Algeria out of the picture in the Libyan crisis and for a reason

There was a time when Algerian diplomacy played a major role in several issues, but those days have been forgotten.
Thursday 25/06/2020
A 2013 file picture shows an Algerian soldier standing guard at the Tiguentourine gas complex, in In Amenas, about 1,600 kilometres southeast of the capital.  (AFP)
A 2013 file picture shows an Algerian soldier standing guard at the Tiguentourine gas complex, in In Amenas, about 1,600 kilometres southeast of the capital. (AFP)

During a visit by Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune to the Ministry of National Defence in Algiers on June 2, the Army’s chief of staff, Major General Said Chengriha, spoke highly of the proposed preliminary draft to revise the country’s constitution presented on May 8 by the head of state. Among the proposed amendments was one article which purports to constitutionally authorise the National People’s Army (ANP) to intervene outside Algeria’s national borders.

But why introduce this article into yet another grooming of Algeria’s 1976 constitution? The ANP has never refrained from intervening outside Algerian borders, especially in Egypt in 1967 and 1973. As for the security forces, they intervened in Lebanon to release hostages, and more recently in the east of Libya to rescue a French commando that had been ambushed in Cyrenaica. Endorsed by the army’s magazine “El-Djeich, this article underscores Algeria’s absence from the Libyan crisis since 2011, the worst crisis in the central Mediterranean in decades.

This absence contrasts with the decisive role of France, the United Kingdom and the United States in 2011. At that time, the ANP lost a unique opportunity to influence the course of events in Libya. Algeria had the necessary cards to weigh in on Muammar Qaddafi, who was threatening the inhabitants of Benghazi. It had well-trained land forces, a significant air force, good relations with local tribes in western Libya and well-respected diplomats. But former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika proved to be a poor tactician, and Sarkozy’s France took over.

Since his election as president in 1999, Bouteflika never ceased to dismiss competent officers in the army. In 2002, he appointed General Ahmed Gaid Saleh as chief of staff of the armed forces. The latter then entered into a conflict with the Directorate of Intelligence (DRS) headed by General Mohamed Mediene, also known as Toufik, and succeeded in dismantling it. The key Ministry of Energy was handed over to Chakib Khelil, who ended up weakening it with eleven years of corrupt management. All through this period, many honest officials were replaced by courtiers from the Bouteflika clan.

The arrival of Ramtane Lamamra at the helm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2013 did not prevent Algeria from being marginalised on the Libyan issue, in which countries such as France, Italy, Turkey, the UAE and Qatar had been very active. A former ambassador to the United Nations, Washington and the Organization of African Unity, few diplomats are as familiar with African issues as Lamamra. But after being invited last winter to apply for the post of UN envoy to Libya by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, he was vetoed by the United States and the UAE. This setback illustrates rather well Algeria’s loss of prestige in the world.

There was a time when Algerian diplomacy played a major role in several issues, but those days have been forgotten. During the 1960s, Algeria was at the forefront of the fight for Palestinian rights, and in 1981 it played a crucial role in securing the liberation of American diplomats held hostage in Tehran. Former Algerian Foreign Minister Mohammed Seddik Benyahia was a brilliant diplomat before his tragic demise. His plane was shot down by Saddam Hussein as he was trying to negotiate the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1982. Those days are but a distant memory now as the weakening of the ANP went hand in hand with the undermining of Algerian diplomacy.

The attack on the Tiguentourine gas field in January 2013 by a commando coming from neighbouring Libya forced Algeria to massively redeploy its army from the west to the east.

Considerable expenses were incurred to secure the long stretch of the country’s Sahara borders, made possible by high oil prices at the time. Today, collapsing oil prices have forced the Algerian government to cut its civilian spending by 50%. But, can the government afford to leave intact the military budget which represents a quarter of total spending? And what’s the point of accumulating hundreds of tanks, fighter planes, armoured vehicles and coast guards, only to end up not having any weight or influence in Libya, a country that has such a direct impact on their own security?

The two countries with the greatest influence on Algeria are France and Russia. Neither of them, however, welcomed the rise of Algeria’s popular protest movement, known as the Hirak, which, until the COVID-19 lockdown, saw millions of citizens demonstrate to demand greater democracy. France supported Bouteflika’s ridiculous candidacy for a fifth term until the latter was relieved by the army. It then gave its full support to Gaid Salah, Algeria’s strong man and a fierce opponent of the Hirak until his death. A former non-commissioned officer in the French army, Gaid Salah is one of the many officers that France can influence, based on the information it holds on this or that file of contracts between the ANP and foreign suppliers, where under the table commissions and retro-commissions flourish.

In Libya, France is concerned about illegal migration to Europe and the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the Tripoli government; but it is allied with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. With the rise of Turkey in Libya, France has lost a lot. In Algeria, it is pressuring the ANP to send Algerian ground troops to Mali, but any such action will be interpreted by millions of Algerians as neo-colonial policy, and the Algerian troops would be seen as auxiliaries to the French army and a parallel would be quickly drawn between them and the famous Algerian Tirailleurs who fought in Europe alongside French troops during the two World Wars.

In Brussels, some have noted the sizable volume of investments made in Algeria by China and Turkey, which exceeds that of all European companies. China is weighing more and more in the region, and Turkey too. France’s constant support for Morocco in the dossier of Western Sahara deprives it of all strategic influence in the Maghreb. Algeria is slow to rethink its military and diplomatic strategy, not to mention its centralised and corrupt economic management. Under these circumstances, it has been, up to now, a safe bet that the ANP will not become an auxiliary force to France in the region. If it did, it would lose an essential part of its historic legitimacy that the National Liberation Army so dearly acquired between 1954 and 1962.