International concern is growing over recent events in Libya, where retired Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter is seeking to expel radical Islamists from the country. The escalating conflict is particularly alarming to regional powers such as Algeria and Egypt, which could try to stabilize Libya by providing critical support to the general. Indeed, the possible role of Algeria — a key player in the fight against regional militancy — as a solution to Libya's woes was likely the topic of discussion in Tuesday's visit by France's defense minister to Algiers. However, neither Algeria nor Egypt can afford to support Hifter too enthusiastically until the general proves he can actually win.
Hifter is targeting an array of Islamist elements, including political movements such as Libya's Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in the country's beleaguered parliament, the General National Congress. Libya's military emerged from the chaos of the 2011 Libyan Revolution as a weak and divided body, unable to challenge the political authority of the General National Congress and the militias that support it. Though Hifter's anti-Islamist rhetoric has proved popular among many groups, his results have been disappointing, and the general has widened the divisions already present in Libya.
In recent days, several local councils, military elements and militias in eastern Libya pledged support for Hifter's movement. However, opposition to Hifter's efforts has also grown. The beleaguered national government is still attempting to continue its work, albeit from secret locations, and well-entrenched portions of the national military, regional militia leaders and local militant groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia have vowed to defeat Hifter and his allies.
Over the weekend, Hifter's forces pushed into Benghazi with mixed results; they failed to rout either the February 17 Martyrs' Brigade or Ansar al-Sharia. On May 19, local forces in Tripoli rebuffed an incursion by Zentan-based militias. Overall, neither Hifter nor his opponents appear to have a strong advantage, effectively extending Libya's protracted stalemate.
Since Hifter announced his operations May 17, rumors have swirled about possible U.S., Algerian or Egyptian support for the general's forces. Indeed, Hifter's anti-Brotherhood rhetoric and promise to restore security and stability jibe with Algerian and Egyptian concerns for the region. His goals mirror those of the Egyptian military when it (with backing from certain Gulf countries) outmaneuvered the Muslim Brotherhood to oust Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July. Egypt and Algeria, two countries with secular, military-backed Arab nationalist regimes, face serious security challenges from Libya's security vacuum. By providing Hifter with funds to buy political support, weapons and communications equipment, Libya's neighbors would be seeking to install a more stable, like-minded government capable of managing Libyan instability. They would also boost Hifter's chances for success on the ground.
But fixing Libya may not be so easy, and Hifter — a lackluster commander during the 2011 revolution and the leader of a previous failed coup attempt — does not inspire much confidence.
Algeria has launched several initiatives to mitigate the risk of Libyan instability on its borders, including developing closer ties with Tunisia and working with local militia and tribal elements on the Libyan side of the border to help slow the flow of militants headed west. Similarly, Egypt's military has maintained ties with tribal populations overlapping the Libya-Egypt border to better manage the flow of people and weapons between the two countries. Some of these groups have supported Hifter, but not all. Thus, Algiers and Cairo risk damaging relations with certain powerful militias if they push aid to Hifter too early and his campaign fizzles out.
Algeria and Egypt likely condone Hifter's message on paper. Few in the region or beyond oppose strong anti-terrorism values. As much as both states would like to see an indigenous solution to the Libyan problem, neither want Libya to slide further into civil war. But both countries will likely withhold major support for Hifter until his forces are more clearly on a path toward victory and can demonstrate control before fanning the flames of war. Even if the general temporarily routs the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist elements from Tripoli and Benghazi, he would still face the same challenges of consolidating authority that have plagued the current interim government. Algeria and Egypt want lasting stability in Libya, not a temporary victory for its newest warlord.
Though the need for long-term stability in Libya might argue for greater support for Hifter, neither Algiers nor Cairo can afford to take a leading role in managing the country. Both governments are preoccupied with managing their own post-Arab Spring realities. Algeria in particular is attempting to establish greater civilian oversight as part of broad political reforms — the challenges of which President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's administration is likely making quite clear to the visiting French defense minister.
Both Algeria and Egypt desire Libyan stability, and both will likely support whoever they think can guarantee it. But both need to avoid finding themselves responsible for managing a crumbling Libya at the behest of Western observers, lest Libya's instability take them down with it.