Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Order From Chaos.
A decade after the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is expected to hold elections in December to form a unified government. As the date draws closer, the country’s Maghreb neighbors – Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – are showing increased interest in its ongoing peace process.
Algerian decision-makers have resumed Libyan flights, opened a maritime line between Algiers and Tripoli, and recently appointed Ramtane Lamamra – who has been heavily involved in the Libyan dossier – as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Tunisia remains keenly interested in controlling security risks and restoring economic ties and signed agreements with Libya over the summer to promote mutual trade, investment and the movement of travelers. Morocco, cradle of the 2015 Skhirat accord (which recognized the government of national unity as Libya’s only legitimate authority), is organizing meetings between rival Libyan actors and bilateral talks with officials on potential cooperation in the areas of strengthening security, trade and renewable energies. energy.
Despite a problematic lack of coordination on the Libyan issue between these states, all agree that the elections are the best way forward for the country in the throes of conflict. In addition, they have all consistently supported the interlibyan dialogue which promotes Libyan voices. Yet their increased interest in recent months raises questions. Why have they invested more and more in Libya, and what do they have to gain from its stability?
The main reason for the Maghreb’s interest in Libya’s stability is the security threat posed by the continuing chaos. The political instability that manifested itself in Libya after 2011 led to an increase in terrorism, organized crime, the proliferation of arms and drug trafficking. This is particularly problematic for Algeria and Tunisia, which share porous land borders with Libya. The Tunisian government has dramatically increased security spending since the collapse of the Libyan security sector, while the Algerian regime has increased the number of troops along its shared border. Even Morocco, which is not a direct neighbor, has been affected by instability in Libya, especially in terms of the terrorist threat. As Moroccan fighters joined the Islamic State group’s branch in Libya – from where the terrorist organization planned to launch attacks on Europe – their imminent return created security risks for the kingdom.
Moreover, due to the power vacuum in Tripoli, the possibility of terrorist organizations and rebel groups launching their offensives from Libya was a real threat to the entire North African region, as evidenced by the launch by a Chadian political-military rebel group from a battle that killed the president. Idris Déby Itno. The collapse of the security sector in Libya has also made possible the smuggling of weapons, drug trafficking and other criminal activities at an intensified level. While before 2011 Libya experienced little traffic in drugs other than cannabis, it is now a well-established route for cocaine, heroin and amphetamines.
This could explain why some Maghreb states have signaled the possibility of a military partnership with the Libyan government of national unity. The president of Algeria, a historically isolationist country, said he was ready to “enforce the red lines” against Marshal Khalifa Hifter. In addition, a 2020 reform of the country’s constitution allowed the Algerian military to deploy abroad, a change from a decades-old hands-off military policy. Morocco and Libya are in advanced talks on enhanced cooperation on terrorism and migration and aim to conclude a military partnership. It is true that the aforementioned Algerian constitutional reform is probably also due to the growing instability in the Sahel region and that the talks with Morocco are perhaps another way for the kingdom to maintain its involvement in the Libyan dossier and to promote its interests. However, these developments suggest that the two countries are taking steps to ensure that they would be able to protect themselves from a security threat emanating from Libya or intervene to defuse such a situation.
Tunisia is perhaps the Maghreb state that has the most to gain from re-establishing strong economic ties with Libya. Since 2011, its economy has been impacted by the emigration of Libyans to Tunisia as well as by the return of Tunisian workers from the country. The security threat has also contributed to reduced tourism and investment as well as increased security spending. The World Bank estimated that between 2011 and 2015, the Libyan crisis reduced Tunisia’s growth by 24%.
Stability in Libya would gradually reverse these effects and open the door to bilateral economic cooperation. The increase in tourism and trade would stimulate the fragile Tunisian economy affected by COVID-19. The recently opened borders have already enabled Tunisian traders from disadvantaged areas to travel to Libya and sell their goods there. The two sides aim to strengthen cooperation in the fields of trade, investment and tourism, as was seen at a Libyan-Tunisian economic forum held in Libya last May.
Morocco, which did not benefit from solid economic ties with Libya under Gaddafi’s regime, could also benefit from new trade and energy agreements. Moroccan decision-makers are working on it. The kingdom’s foreign minister announced in June the organization of a second bilateral economic forum. In the same month, the Libyan oil and gas minister discussed ongoing talks on renewable energy cooperation with Morocco.
To a lesser extent, Algerian officials have also shown recently that they are open to improving trade with Libya and reopening the fragmented land border that could become a major economic zone. Like Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria also organized an economic forum with Libya and signed an agreement on trade and industrial forums. Algiers also provided economic aid to communities in southwest Libya, including food aid in 2014 during the tribal conflict between the Tébou and Tuareg tribes.
A potential advantage of peace in Libya at the regional level could be the strengthening of intra-regional economic integration in the Maghreb. Trade between Maghreb states stood at 2.8% in 2019, compared to 10.7% between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The reasons include the crisis in Libya as well as the logistical constraints and tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Peace in Libya could present a small possibility of improvement and could allow these states to consolidate economic integration and launch cross-border security cooperation initiatives.
Beyond their domestic interests, certain Maghreb states are investing in the Libyan peace process itself to consolidate their position on the regional and international scenes. Since hosting the meetings that led to the signing of the Skhirat Agreement, Morocco has held multiple talks on the issue of key institutional positions, as recently as this summer. Moroccan decision-makers attach great importance to the role of the kingdom in the Libyan peace process, which Rabat sees as a means of strengthening its international reputation as a credible mediator. This could explain why Moroccan officials were harmed by their exclusion from the 2018 Berlin conference (to which Algeria and Tunisia were ultimately invited) and why the kingdom was subsequently relatively absent on the issue of the Libya between 2018 and 2020.
By stepping up its involvement in Libya, Morocco is also seeking to curb the influence of rival Algeria in the region. While Algeria recently reached agreements with Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey over the Tripoli crisis – suggesting increased interest in Algiers on the matter – Morocco may come to fear that its influence over Libya and the area is not shrinking. This in turn would exacerbate its tensions with Algeria and push it to get even more involved in Libya.
Outlook: after peace?
The peace process in Libya will remain complicated. Even if an election is held in December, the vote goes well, and the result is a unified government that Hifter does not dispute, there will still be a long way to go. It may take years for Libya’s neighbors to reap the economic and security benefits.
However, in this scenario, the threat to regional security would diminish in the near future, which would ease the pressure at all levels. The Tunisian government could cut security spending, while Algeria and Morocco could refocus their security efforts on the Sahel region. Foreign investments in the Maghreb would also eventually recover in the medium and long term, as would tourism (depending on the epidemiological situation).
In the meantime, the Maghreb countries will continue to defend their individual interests through their links with Libya. The Tunisian government will likely seek to sign other trade and tourism deals while keeping an eye out for potential energy deals eventually. Algeria will remain most concerned about the potential security threat that could come from Libya if the peace process fails, although it is unlikely to intervene militarily beyond securing their common border. Morocco will aim to assert its role of mediator while preserving the institutions of Skhirat. To this end, he will probably organize more Bouznika-style meetings between rival actors. However, a unified Maghreb response to the Libyan crisis is highly unlikely as long as tensions and ideological differences persist.