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Main events in Maghreb and Mashreq – July

by Claudio Bertolotti

original article in “Osservatorio Strategico” – Ce.Mi.S.S.: english versionitalian version

Israel and Egypt

Israel will begin exporting natural gas to Egypt in November, with volumes eventually set to reach seven billion cubic metres a year. The supplies will mark the start of a $15bn export agreement between Israel’s Delek Drilling and US-based partner Noble Energy with an Egyptian counterpart in what Israeli officials called the most significant deal to emerge since the neighbours made peace in 1979. The deal signed early last year will bring natural gas from Israeli offshore fields Tamar and Leviathan into the Egyptian gas grid.

Lebanon

Possible dispute between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri over referring the shooting of two members of the Lebanese Democratic Party in the Druze area of Aley to a senior Judicial Council. The political repercussions of the deadly event have paralyzed government at a critical moment and risk complicating efforts to enact reforms needed to steer the heavily indebted state away from financial crisis.

Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is determined to destroy “to pieces” what he called a “terror corridor” in northern Syria – regardless of whether or not Turkey and the United States agree on the establishment of a safe zone. Ankara wants a zone along the border with Syria that would be cleared of the Kurdish fighters. It also says such a zone would be safe for Syrians and allow some of the country’s refugees to return. Turkey has warned of a possible new offensive into Syria if an agreement on a safe zone is not reached, and has recently been sending reinforcements to its border area.

Algeria

Protesters remain in Algeria’s streets, having forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation in April. In this uncertain transition period, important questions face two groups key to Algeria’s political future: protesters and military personnel. According to a new Brookings institute report – titled “Algeria’s uprising: A survey of protesters and the military” – the results show a wide support for change among protesters, while illustrating a divide between the upper and lower ranks of the Algerian military in support for the protest movement. While 80% of the lower ranks support the goals and continuation of the protests, “the senior officers, by contrast, are a bit more hesitant, [as] only 60% are saying that they support the protests”.

Morocco

In his speech for this year’s Throne Day on 30th of July, Moroccan king Mohammed VI announced new development programs and a government reshuffle for domestic policy. For foreign policy, he called again for dialogue with Algeria and for ”unity among North African populations”. As concerns the Western Sahara, Morocco’s position remains ”firmly anchored to territorial integrity”. To celebrate his 20 years as king, Mohammed VI pardoned 4,764 detainees, including some detainees for terrorism.

Libya

Libya’s national oil company has suspended operations at the country’s largest oil field over the “unlawful” closure of a pipeline valve. The National Oil Corporation announced the move without saying who was behind the closure of the pipeline linking the Sharara oilfield to the port of Zawiya, on the Mediterranean coast. The Sharara oil field, which produces around 290,000 barrels a day worth $19 million, is controlled by forces loyal to Khalifa Hifter, head of the so-called Libyan National Army which launched an offensive in April to capture the capital.

Tunisia

President Béji Caïd Essebsi died the 25th of July at the age of 92. The interim, the president of the Parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur (85 years old), took over the position of head of state. The elections will take place on September 15. Institutional and economic crisis and jihadist threat: Essebsi’s death occurs in a period of potential destabilization for the North African country.


Libya: the opportunities

The Libyan frailty

On August 26, in the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, violent clashes took place as consequence of an attack conducted by the militias of the Tarhuna Seventh Brigade (originally from a town 60 km south of Tripoli and linked to Salah Badi, former chief of Libya Dawn) against the militias loyal to the Government of national accord (Gna), in place since 2016, under Fayez al-Sarraj. Thanks to the UN mediation, the parties agreed to a truce on September 4, but the subsequent missiles attack on Tripoli airport on September 12 broke the truce and imposed the closure of the capital’s air traffic. In a month’s time, because of the hostilities 117 people died, 560 were injured and 5000 families were displaced.

This situation, while confirming the failure of the international negotiation process, significantly affected the internal political scene, characterized by chronic instability and very difficult to put back together. Despite international recognition and support, the Government of national accord is being de-legitimized by some very dynamic competitors, like militias, sub-national, local and tribal groups. It is weak, lacks the necessary monopoly of force and therefore is unable to impose its power beyond the sole Tripoli area.

The UN rejects the French early elections project

In mid-September, the UN Security Council (under rotational US presidency) made two important decisions: in the first place it adopted a resolution authorizing an extension into 2019 of UNSMIL mandate -the United Nations Support Mission in Libya is the UN body in charge of relations with Tripoli, under the responsibility of Lebanese national Mr. Ghassan Salamè. Secondly, due to persisting instability, the idea of holding presidential elections before the end of the year, put forward by France, was abandoned. This latter choice was in line with the Italian and US views.

The UN Security Council decision thus reinforced the key role of the UNSMIL mission, while it weakened Mr. Ghassan Salamè’s (apparently not very incisive) who is to be flanked by US national Ms. Stephanie Williams as Vice-representative for political affairs in Libya. On the other hand, Paris has not given up its plans.

Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar collaboration-competition relationship, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades.

The overall situation pays the price of strong external interferences making a solution to the conflict unlikely in the mid-term. The Libyan government under Fayez al-Sarraj is busy maintaining a safe and secure environment in the Tripoli urban area, the Tobruk Parliament – loyal to General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar and with the support of France, Russia and Egypt – is promoting a constitutional referendum, urged by the French, with the aim of facilitating elections. Around the two competing fronts gather, in a peculiar relationship of collaboration on the one hand and competition on the other, hundreds of groups, militias and brigades who are busy imposing their own priorities on both Tripoli’s and Tobruk’s governments thanks to their respective territorial and social control, whose characteristics have been compared to the mafia’s. A thriving parallel economy based on international illegal trade in smuggled goods, consisting mainly in oil, drugs and weapons, as well as human beings, allows self-sustenance. 

Within this scenario, signs are starting to emerge of an improved cooperation between Italy and the US. Washington could take a more direct involvement in Libya into consideration, while the US administration also views the 12-13 November international conference on Libya organized by Italy with favour. It is not to be excluded that the US will advance its own strategy for Libya with an eye to security. Should the strategy be designed in accordance with Stephanie Williams’s vision, resulting from her 24 years’ experience in the Middle East and North Africa, specifically in Libya where she previously held the position of «chargé d’affaires», it might include the creation of a selected military corps to also include Gadhafi’s special troops currently scattered among countless armed groups.