By François Burgat

Unable to seek, with the forces sanctioned by the urns of the Arab Spring, a realistic transaction at the center of the body politic, firefighters pyromaniac of the “fight against terrorism” and “Islamism” are committed, and we with, in the gear of the worst rise to extremes.

The attempt launched two months ago by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but also by France, to impose militarily on Libya an authoritarian regime presented as “anti-Islamist”, on the the fashion of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Egypt, may have faded well.

This episode of the long-running Libyan crisis – which saw the Libyan National Army (ANL) commanded by General Khalifa Haftar launch an offensive on the capital Tripoli , home to the National Unity Government of Fayez al-Sarraj, created under the United Nations aegis to end the civil war – has come to explain in 2019 a trend that saw – as in Syria and then in Yemen – international actors irresistibly take the lead over their local counterparts, whose margin of initiative has shrunk considerably.

Alongside the Emirates of Mohammed ben Zayed and Arabia of Mohammed ben Salman is very logically Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, at the head of the first of the regimes they both largely contributed to give birth by sabotaging the experience Since Egypt has an important shared border with Libya, Sissi is both the active ally and the reference model of the Saudi-Emirati enterprise.

Without paying too much attention to the color of the militias that make up the bulk of Haftar’s troops, French rhetoric draws, to join the adventure, in the reservoir of “the fight against terrorism”, denouncing half-word the proximity of the Tripoli government with certain so-called terrorist groups.

Of course, Paris, as in Yemen, seems to be more directly inspired by its commercial and strategic proximity to the Emirates and Arabia.

France, which defends everywhere – against Donald Trump – the demands of multilateralism, thus condones in Tripoli its disavowal by protecting Haftar from any reaction of the Security Council, Germany or Italy. Haftar was able to display his scathing contempt for the UN by choosing to attack Tripoli the same day the arrival in Libya of its Secretary General, António Gutteres. 

At the international level, this quartet first benefits from the support, for now essentially diplomatic, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who does not hesitate to trample in Libya this “respect for international law” which he prides himself to justify his interference decisive in Syria.

The second largest weight ally is the US president. Washington supports the person of Marshal Haftar all the more naturally since, in 1987, following the rout of the Libyan troops he commanded at the battle of Ouadi Doum in northern Chad, this native of the city of Sirte was put at the service of the CIA, with the help of which he waited for nearly fifteen years the opportunity to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

More structurally, Donald Trump replicates in Libya an alliance tied in Yemen both with his biggest regional client, Saudi Arabia, but also, on the political field this time, with a Saudi-Emirati tandem as convinced as his Israeli ally. the need to implement a strict containment of Iranian territorial ambitions in the Middle East.

The Tripoli government’s camp and the hopes of the Arab revolution certainly benefit from the support of Qatar and Turkey. But in 2019, before Turkey resumed its arms deliveries very recently, both for reasons related to their respective internal and regional situations (embargo against Qatar and Syrian crisis for Turkey), seemed to have considerably reduced their deliveries. Libyan involvement.

Tripoli also benefits from the benevolence of the former colonial power, Italy, which is now rivaling France. Finally, it must be considered that the United Nations, failing to support unconditionally the Government of Tripoli, endorses, without excessive hostility to the Haftar clan, the process of political dialogue which the Emirati camp, while claiming, did try to stop it.

Emiratis, conductors of the counter-revolution

In a tribune addressed to the French and American press ( JDD and the International Tribune ), Anwar Gargash, Foreign Minister and ideologist of the United Arab Emirates, noted the setbacks that “extremist militias” have inflicted on he says he has always deployed “alongside Ghassan Salamé”, special representative of the Secretary-General at the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya.

The terms of Gargash’s presentation, so carefully refined by their communicators, today provide a clear glimpse of what has happened in Libya since the beginning of April. His remarks are indeed revealing of the hierarchy of waiting horizons of those who, from Paris to Washington via Cairo, have joined forces.

“The UAE will always act with good intentions and with partners like France , who share the same vision, in order to best protect the interests of the region and its people,” said Anwar Gargash.

Behind the cosmetic of communication that pretends to euphemize the real content (“If there is one thing we have learned about the modern Middle East , it is that the region rarely succeeds its political transitions and revolutions”), it is important to know this line of action. Because everything leads us to believe that it remains more than ever that which, not only in Libya, the camp of the Arab counter-revolution will continue to seek to impose.

The goals of the Emiratis and their Arab allies are simple. They have everything to do with a “stability” that boils down to their own interests – namely, their ability to contain any democratic claim in their respective “realms” – and to those, clientelists but also electioneers, of their clients and European partners.

France and the return to the option of “Arab Pinochet”

The strategy of the French president and his foreign minister is now stripped of its fragile justifications. Its multilateralism display has indeed shattered under the blows of multiple revelations.

When it turned out in July 2016 that three agents of the DGSE Action Department had perished in a helicopter crash in Libya, Paris had explained that “France supported Haftar only within the narrow limits of its fight against terrorism. “.

For anyone who had taken the time to consider that the acceptance of the term “terrorism” adopted by the person concerned, very close to that of his ally and model Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, tended to encompass no more and no less than the totality Of its political rivals, the explanation was struggling to convince.  

In April 2019, an incident at the Tunisian border this time revealed the presence of a dozen holders of French diplomatic passports carrying various military equipment, which suggests that French special forces were well ground to guide the offensive of Haftar on the capital.

The duplicity of Paris was finally clarified once again when, on his return from Paris on May 8, Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, Emmanuel Macron’s “tripolitan” partner, was quick to retaliate against him. he considered the complicity of the French president in the Haftar offensive against Tripoli, to suspend the activity of several French companies (including Total, Siemens and Alcatel) operating in Libya.

A posteriori, the Paris agenda appears today in all the terrifying triviality of the short-term option autoritaro-clienteliste who wears it: against the promise of big contracts, Libyans and Emirati, not only oil, France supported the violent imposition by Haftar on the ashes of the revolutionary hopes of the Libyans, of such a promising peace and regional coexistence regime as that of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

But as nothing prevented Macron from thinking of big contracts in the event of a victory for Sarraj, it is the ideological variable (“anti-Islamist”) that makes him support one camp rather than another. .

European Islamophobia at the service of the Arab counterrevolution

The internal consequences of this episode remain today very uncertain. It is premature indeed to speak of a failure of Haftar insofar as the Tripolitian militias who have so far managed to postpone its offensive have done less because of their support for Sarraj than to block against ‘American man’.

Nevertheless, this episode of Libyan history appears today as one of the facets of a central dynamic in the Maghreb and the Middle East which it is particularly important to decipher: facing the spring sequence of 2011, it is is with the more or less explicit support of Westerners that a dynamic of authoritarian restoration or, more simply, of counter-revolution is unfolding.

Under the indelible label of the “fight against terrorism” in particular, or more broadly, of this “struggle against Islamism” which the voters of their Western allies love even more, the strategy of the followers of the Arab counter-revolution is focused particularly against a political current, the Muslim Brotherhood, which they rightly consider (including in the hypothesis today far removed from an electoral competition) that it is the only one likely to challenge the foundation of their respective regimes.

Since 2011 in a veiled way, very explicitly since June 2017, their target includes the Emirate of Qatar for the support it has effectively brought to the spring dynamics by which the oil monarchies may have felt threatened.

The option chosen by the Emirates and their Western allies – to exclude from any political solution the winning current, in Tunisia and Egypt, of the first post-spring polls – is thus equivalent to a terrifying disavowal (unless it is act a formidable slap) given the very principle of democratic openness in the Muslim world.

Yet this is the option  that dreams today of adopting Trump . This is the one demanded by a large majority of the French political class, to the right and barely to the right and slightly less explicitly from one end to the other of the left, animated in this by the ambient Islamophobia.

From media lobbying to … aerial bombardments

The modes of action of this Arab counter-revolution have been spreading for several years now over a very wide spectrum. They include media and political lobbying, which the Emiratis, especially active in this field, deploy in a space that encompasses not only the entire Maghreb, Tunisia in mind, but also France and a large part of Europe.

The UAE has created a European Center for Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence Studies in Germany . In France, it is the Center for the Study of the Middle East (CEMO) which, under the leadership of the former Sissi thespian Egyptian MP, Abderrahim Ali, deploys (including roughly flattering the troops and the head of the National Rally) the heavy rhetoric of anti-Brother and anti-Qatar lobbying.

At the top of the main contributors to the review La Référence , published by the CEMO, we find without too much surprise Georges Malbrunot (co-author of the recent offensive Qatar papers , which strives to give Qatar a centrality in the Islam of France he has in no way), Ian Hamel (Swiss journalist in the forefront of the smear campaign of Tariq Ramadan, “the man of Qatar”) and Richard Labeviere (faithful support of the Syrian regime). Even the website Mondafrique , little suspected of sympathy for Qatar, that he criticizes systematically, denounced violently “the impostures of the CEMO, lobby pro-Egyptian and pro-emirati”.

Media and diplomatic lobbying is being extended not only by the supply of weapons (in violation of the embargo adopted since 2011 by the UN), but also by direct military interference.

In Yemen, since March 2015, this interference is massive and explicit, with the dramatic humanitarian results that we know. It does not have exactly the same political ends as in Libya or Egypt: the main enemy is indeed identified on a confessional (Shiite) basis as part of the regional balance of power with Iran.

However, the heading of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood is no less prominent on the war agenda of the Emiratis in this country: their second Yemeni fight, after the Houthis, is entirely turned against their obsessive enemies: the Muslim Brotherhood, present in Yemen in the ranks of the al-Islah party. So they did not hesitate to entrust to American mercenaries recruited by their partner Blackwater the physical elimination of several southern leaders of the party yet committed to their side in the fight against the Houthis.  

In Libya, the direct military interference of the UAE is equally attested, first by the recruitment and financing of Salafist militias, which constitute the bulk of Camp Haftar’s military base in the field.

But in this country, the Emiratis crossed the red line of direct involvement in the fighting by launching in 2014 (during the first battle for the control of Tripoli) interventions of their fighter aviation from Egypt but also since a base established in al-Khadim, 100 km from the capital, as well as deploying, most likely, drones of Chinese or even emirati manufacture, one of which was shot down on June 1 above Tripoli.

Haftar … an exit from crisis or the rise to extremes? 

Although the importance and the exact role of the forces closely or indirectly related to the Islamist movement is still the subject of useful debates as the diversity of their roles and their affiliations is great, in Libya as elsewhere, few observers, outside the Parisian ministerial circles, agree to give the slightest credit to the “anti-Islamist” or even more “anti-extremist” rhetoric of the Haftar clan and the Emiratis, on the contrary.

This claim is in fact all theoretical if we take the time to note that most of the military potential of Haftar is constituted by these madkhalist militia whose doctrinal radicalism has not much to envy that of the militants of Daesh .

These militiamen come from a Saudi Salafism mold specially concocted for the needs of the royal family by Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali: free to do on the social and religious field the most retrograde outbursts, the madkhalists must in return to power whatever it may be, a blind submission as well as a denunciation of their competitors of political Islam.

Haftar did not miss the opportunity to fight in Cyrenaica some of the most resolute opponents of Daesh that hindered his personal trajectory. Despite allegations by his side, clashes in Libya are not ideological, nor between militias and foreign actors.

It is undoubtedly even the void left by the military polarization underway in Tripoli that allowed Daesh to resume the initiative recently in the South by seizing control of a camp held by Haftar forces in Sebha.

In any case, it is a counter-revolutionary war that is under way. It goes hand in hand with a company appropriating resources, oil today (nearly 62 million euros a day, the smuggling now finances the militias), mining tomorrow.

Democratic ambitions, the only ones able to stabilize the region, are thus as completely absent from the Gargash program as they are from the concerns, practices and analyzes of its allies.

Neither in Dubai or Riyadh, nor in Paris, the pyromaniac firefighters of the “fight against terrorism” or “against Islamism” take the time to accept, for some, and to understand, for the others, that this The democratic objective they despise is the only possible way to the stability they all want.

Unable to seek, with the forces yet consecrated by the urns of Spring, a realistic transaction in the center of the body politic, they have in fact engaged, and we with, in the spiral of the worst rise to extremes.


François Burgat , political scientist, is emeritus research director at CNRS (IREMAM Aix-en-Provence). He notably directed the Ifpo (French Institute of the Near East) between May 2008 and April 2013 and the CEFAS (French Center of Archeology and Social Sciences of Sanaa) from 1997 to 2003. Specialist Islamist currents, his latest book is  Understanding Political Islam: A Path of Research on Islamist Otherness 1973-2016  (The Discovery).


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