Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Libya in Amman

Libya is set to gain much attention at the upcoming Arab Summit. But North African countries will likely be circumspect on other regional crises

Libya  in Amman
Libya in Amman

In a few days, Arab foreign ministers will meet for their regular spring gathering at the Cairo-based headquarters of the Arab League. The presidency of the ministerial meeting is scheduled to be passed from Tunisia to Algeria.

The foreign minister of Algeria will be coordinating closely in the following weeks with his predecessor as well as with his counterpart from Jordan, whose country is set to host the Arab Summit at the end of March.

Central to the coordination among the three top diplomats is the agenda of issues subject to close Arab attention during the past few weeks and to be highlighted during the discussions of Arab leaders in the Jordanian capital.

Also party to the process of preparatory consultations is the foreign minister of Mauritania whose country hosted the headline Arab meeting that convened in the summer of 2016 instead of the spring after Morocco decided to pass on hosting and chairing the summit.

A key issue on the agenda of Arab diplomacy during the past few months that is expected to grab the attention of the summit and to appear in the final communiqué is the situation in Libya.

Arab diplomatic sources speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly said that the Libyan delegation to the Arab summit that is expected to be headed by Fayez Al-Saradj, head of the UN-backed and internationally recognised national unity government, is likely to present the Arab summit with a draft resolution on a political settlement and to seek its support.

The text, the same sources said, will be going through drafting rounds during the consultations that would convene in Cairo during the regular spring ministerial meeting.

It would have to be subject to the agreement of the three north African states that have been particularly consumed with handling the critical situation in Libya: Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.

Overall, the Arab diplomats expected that the Arab Summit resolution on Libya would be “by and large” inspired by the communiqué adopted earlier in February by the foreign ministers of these three north African states during their meeting in Tunis that followed consultations Egypt hosted for leading Libyan political and military figures to end the de facto split between the west and east of the country, the latter controlled by leading military figure Khalifa Haftar who is by and large supported by Egypt and Al-Seradj.

Egypt, the sources agreed, would want to make sure that the resolution to be adopted on Libya by the Arab Summit would recognise its leading role in brokering a political deal in Libya and that it would also give due recognition to the role of Haftar, “at least in his capacity as the effective head of the national Libyan army and definitely a key partner in deciding the future of the country”, according to one of these diplomats.

For their part, both Tunisia and Algeria would want to make sure that the resolution on Libya would have a clear pronouncement on the need for an inclusive political process in Libya, without excluding political Islamist movements that are not aligned with radical militias who qualify themselves as jihadists and who are directly and indirectly associated with the Islamic State group.

Mauritania in its capacity as exiting chair of the Arab Summit and in line with its traditional policies of almost siding with Algeria is also likely to contribute to this draft.

Morocco, which is keeping a close eye on its own Islamists and that wishes to come across as a contributor to the management of Libya is also likely to bypass disagreements with Algeria on the Sahara issue in favour of promoting the politically inclusive approach in managing the situation in Libya.

Apart from this close focus on Libya, the Arab countries of North Africa are not set to dedicate considerable attention to many other issues. “Generally speaking, the countries of North Africa are quite selective with their political battles and do not wish to get caught in the disagreements and squabbles of the rest of the Arab world when their association is for the most part related to the Mediterranean rather than the Arab sphere,” said a former Arab diplomat.

According to North Africa expert at the International Crisis Group, Issandar Al-Amrani, North African countries have a policy, mostly observed, of keeping their own domestic matters and internal disputes out of the corridors of the Arab League.

For example, Al-Amrani said, the chronic conflict between Algeria and Morocco on the Western Sahara is not an issue for the Arab League to discuss, no matter the developments.

A few days ago, Morocco decided to withdraw its forces unilaterally from the contested Western Sahara Guerguerat zone and asked the UN secretary-general to secure that no offensive measures are taken by the Algeria-supported Poliserio Front.

The tension between Algeria and Morocco is not a matter that either country, or for that matter the largely ineffective Magharebi Union, wishes the Arab Summit to address.

According to Arab League sources, there was an attempt by the Arab League to be seized with this matter in the early 2000s, but Morocco made it clear that it prefers the matter to continue to be handled by the UN.

Also unlikely to come to the table of talks in Amman is any assessment of the situation in Algeria, given the declining health of wheel-chair ridden President Abdel-Aziz Boutflika, whose participation in the Arab Summit — as that of Moroccan King Mohamed VI — is considered unlikely.

“We are not sure about the health condition of Boutaflika and generally it has not been the tradition of the Moroccan monarch to participate in Arab summits, except on rare occasions,” said an Arab League source.

Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had to cancel a scheduled visit to Algeria on very short notice upon notification from Algeria that Boutaflika would not be available to receive her due to a case of “acute bronchitis”, leading to renewed speculation over the true condition of his health and whether he has been again transferred to France for medical treatment.

“It would be very interesting to see whether or not he would make an appearance before the Arab Summit or not,” the same Arab League source said.

He added that this would not necessarily influence “either way” the strength of Algeria’s positions on any issue of interest, especially Libya, given plans for Algeria to host a summit on Libya “in the coming few months” to follow up on understandings generally reached during the Libya meetings hosted by Cairo earlier in February.

It would be interesting, Al-Amrani said, to observe how far Algeria and Tunis would go in the lead up to and during the Arab Summit to convince Egypt to further develop its positions on managing the situation in Libya by widening the scope of political participation for non-jihadi Islamist factions.

“Egypt is already showing an openness to talk to the Islamists of parts of Misrata and it is also becoming very well aware that its leading partner in Libya, Haftar, is not necessarily opposed to all Islamists but is opposed to certain groups of jihadi Islamists,” Al-Amrani said.

The issue of jihadists and political Islam in Libya was never subject to a wide consensus between Egypt and the rest of the countries of North Africa, from Tunisia to Mauritania, but certainly Algeria and Tunisia who have to worry about the influence of Libya-based Islamists on political stability in their respective countries.

Egypt has always had a more conservative approach on qualifying who is a radical Islamist, according to Arab and European diplomats who engaged Cairo on the situation in Libya.

The question for Amman, said the Arab League source, would be how to reconcile the definition of who is a radical and all-but terrorist Islamist in Libya, and who is not, including elsewhere in Arab countries.

Egypt, according to concerned Egyptian sources, is expected to appeal to the Arab Summit to show collective commitment to combat “terror groups of all shades”.

According to Al-Amrani, this matter is related to the possible influx of radical militants from Libya to Egypt and also to other bordering states in North Africa.

Also related is the issue of illegal migration.

According to the narrative of southern European countries, the situation in Libya — qualified in the assessment of some as a “failed state” — is promising larger influx of migration through the Mediterranean. This, they said, is a matter for Arab countries on the south of the Mediterranean to examine in their consultations and during the Arab Summit.

In the words of one European diplomat, “The time has come for Arab countries around the Mediterranean to work on curbing the endless waves of migration across the Mediterranean, especially those coming out of Libya, which by far are the largest.”

According to Al-Amrani, it is this European wish to reduce endless flows of migration that could prompt the European Union to announce clear support for any agreement that might come from the Arab Summit on Libya.

Arab leaders, the Arab League source said, might not necessarily adopt a resolution on the matter of migration, but that it would certainly be an issue for talks, at least at the ministerial level.

On this issue, all North African countries are likely to be of the same opinion, according to the Arab League source.

Matters that are likely to see some disagreement in Amman among North African countries, Al-Amrani argued, are those related to Iran, with Algeria showing traditional openness towards Iran, “essentially in relation to the OPEC context”, and with Morocco taking the traditional pro-Saudi position.

The same, Al-Amrani said, would go for Syria where Algeria, like Egypt, would be in favour of engaging the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and with Morocco again — and to a lesser extent Mauritania — siding with the Saudi position.

According to Al-Amrani, it is very important to understand that for Algeria the acute deterioration of the situation in Libya is related to the excessive intervention of both the UAE and Qatar, with each country siding with and supporting a group of factions/militias, allowing for the current situation of wide chaos across Libya.

Algeria too, like Egypt, is not happy with Gulf involvement in Syria and would generally send signs of alignment with the regime of Al-Assad, against the positions of Saudi Arabia that would be supported by Morocco.

Overall, Al-Amrani said, apart from Egypt, the countries of North Africa would not get too involved in the management of the many pressing Arab issues, especially that each has so many internal matters to worry about.

Tunisia is already facing serious cracks in its national unity government; Algeria is trying to make sure that the political process of transition post-Boutaflika would be smooth; Morocco is keen to be careful in managing the power of political Islam; and the president of Mauritania is keen on getting re-elected.

“So apart from Libya, essentially I am not seeing very deep participation of North African countries,” Al-Amrani said.

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