Libya Tribune

By Ali Bensaad

France, Russia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Qatar · Several foreign powers have contributed to the deterioration of the situation in Libya. 

By favoring military options to the detriment of political choices, they put back in the saddle of the old regime’s henchmen. Deciphering of a diplomatic fiasco, while Marshal Haftar relaunched his offensive on Tripoli with the increasingly active support of foreign powers, including France.

The various foreign interferences in Libya would be justified by the chaos in which it sank, and which would be the result of a failure of the policy in front of violence and the fragmentation of the country. 

The dead ends of various political initiatives to remedy this and ensure a consensual and peaceful transition and perpetual discord between its elites would confirm this failure. Among some powers, this fueled the temptation to find a military solution and the belief in a ”  strong man”.

However, if there is a political failure, it is to have been evacuated from the start of the transition. It is even his absence which explains the failure of the transition in Libya.

PILLARS OF THE OLD REGIME AT KEY POSITIONS

This sidelining began with the formal takeover of the direction of the revolution by reconverted elites of the old power. 

While the insurrection started at the base with local and autonomous mobilizations, defectors from the regime and a few exiles set up, in parallel and in haste, the National Transitional Council ( CNT ). 

Former pillars of the regime find themselves at key positions: the president of the CNT , Moustapha Abdeljalil was, until after the beginning of the insurrection, the Minister of Justice of Gaddafi; Abdelfatah Younès, its military official, was the minister of the interior of the latter while the executive president, Mahmoud Jibril, had been the super minister of the economy of the same Gaddafi.

The CNT did not succeed in establishing either authority or close relations with the various actors in the uprising. But his international activism to obtain support ensures him a recognition which allows these old elites to impose themselves, in return, as representatives of the revolution. 

With the support of France and Qatar, the two main actors on the ground who find them, as well as the Islamist clients of Qatar like Abdelhakim Belhadj, the interest of being relays to their influence . 

With this support, these elites control the transition in the sense of “changing everything so that nothing changes“.

Moreover, from his first public intervention, Abdeljalil declared that ” Gaddafi bore sole responsibility for the crimes that had been committed,  “a way of closing the door to any critical inventory of the old regime.

LOCAL CLIENTELISM

Against the demand by the activists of the revolution for a transitional period of at least two years in order to allow parties and associations to form and take root, the old elites are imposing rapid elections. 

They intend to take advantage of the aura acquired at the head of the CNT , of foreign support garnered and above all of the networks of notables whom they control. They also have the support of Islamists galvanized by the success of their peers in Egypt and Tunisia. 

France and Qatar will weigh to institutionally legitimize the real power acquired by their customers.

The elections are done in a relative haste, with a step back on the modalities of the electoral law by the questioning of the quota of 10% reserved for women, or the ban of parties on a religious or ethnic basis. But above all, returning to the activists their argument on the absence of partisan traditions, the seats allocated to the parties are reduced. 

Two-thirds – an overwhelming majority – are reserved for “independents ” whose election is done on a strictly local basis, in order to favor a “depoliticized” clientelism.

If the Islamists are reduced to a minority, consistent enough however to have a power of nuisance, these elections allowed the return of the old elites. 

They knew how to mobilize to get elected clientelist networks representing disparate interests of localities, tribes or dynastic families. 

The result is an extremely fragmented parliament that has embarked on the country on the road to ungovernability, allowing radical Islamists and warlords to thrive, for lack of institutions capable of countering them.

To add to the complexity, the new revolutionary leaders, whom the elections marginalized, imposed a law of political exclusion intended to block the way to the actors of the old regime. 

Hardened and extended to anyone who has assumed responsibility, at different levels, since 1969, the law has led to the elimination of a large part of the political elite, even those who joined the revolution.

Consequently, the gear of the internal struggles gets carried away and opens the way with the fragmentation and the militarization. Radical Islamists find it an opportunity to use terror against civil society and the rare preserved state nuclei. 

In this chiaroscuro the controversial general Khalifa Haftar reappears who, under the banner of anti-Islamism, is trying to take power in Tripoli.

Reduced to a formal competition which whetted appetites without having laid the groundwork for state reconstruction, the failure of the policy is definitely consummated. It paves the way for the second civil war.

THE WEIGHT OF EGYPT

The second civil war will provide a breeding ground for the multiplication of foreign interventions that the former Prime Minister of Qatar sums up with the formula: “The cooks were too numerous”.

These interferences, formally structured around the question of political Islam, oppose on the one hand Qatar and Turkey which promote it and on the other an Egypt-United Arab Emirates-Saudi Arabia axis. 

The balance of power is gradually changing in favor of this last axis. The revision of Qatar’s regional policy with a relative withdrawal from Libya and the attempted coup in July 2016 which forced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to focus on an internal recovery in Turkey benefited him.

The joint ownership of Egypt with Libya gives this axis a considerable territorial advantage. It explains the transformation of institutional duality (two governments, two Parliaments) into an east and west territorialization. 

This is often interpreted from the point of view of a recurring Cyrenaic regionalism when, despite the strong regional specificities of this vast country, its unity is an achievement which is not disputed by any actor.

Haftar withdrew to the east because he found support there in a part of his tribes frustrated by the unequal distribution of resources with the west. 

He was also able to exploit a strong demand for order in this region where the jihadists were historically located and a pool of former soldiers to be recruited, Benghazi having not experienced the bombing of military installations by NATO .

But it is mainly because he was able to obtain the umbrella from the powerful Egyptian neighbor who fully invested in this region where he already enjoyed a traditional influence, thanks among other things to a strong and ancient emigration of skills. 

Egypt not only mobilized its army and its services to structure, on the spot, the military group of Haftar, but it invested all the Cyrenaic society. Its multiple advisers are present in all sectors. 

They even imported the Egyptian model of militarization of the economy. Haftar’s army thus took control of the economy by becoming the “first private company”.

FRENCH EXPERTISE AND SUPPORT

Finally the return of France to a privileged relationship with Saudi Arabia, after an interlude of rapprochement with Qatar under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) radically changes the situation in his favor. 

France believes that it finds in Haftar the strong man capable of unifying the country and puts the means at its disposal: abundant deliveries of arms via Egypt, “advisers”, intelligence support with air assets and deployment of elements of the special forces and the Directorate General of External Security ( DGSE ).

The discovery of Javelin missiles in the HQ of the Tripoli attack campaign revealed by the New York Times , of July 9, 2019 highlighted the tilting of France in a direct participation, with sophisticated means, in the battles that divide Libya. 

However, it was in the diplomatic field that, because of its status as a great power, France’s contribution was decisive in the international promotion of the marshal, his credibility as a statesman and his association with negotiations. 

It was in the shadow of these negotiations, which he always ended up failing, that Haftar organized his various territorial takes – including the attack on Tripoli.

FAILED OFFENSIVE AGAINST TRIPOLI

Strong of their agglomeration around Haftar, these powers tried to upset the balance of forces by opting for the imposed installation of the weapons of an authoritarian power. The capture of Tripoli was to be the ultimate step to impose the State in the territory and society from this central place and from above.

They supported, financed, armed, participated, and partly inspired Marshal Haftar’s offensive on April 4, 2019 against Tripoli, on the eve of an inter-Libyan national conference. 

It would have been the first to be held on Libyan soil by bringing together a wide spectrum of actors and its outcome would have been the organization of elections. 

By aiming to abort this conference, the attack wanted to permanently close any door to a political solution. The choice to start it on the very day of the visit of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres dryly signified to the UN that it had been sidelined from the politico-military process in Libya.

Seeming to be promised a quick victory, the attack actually got bogged down from the start. After 9 months, 2,000 combatants and 300 dead civilians, 150,000 displaced and multiple attempts to revive it, the offensive still stalled. 

The geopolitical voluntarism which presided over this attack had made Haftar’s supporters blind, incapable of grasping the rejection that it aroused and which draws its strength from an anti-dictatorial sentiment strongly anchored since the revolution.

This explains why his attack had the almost automatic effect of uniting against him almost all the factions of Tripolitania. It is an exceptional underperformance. 

Faith in the strong man failed to even find his apostle. The obvious failure of the attack pushed Haftar and his supporters into a warlike flight, unable to bring themselves to return to a political process that the offensive was precisely intended to scuttle. 

Such a return would have definitively sealed the marshal’s claim to a national destiny and ruined the investment in him of his supporters for more than 5 years.

The pursuit of a destructive strategy is materialized with increasingly deadly air attacks targeting civilians and directly involving the UAE and Egyptian air forces. Syrian planes have recently arrived as reinforcements in Benghazi. 

The entry of Russia into Haftar’s support widens the spectrum of foreign interference. Made up of fighters from the private security company Wagner, seasoned in sophisticated warfare techniques, the Russian forces are said to be over a thousand on the ground. 

The increase in their presence would respond to a haemorrhage of Haftar 1’s forces .

In this context of rising level of interference, comes a new level of Turkish involvement, with the sending of troops.

TURKEY AND RUSSIA TOSS CARDS

Foreign powers have thus become the major direct players in the conflict. The involvement of two members of the Security Council (Russia and France) neutralized the UN body, preventing any action to curb foreign interference and an escalation of the conflict. 

To date, it has not even been possible for the UN to vote even a resolution condemning the attack, let alone take any action to try to end it. 

The support shown to Haftar by France and the struggle for influence between it and Italy have also resulted in the neutralization of Europe on the Libyan issue.

Russia and Turkey ended up pre-empting mediation. Facing each other in opposite camps, the two countries meet however in a common need to rebalance their relations with Europe, a more important issue than positioning in Libya. 

This rapprochement between the two and each of them with Europe is achieved by using Libya as a lever for negotiations. The interests of this one are retracted with the liking of the haggling and at the price of an increase of the fractures of the country.

Haftar’s refusal to sign a ceasefire agreement in Moscow under pressure from his supporters, including France, the resumption of fighting and the violent diatribe of President Emmanuel Macron against the rape of the arms embargo by the Turkey (but omitting that of the opposing powers) indicated that the cartel of the countries supporting Haftar was determined to counter the Turkish-Russian condominium. 

The latest reversal, with the participation of Haftar representatives in the Geneva negotiations on February 3 and their acceptance of the cease-fire principle would mean that its supporters adopt another mode of confrontation with the condominium, aware of the risks of regional blast and of the country and its consequences on the whole region and Europe.

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Ali Bensaad – University professor, French Geopolitics Institute, Paris 8 University.

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