Libya Tribune

Interview by Benoît Delmas

For the past eight days, a military escalation has been underway, ignoring the Covid-19.

Libya has been plagued by fratricidal conflicts since 2011 and deadly clashes since the launch, in April 2019, by Marshal Kahlifa Haftar of an offensive against the Libyan capital, causing hundreds of deaths and more than 150,000 displaced people.

Conflicts are foreign to melancholy. The fear of the coronavirus, the confinement of 3.2 billion individuals, the macabre, daily list of deaths by country, does not seem to move the combatants. 

In Libya, the conflict between the government of national unity (GNA) based in Tripoli, to the west, and the forces led by Marshal Haftar , to the east, is growing. 

Oil, more than 80% of the country’s resources, has been shutdown for eleven weeks: tribes working for Haftar block all of the fields. 

Interview with Jalel Harchaoui, researcher, specialist in Libya. Jalel Harchaoui, researcher at the Clingendael Institute, paints a portrait of a country plagued by several evils.

Le Point Afrique: What is the health situation?

Jalel Harchaoui (JH)Contradictory. If commercial flights are blocked, if borders are closed, if curfew exists, Libya is in an absurd situation since military flights continue from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. 

These injections of foreign individuals, whether mercenaries, arms experts or others, prove that the fear of the virus does not act. Social distance measures cannot work with the 160,000 displaced by the war. 

We are witnessing a demobilization of the nursing staff, some refuse to go to work in the east or in Tripoli. They accuse the lack of equipment. 

For the moment, there are no deaths in Libya linked to the coronavirus. We are at the beginning of the cycle, there is not yet the awareness that there is something more serious than the calamity of war. 

This dilapidated situation in the medical system does not date from today.

How can we describe Libya?

(JH): It is a very large territory, three times the size of France, for six million inhabitants. A fairly narrow coastline with a desert part in the middle, it is not easily crossed to go from east to west.

Note the asymmetrical nature of this coastal population: two thirds of the population lives in the west, one third in the east. There are some 500,000 in the Sahara (Fezzan, Cyrenaica).

The Libyans are a people who, despite the scattered character, travel, pass from one city to another. There is a big difference between the center of Tripoli, which is urban, not tribal, and the rest of the country. 

When you are on the outskirts of this center of the capital, in the backyard, you feel forgotten. Gaddafi played with this trick, this feeling of victimization. 

He recruited his security forces in Tahrouna (80 kilometers from Tripoli). He opposed the open, coastal cities (Benghazi, Misrata) to the rest, posing as Robin Hood who redistributes. 

His successors do not. Result: bitterness, imbalance. 

When we look at the years before 2019, Marshal Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, we realize that the GNA, the government of national unity, has not used the billions made available to it to help neglected cities. 

I note a lot of incompetence, corruption. 

It is also difficult to ensure that the money released for a school or a hospital is indeed. The money that must go from point A to point B will disappear for lack of a real military force. 

This force is tolerated only in the center of the capital. The GNA does not have the police capacity to ensure that schools, hospitals are built. 

Paradox: Haftar, who exploits these shortcomings, does not do much more. If the GNA committed a lot of nonsense, its adversary did not change the situation.

What about currency reserves?

(JH): During the 2004-2010 period, Libya accumulated a large piggy bank. The price of oil was high, and the country had limited spending. This money is stored at the Central Bank of Tripoli, but its governor no longer communicates on the subject. 

We are in the dark on this subject. It is taboo. The GNA has access to this reserve. 

Haftar has no financial equivalent in the east of the country. He tinkers with dinars printed by Putin to pay for his expenses. By implementing the oil blockade, since mid-January, Haftar wants to strangle the Central Bank. 

His idea is to create another institution with oil revenues. If he succeeds in doing this, I doubt it, will he go to the rescue of abandoned cities?

What are the consequences of this blockade for the Libyans?

A monetary crisis that varies in severity. Two nightmares overlap: it is very difficult to get dinars out of your bank – if you are lucky enough to have been paid, the country has 1.8 million civil servants, almost all of the working population – and inflation is important. 

There is less food than a year ago since it is imported. With the blockade, confidence in the dinar has been eroded, and the dollar no longer enters. Ramadan is approaching. The cost of the blockade to date: a loss of $ 3.8 billion.

How is the war going during this period of coronavirus?

Not only is it continuing, but it is escalating. There have been a death toll never reached in seven days. The Turks launched an offensive on certain targets. 

The first offensive was the attempted takeover of Al-Watiya air base. A symbolic site, a huge force for Haftar since 2014. This attempt ended in failure, but government forces entered the base and arrested officers. 

Turkish drones are very efficient, this new model works via a satellite connection without a terrestrial antenna. Other attacks continued for 24 hours, without interruption, on the southern front of Tripoli. 

Many Sudanese mercenaries have been killed. The third offensive was carried out in Sirte, southeast of Misrata, the city taken by Haftar on January 6.

Two foreign countries oppose each other: Turkey and the United Arab Emirates…

In early December, Ankara promised to send mercenaries, 4,000, who had committed crimes against the Kurds, horrors in Syria, and who were radical Islamists. 

It is an ugliness that is part of the picture. The other side of this intervention? 

Turkey is a member of NATO, it has a strong military tradition and benefits from remarkable technology. She has settled in Libya in a methodical, patient manner since January. 

Another country that violates the embargo: the United Arab Emirates, which is not an organized military power, as Turkey has historically been. Abu Dhabi acts piecemeal. There is not a military doctrine, a technological conscience. 

This is the adhesive plaster technique. “Do you need ammunition?” I send you ammunition; you want drones, mercenaries, here it is. One hundred and ten planes, each carrying 75 tonnes of equipment, landed in Libya. Ten thousand tonnes of material have been sent by the Emiratis. 

The risk, in parallel with Turkish action, is that there is a qualitative leap in the armaments delivered. The Emiratis will introduce new types of equipment. What may happen is the use of indiscriminate fire. Civilians will be the victims. What may happen is the use of indiscriminate fire. 

What is world diplomacy doing now?

Fear of the virus takes away all the brakes. All diplomatic ambitions, the possibilities of dialogues, mediations, pressures, no longer exist. 

The virus distracts chancelleries. The resignation of the UN Special Envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, has left a void. The military escalation that was to take place is taking place.

What is the Turkish agenda?

He is cynical, selfish and technical. Turkey is advancing slowly, its challenges are material, commercial. They want to recover a debt they estimate at eighteen billion dollars. They’ve got four so far. If they get six, the operation will be successful in their eyes. 

This debt finds its reasons in the honeymoon that united Erdogan and Gaddafi from 2008 to 2011. Twenty-five thousand Turks worked in Libya, contracts were signed. Then suspended in 2011 during the uprising. 

The Turks know that if Haftar wins the battle, they can forget the debt. It is also an important gateway to Africa. The challenges of the hydrocarbon underwater are major. 

There is no altruistic illusion to be had. Turkey wants to keep the GNA shell, a divided coalition, filled with bitterness, of cities that should help each other, but do not do so out of distrust. 

It is a papier mache government, but it was installed by the UN.

And the agenda of the United Arab Emirates?

This war is tragic because it is ideological. The ambition of the Emirates is to control the region, from Rabat to Afghanistan. They want to be the older brothers in this area. 

It is out of the question for them to make any ideological compromise with the political Islam supported by Erdogan.

The oil blockade will have a cost? Which ?

It blocks 80% of the country’s only source of income. The losses are fifty million dollars a day. In the current context, many exporters are losing market share. Consumption fell, the price of a barrel was divided by three. 

If Libya gets back on track, everyone won’t care. There is also a technical problem. When the oil installations are shut down, an accumulation of sands is formed. It will take several weeks. It will take foreign technicians to repair this. 

Will they want to come in this context of war and virus? 

The blockade is despicable. It induces collective punishment, the whole nation suffers.

And France?

France cannot conceive of contradicting the Emiratis. It transcends the Libyan case. It’s crazy love. Everyone wants to dance with the Emirates, their ideology radiates the Parisian elites. 

It is necessary to put in perspective the two ministries Le Drian, that of Defense under Holland, that of European and foreign Affairs with Macron. 

Macron is now doing Drianism on steroids. There is a taboo to refuse to say that France cannot do anything on its own. 

Consequence: she falls in love with the Emirates, India, financial cars. On the one hand, it supports the government of national unity imposed by the UN, on the other, it receives Haftar at the Élysée…

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Jalel Harchaoui is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations at Clingendael in the Netherlands, author of the article “Libya. When Haftar wrecks years of diplomacy ”, published in the magazine“ Orient XXI ”.

Benoît Delmas – Journalist, author and correspondent in Tunis of Le Point.

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