Libya: Why Arab world is scrambling to join multinational conflict

Why We Wrote This

Libya’s oil and other resources make it a tempting target for outsiders. But at stake for Libyans and the Arab world in the current fight is also the struggle between illiberal democracy and autocracy.

Ayman Al-Sahili/Reuters
Military vehicles belonging to Libya's United Nations-recognized government forces head out to the front line from Misurata, Libya, Feb. 3, 2020.

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Since leading a 2011 NATO campaign that removed the Qaddafi regime, the West has largely abandoned Libya. The vacuum has drawn in the two Middle East axes that competed to shape the Arab world following the 2011 Arab Spring and are facing off again in Libya.

On one side are Qatar and Turkey, backing the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli. On the other, Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backing a Qaddafi-era general and warlord in the east. Among the many other interested parties are France, Italy, Russia, Egypt, and Jordan.

But as outside powers line up to vie for economic and political gain, Libyans are caught in a deeper struggle between competing visions for their country and the region. Their choice is between a democracy of weak institutions overrun by political Islamists, à la Turkey, and a de facto one-party state where the military dominates, the Egypt model.

“Before, the conflict was mainly Libyan, with some outside interference,” says Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan analyst in Tobruk. “Now the conflict is less Libyan and more external – we have regional powers sending foreign fighters to settle scores on Libyan soil using Libyan money and Libyan factions.”

Each day flights pour into Libya from across the region: soldiers from Sudan, fighters from Syria, advisers from Turkey, tanks and drones from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

Over the past three months, the overwhelming influx of fighters and weapons has internationalized a conflict between Libyan factions for control of the oil-rich North African country that has simmered since the 2011 ouster of dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

But as regional powers line up behind the factions to vie for economic and political gain, Libyans are caught in a deeper struggle between competing political visions for their country and other states across the Arab world: an illiberal democracy versus an autocracy led by a military strongman.

“Before, the conflict was mainly Libyan, with some outside interference,” says Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan analyst and researcher based in the eastern port of Tobruk. 

“Now the conflict is less Libyan and more external – we have regional powers sending foreign fighters to settle scores on Libyan soil using Libyan money and Libyan factions.”

The West, since leading a 2011 NATO campaign that removed a Qaddafi regime that was massacring its own citizens, has largely abandoned the country and the United Nations-recognized government in Tripoli, restricting its involvement to fighting Islamic State (ISIS) remnants or stopping migrant flows to Europe.

Arab Spring coda

The vacuum has led to the resurgence of the two Middle East axes that competed to shape the Arab world following the 2011 Arab Spring and are returning to face off once again in Libya to write the final chapter of that regional uprising.

On one side are Qatar and Turkey, who threw their weight behind popular protests and bankrolled political Islamist groups to fill the voids left by dictators toppled in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

On the other, Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE who, sensing their own thrones under threat, sought to suppress democracy by supporting military strongmen and cracking down on political activity.

Now they’re backing two rival Libya factions: the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli to the West; and the Qaddafi-era general and warlord Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, whose self-styled Libyan National Army controls the East and is in the midst of a 10-month siege of Tripoli.

When General Haftar threatened to take Tripoli, Turkey stepped in to save the GNA in December, dispatching military advisers, air defense systems, and now an estimated 2,000 Syrian fighters.

The UAE, which has long sent military hardware to General Haftar and is allegedly operating a fleet of drones from their own military base, has sent Sudanese fighters and Russian mercenaries.

Both are violating arms embargoes, cease-fire agreements, and a pact last week in Berlin to halt hostilities that the Turkish and Emirati governments each signed.

The U.N. Mission to Libya condemned the violations, which it said “risk plunging the country into a renewed and intensified round of fighting.”

“These are the unresolved fissures and continuing proxy struggle for influence that started from the Arab Spring,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The vacuum left behind by the West, the paralysis of the Europeans, and the ambivalence of the Americans has allowed the space for Arab states and Russia to step in and reopen them.”

Multiple interests

The web of foreign interests is vast and tangled.

Turkey, desperate for a foothold in the Arab world after seeing Islamist groups across the region repressed or defeated at the ballot box, and having faced setbacks in its neighbor Syria, sees an opening in Libya.

Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
Supporters of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar hold posters denouncing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they celebrate on top of a Turkish armored vehicle that they said was captured in clashes near Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya, Jan. 28, 2020.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, through backing General Haftar, seek to protect their growing military and economic influence in the Horn of Africa and North Africa, while also preventing the rise of an Islamist-friendly government.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi fears a Turkey-friendly government in Libya will lead to a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood movement he toppled and stir up dissent at home. And he sees General Haftar – a military man like himself – as the best way to restore stability, crack down on terrorism, and secure the countries’ shared 695-mile border.

Silently, Jordan has emerged as one of General Haftar’s biggest backers, ramping up airlifts of military support for the Libyan warlord in the past three months.

The monarchy in Jordan is wary that a Turkish foothold in North Africa may create a terrorist hotbed, citing Ankara’s track record of turning a blind eye to the flood of jihadists that flowed from Turkey into Syria, enabling the rise of ISIS. 

Sensing economic opportunities and a desire to stem migrant flows to Europe, France has thrown its support behind General Haftar, while Italy has backed Prime Minister Sarraj, rekindling a colonial rivalry.

Russia, looking for economic opportunities and diplomatic leverage to use elsewhere in the region, has supported Mr. Haftar since 2015, but is finding its influence over the general limited compared with the Gulf.

Then, of course, there’s oil. Libya has the largest reserves in Africa and ninth-largest in the world, in addition to potential natural gas and other minerals. Reconstruction contracts in Libya, which is flush with cash, would be lucrative.

As part of its November security pact, Turkey signed a maritime demarcation agreement with the GNA giving Ankara exclusive rights for exploration of Libya’s resource-abundant seabed and coastline.

What model for Mideast?

A deeper battle is raging over what the future of the Arab world should look like.

Libyans’ choice is between a democracy of weak institutions overrun by political Islamists, à la Turkey, and a de facto one-party state where the military dominates, the Egypt model.

The U.N.-recognized GNA, on the side of illiberal, Islamist-dominated democracy, insists that state institutions must be established first in order to create stability, while General Haftar maintains that only once a unified army extends control over every inch of Libya could a state be established.

“On one side you have the GNA claiming that security and stability is another word for dictatorship and monopoly over the state,” says Mr. Eljarh, the Tobruk-based analyst.

“On the other side, Khalifa Haftar is quite clear: Libya is not ready for democracy. We cannot have democracy unless there is a monopoly of use of force and this must be established by armed forces,” he says.

“But there is no guarantee that armed forces would surrender that dominance once attained.”

Indeed, General Haftar has recently formed a “military investments arm” to run a centralized economy in territory under its control. In western Libya, Islamist rhetoric on radio and satellite networks echo Mr. Erdogan’s talking points, while the GNA insists it is the only option for a “democratic, civilian” Libya.

“The perception of GNA as the only guarantor of civilian rule overshadows the fact that there has been no progress on elections, no parliamentary oversight, and there is rampant cronyism and embezzlement,” says Claudia Gazzini, senior Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The two sides even have differing views on Islamist activity.

The GNA is aligned with political Islamist groups that believe in participatory democracy and influencing – or dominating – a country through elections, civil society, and advocacy, as well as via the pulpit.

General Haftar relies on ultra-orthodox Salafis linked to Saudi Arabia who eschew politics, disregard democracy, and in return for their dominance over the religious sphere, demand their followers’ unquestionable fealty to his leadership and Gulf monarchs.

But there is a pervasive feeling among Libyans that their future is being decided for them.

“We fought a revolution to save our country from tyranny,” says Mohamed, a Libyan activist who did not wish to use his full name, “and now it is being cut up and divided by strangers at a barbecue we are not invited to.”

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