Morocco is positioning itself as a reliable mediator in the Libya conflict to bolster its international image as a regional stability provider, to check rival Algeria’s aspiration to become a regional hegemon and to improve its bilateral relations with Libya, says Yasmina Abouzzohour. This article was originally published on the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis.
Starting on November 30, representatives of Libya’s House of Representatives (HoR) and State Supreme Council participated in a two-day meeting in Tangier mainly dealing with the question of sovereign appointments. This closely followed the November 23-28 Tangier talks that brought together over 120 Libyan parliamentarians from the Tripoli and Tobruk branches of the divided HoR to discuss the next steps in Libya’s political process. The Tangier talks are the fourth such talks organized by Morocco in 2020, and come after many similar events since the 2011 uprisings.
The increased frequency of Morocco-brokered meetings for Libyan officials raises a question: Why is the Moroccan regime interested in Libya’s political future when the kingdom neither shares a border nor a strong bilateral relationshipwith the conflict-stricken country?
The aims of the Tangier meeting between the HoR and the State Supreme Council included focusing on the unification of state institutions and on reaching a consensus on the mechanism of designating high-level positions in a representative manner. As for the November 23-28 Tangier talks, which were well received by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), the goal was to unify different groups within the HoR and help them reach a consensus on a date for a future meeting between Libya’s rival factions (as decided during the UN-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum). These talks resulted in the HoR members agreeing to hold a parliamentary session in Ghadames, a major step for Libya’s peace process.
Morocco’s Libya policy
What is Morocco’s role in all of this? The kingdom has described its position on the Libyan conflict as one of active neutrality– one that seeks to facilitate a political solution to the crisis while promoting Libya’s sovereignty and discouraging foreign interference (see Figure 1). In fact, Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita, recentlycommented that the kingdom “prefers to support inter-Libyan dialogues rather than those around Libya, the first being fundamental and the second complementary.” At the same time, Bourita has reiterated Morocco’s recognition of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) as Libya’s sole authority and continues to promote the terms agreed upon in the 2015 Skhirat Agreement (which Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar rejected earlier this year).
Figure 1: Nations supporting the GNA and LNA
By positioning itself as a key mediator in Libya’s political process, the Moroccan monarchy- which determines the kingdom’s foreign policy- hopes to advance its international standing by increasing its value to key allies as a regional security provider, to check rival Algeria’s influence in North Africa, and to improve its bilateral relations with Libya in the post-Gaddafi era.
Morocco has managed to position itself as both an impartial mediator seeking to facilitate peace between Libya’s warring factions, and as a regional ally that aligns itself with the UN and the EU by recognizing only the GNA as Libya’s official authority. In fact, the 2015 Skhirat agreement which resulted in the international recognition of the GNA as Libya’s sole legitimate authority was signed in Morocco. The recent negotiations organized by the kingdom may be seen as a continuation of Morocco’s role in facilitating inter-Libyan dialogue. As a result, the Moroccan regime portrays itself to the international community as a neutral actor that does not seek to promote its own political and economic interests during ongoing negotiations.
However, Morocco’s role in Libya’s peace process does promote the kingdom’s interests indirectly by making it a more valuable partner to its Western allies. This may explain why Morocco was slighted by its exclusion from the January 2020 Berlin Conference on Libya and why it continues to highlight the importance of the 2015 Skhirat agreement as the basis for any political solution; the agreement was signed in Morocco and was the culmination of a round of UN-backed negotiations that had started in 2014.
Holding a “privileged” role in the Libya peace process also allows Morocco to increase its influence in North Africa and to check rival Algeria’s aspiration to become a regional hegemon. Already, the kingdom took advantage of the vacuum left behind by post-2011 regional instability and security issues due to the crises in Libya and Mali to position itself as a stable ally, diplomatic partner, and security exporter. This was bolstered by Morocco’s increased influence in sub-Saharan Africa after its historic return to the African Union in 2017 and its economic and diplomatic re-orientation towards the region since then.
Finally, assuming an active and positive role in the Libyan peace process gives Morocco the opportunity to improve its bilateral relations with Libya. The Moroccan monarchy maintained a strained relationship with Muammar Gaddafi, who was later found to have contributed to one of the failed coup d’états against the late King Hassan II. Gaddafi was critical of Hassan II for his close ties to the United States and other western powers and for providing safe haven to Libyan dissidents, while Hassan II blamed Gaddafi for funding the Polisario Front and for his public criticism of monarchical institutions in the Middle East and North Africa. The difficulties between the regimes constrained their countries’ economic relationship, and Morocco stands to gain a lot from developing economic ties with Libya, especially in terms of trade and energy.
Outlook: The bigger picture
Morocco’s involvement in the Libya peace process will continue to be driven by realpolitik; the kingdom will strive to amplify its role as a neutral mediator to shore up international and regional support and to open the door for future economic ties with Libya. Despite pressures or enticement from some Gulf allies, Morocco will not switch sides to Haftar as it stands to gain more by continuing to recognize the GNA as Libya’s only official authority. However, while the pro-peace involvement of regional actors such as Morocco may lead to some rapprochement between the GNA and eastern forces, it is unlikely to resolve the impasse unless actors like the United States, the UAE, and France officially support the UN’s position or adopt a genuinely neutral policy.