A decade after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is supposed to hold elections in December to form a unified government. With this date approaching, Libya’s neighbors in the Maghreb region, namely Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, are showing increasing interest in the ongoing peace process in the country.
Algerian decision makers have resumed flights to Libya, opened a sea route between the Algerian capital and Tripoli, and recently appointed Ramtane Lamamra, who was very involved in the Libyan file, as foreign minister. Tunisia remains deeply interested in controlling security risks and re-establishing economic links, and it signed agreements with Libya over the summer to boost trade, investment, and passenger traffic. Morocco, the country where the 2015 Skhirat Agreement (which recognized the Government of National Accord as the sole legitimate authority) was concluded, is organizing meetings between rival Libyan actors and bilateral talks with officials about potential cooperation in the areas of improved security, trade, and renewable energy.
Despite the lack of coordination between these countries on the Libyan file, which is problematic, they all agree publicly that elections are the only way forward in these countries that are mired in conflict. Moreover, all of them have consistently supported the dialogue between Libyan factions that strengthens Libyan voices. However, her growing interest in the past few months raises questions. Why is its interest in Libya increasing, and what benefit does it gain from stability in Libya?
The main reason for the Maghreb region’s interest in Libya’s stability is the security threat posed by the ongoing chaos. With political instability reaching its peak in Libya after 2011, this led to an increase in terrorism, organized crime, the proliferation of arms, and the drug trade. This is very problematic for Algeria and Tunisia, which share a powerful land border with Libya. The Tunisian government has significantly increased its spending on security since the collapse of the Libyan security sector, while the Algerian regime has increased the number of soldiers deployed on the two countries’ shared borders. Even Morocco, which is not a contiguous country, has been affected by instability in Libya, particularly with regard to the threat posed by terrorism. With Moroccan fighters joining the Islamic State in Libya, from which this group planned to launch attacks on Europe, their expected return posed risks to the kingdom’s security.
Moreover, due to the power vacuum in Tripoli, the possibility of terrorist and rebel groups launching attacks from Libya posed a real threat to the entire North African region, as demonstrated when a Chadian military-political rebel group launched a battle that led to the death of President Idriss Deby Itno. The collapse of the security sector in Libya has also enabled arms smuggling, drug trafficking, and other criminal activities to be extensive. Whereas before 2011 Libya witnessed no drug trade except for cannabis, today it has become a well-established transit point for cocaine, heroin and amphetamines.
This could explain the reason why some countries in the Maghreb region hinted at the possibility of establishing a military partnership with the Libyan Government of National Accord. The head of the Algerian state, a historically isolationist state, has said that he is ready to “implement red lines” against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In addition, the reform of the country’s constitution in 2020 allowed the Algerian army to be deployed overseas, a change from the decades-old non-interventionist military policy. Meanwhile, Morocco and Libya have entered advanced talks on improving cooperation in the areas of terrorism and immigration and intend to enter into a military partnership. It is likely that the aforementioned Algerian constitutional reform is also due to the increasing instability in the Sahel region, and that the Moroccan talks are perhaps another way for the kingdom to maintain its involvement in the Libyan file and to advance its interests. However, these developments indicate that the two countries are taking steps to ensure that they are able to protect themselves from the security threat from Libya or to intervene to mitigate such a situation.
Tunisia is perhaps the country that benefits most in the Maghreb region from the re-establishment of strong economic ties with Libya. Since 2011, its economy has been affected by the migration of Libyans to Tunisia and also by the return of Tunisian workers from Libya. The security threat also contributed to reducing tourism and investment, as well as increasing security spending. The World Bank has estimated that between 2011 and 2015, the Libyan crisis led to a 24 percent decline in Tunisian growth.
In this sense, stability in Libya will gradually reverse these effects and open the door to bilateral economic cooperation. The increase in tourism and trade will support the weak Tunisian economy affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The recent opening of the border has already allowed Tunisian traders in poor areas to travel to Libya and sell their goods. Both sides aim to enhance cooperation in the field of trade, investment and tourism in the future, as happened during the Libyan-Tunisian Economic Forum held in Libya in May.
Morocco, which did not have strong economic links with Libya under Qaddafi, could also benefit from new agreements on trade and energy. Moroccan decision makers are working towards this goal. In June, the Moroccan Foreign Minister announced the organization of a second bilateral economic forum. In the same month, the Libyan Minister of Oil and Gas mentioned ongoing talks with Morocco on cooperation in the field of renewable energy.
To a lesser extent, Algerian officials have also recently been open to improving trade with Libya and to reopening a common border that could turn into an important economic zone. Like Tunisia and Morocco, Algeria organized an economic forum with Libya and signed an agreement on trade and industrial forums. Algeria also provided economic assistance to communities in southwestern Libya, including food aid in 2014, during the tribal conflict between the Tebu and Tuareg tribes.
Enhanced economic integration between states in the Maghreb region could be one of the potential benefits of peace in Libya at the regional level. Trade exchange between the countries of the Maghreb region reached 2.8 percent in 2019, compared to 10.7 percent among the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. One of the reasons for this is the crisis in Libya, as well as logistical constraints and tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Thus, peace in Libya could present a small opportunity to improve conditions and could allow these countries to enhance economic integration and initiate cross-border security cooperation initiatives.
In addition to the domestic interests of some countries in the Maghreb region, these countries are involved in the Libyan peace process itself to strengthen their position on the regional and international arenas. Since Morocco hosted the meetings that led to the signing of the Skhirat Agreement, the kingdom has organized several talks on the issue of basic institutional positions, the last of which was held this summer. Moroccan decision makers attach great importance to the kingdom’s role in the Libyan peace process, which Rabat sees as a way to enhance its international reputation as a reliable broker. This could explain why Moroccan officials felt insulted by their exclusion from the Berlin conference in 2018 (to which Algeria and Tunisia were eventually invited) and why the kingdom was subsequently absent from the Libyan file between 2018 and 2020.
Morocco also intends, by increasing its involvement in Libya, to keep the influence of its rival Algeria in the region under control. With Algeria recently reaching agreements with Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey over the crisis in Tripoli, indicating a growing interest in the Algerian capital, Morocco may fear that its influence in Libya and the region may diminish. This, in turn, may exacerbate his tensions with Algeria and push him to become more involved in Libya.
Aspirations: the post-peace era?
The peace process in Libya will remain a complex issue. Even if elections are held in December and the voting process goes unhindered and leads to a unified government that Haftar does not oppose, there will still be a long way to go. It may take years for Libya’s neighbors to benefit from the economic and security benefits.
But in this scenario, the regional security threat will diminish in the near future, relieving pressure in all respects. The Tunisian government could then reduce spending on security, while Algeria and Morocco could refocus their security efforts on the Sahel. In the medium and long term, foreign investment will eventually increase, as will tourism (depending on the epidemiological situation).
Meanwhile, the countries of the Maghreb region will continue to pursue their individual interests through their ties with Libya. The government in Tunisia will likely seek to sign more agreements related to trade and tourism while maintaining its intention to sign potential energy deals in the future. Algeria’s biggest concern will remain the potential security threat that could emanate from Libya if the peace process fails, although its military intervention is unlikely to go beyond maintaining the security of their shared border. Morocco will seek to consolidate its role as a mediator while preserving the institutions that emerged from the Skhirat Agreement. To achieve this, he will likely set up more meetings, similar to the one that took place in Bouznika, between the competing actors. However, it is highly unlikely that a united Maghreb response to the Libyan crisis will emerge as long as ideological tensions and differences persist.