Algeria dismisses Islamist’s role in Libya as Haftar takes centre stage

Sunday 19/02/2017
Woman holding picture of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar during demonstration in Benghazi

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.