry point to a solution to end the state of division and lift suffering of the nation and the people,” he said.
However, Sarraj said, “we are moving forward in our efforts for reconciliation and to end the crisis”.
It is unclear how the meeting’s failure will affect Cairo, Algiers and Tunis in their efforts to step in but worries are growing that if they fail to do so, Russia and the United States could intervene, especially if Haftar, who is gaining a reputation as an anti-terrorist fighter, acts as a bridge for Russia and the US administration of Donald Trump.
The European Union warned against empowering Haftar and said appointing him as the military strongman of Libya was no “alternative” to the current crisis.
EU diplomats have tried to convince Moscow and Washington that allowing Haftar to dominate power in Libya could have lasting consequences for the region.
The leading European voice on Libya has been Italy, whose Foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, has said dialogue with Russia was proving to be constructive.
Moscow, eager to recover billions of dollars’ worth of oil and infrastructure investments in Libya, has bolstered Haftar’s profile as an anti- Islamist hero and provided medical treatment to his wounded soldiers.