While American media has been almost single-mindedly focused on an election nearly two years away, important events transpire in North Africa – events which will shape the future of Islamism, terrorism, and the global oil trade.
In Algeria, Abdelaziz Boutefilka, leader since 1999, has resigned. Millions of Algerians have marched against Boutefilka for weeks – first in opposition to his decision to run for a fifth term, and then against the government in general – ultimately resulting in the leader’s resignation. Boutefilka’s health, in particular, has been severely deteriorating – Boutefilka rarely appeared in public, has suffered numerous strokes, and was generally viewed as an old, weak puppet of corrupt interests.
The future of Algeria will be determined by the intricate dance between the Algerian military and the Algerian people. Algeria’s political history involves heavy military involvement, and the 1990s were dominated by heavy conflict between Islamist factions and the government. Protestors are now demanding that Algeria’s entire “old regime” (essentially anyone associated with Boutefilka) resign and leave politics, but with a caretaker government largely staffed by Boutefilka-era ministers, it is unlikely that this demand will be fulfilled. There are numerous potential outcomes – perhaps the military will depose the entire caretaker government, and implement either a military junta or steer the country towards Tunisian-style democracy. Perhaps radical factions among Algerian youth – most likely Islamists – will begin a violent revolution, in a continuation of the Arab winter. Perhaps the military will ultimately side with the Bouteflika bureaucracy, and suppress the current revolutionary protests in Algiers and Oran. Hope for a peaceful solution in Algeria arises from Algeria’s violent, recent political history. All parties in the current Algerian crisis have called for peaceful change, and have disavowed military involvement in politics – likely due to fear of a repeat of the 1990s.
In neighboring Libya, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) marches on Tripoli, the capital and largest city of Libya. The Libyan situation is complicated, with the UN-backed Tripoli government facing off against the LNA, backed by the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia. Haftar has repeatedly vowed to destroy Islamist groups operating in Libya, and has been relatively successful in doing so – he now controls 90% of the country, including most of the country’s rich oil fields.
Not much is known regarding the state of Haftar’s army – some claim that he leads a loosely associated group of militiamen (including Salafist forces – not secular whatsoever), while others claim that he is leading a secular tide to reunify a shattered nation. Haftar formerly served under Gaddafi, but was captured by Chadian forces in the Libya-Chad war of the 1980s – leading Gaddafi to disavow Haftar. Haftar eventually ended up in the United States, opposing Gaddafi and gaining US citizenship. In 2014, Haftar returned to Libya in opposition to the UN-backed government, and has slowly been marching across eastern and southern Libya since his return.
The state of the Tripoli advance is also unknown. Haftar is roughly 30 kilometers from Tripoli, but has reportedly seized the Tripoli airport. However, other reports indicate that Haftar is not unstoppable – his forces reportedly retreated from a road to Tunisia, and roughly 130 LNA troops have been captured. If Haftar’s forces enter Tripoli, it could set the stage for a vicious battle – one which could result in the destruction of the UN-backed government and Haftar unifying the country under his rule. Libyans likely support Haftar, simply because he in the most advantageous position to unify Libya – only Tripoli stands in his way of control of the country. After seven years of conflict, Libya is looking for peace, and Haftar, after a potentially bloody battle for Tripoli, could be able to deliver this peace.
North Africa has always been a place of historical importance, with its geographic centrality and natural resources. The political crises in Libya and Algeria will prove to be key events for the 2020s, and will play a key role in the future of both Europe and the Middle East.