By Tarek Megerisi
Conflict in Libya has claimed the lives of tens of thousands, generated instability throughout North Africa and the Sahel, and become an increasingly pitched focal point for geostrategic competition.
- The Libya conflict has escalated into an increasingly dangerous geostrategic competition for influence, pitting the UAE, Egypt, and Russia against Qatar, most of Europe, and Turkey in a petroleum-rich country straddling the regions of North Africa, southern Europe, the Sahel, and the Middle East.
- General Khalifa Haftar lacks a strong domestic constituency and instead serves largely as a proxy for external actor interests. He has, moreover, consistently acted as an obstacle to de-escalation and stabilization. Consequently, he lacks the standing to be treated as a political equal to the UN-backed government.
- A UN-brokered settlement supported by nonaligned states is the only viable means for a stable de-escalation that would generate a nonthreatening outcome for the regional competitors while enabling Libya to regain its sovereignty.
Since April 2019, the civil war in Libya has intensified particularly in the west of the country, where General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) laid siege to Tripoli in a bid to oust the United Nations-supported Government of National Accord (GNA).
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) estimates some 231,000 civilians are in the immediate frontline areas, with an additional 380,000 living in areas directly affected by conflict.
More than 370,000 people are estimated to remain internally displaced by the violence and hundreds of civilians have been killed since Haftar’s April 2019 assault.
According to UNSMIL, the LNA and affiliated forces conducted at least 850 precision air strikes by drones and another 170 by fighter-bombers between April 2019 and January 2020.
Of these, some 60 precision air strikes were conducted reportedly by Egyptian and Emirati fighter aircraft. Meanwhile, the GNA and affiliated forces conducted roughly 250 air strikes.
The economic impact of the conflict coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic may cause the country’s GDP to contract by more than 12 percent in 2020.
The LNA’s blockade of oil terminals since January 2020 has further deepened the economic crisis. Oil production has plunged to around 120,000 barrels per day from 1.14 million in December 2019.
This has resulted in financial losses of approximately $2 billion per month for the state-owned enterprise.
While the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Egypt have been supporting competing sides of the Libyan conflict from its early stages, the geostrategic stakes escalated in September 2019 with the deployment of Russian mercenaries in support of Haftar’s forces.
This precipitated an intervention of Turkish ground forces in support of the GNA. In addition, external actors have deployed Syrian, Chadian, and Sudanese mercenaries, drones, ground-to-air defense systems, and other high-tech assets in an attempt to swing the balance in favor of their proxies.
Libya’s post-revolutionary decline toward fragmentation and state collapse represents a growing cause for alarm. With external actors coalescing around the two main Libyan factions, the conflict has become increasingly internationalized.
This has compounded its complexity, taking on drivers far different from those with which it began. The internationalization of the conflict poses a geostrategic nightmare for the UN’s efforts toward stabilization and has upped the stakes for Libya’s civil war, posing an even greater threat to international security.
Drawing Battle Lines
The internationalization of Libya’s transition began with what itself was a very internationalized revolution. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) 2011 intervention, which largely took place from the skies, received most of the attention during Libya’s moment in the Arab Spring.
Less recognized, however, were the rival interventions by Qatar and the UAE to equip, train, and otherwise assist Libyan revolutionary militias on the ground, which set the scene for a competition that would come to define Libya’s revolutionary aftermath.
The two Gulf States mobilized their assistance through proxies with whom they had pre-existing relationships and who came to represent their divergent interests.
Those who fell into Qatar’s camp included Libyan actors who were ideologically opposed to Qaddafi as a tyrant, those who had often been imprisoned or persecuted by him, and those who defined their opposition in Islamist ideology.
The UAE maintained links with a technocratic class who had often worked with Qaddafi’s son in a failed reform attempt and with older generations of opposition.
During the revolutionary war, these two distinct camps were often demarcated by personal contacts with a particular militia leader, a go-between from the older generation, or ties to a geographical area.
As the war progressed, their military operations, diplomatic dealings, and the machinations of their political proxies who pursued exclusive control over Libya’s levers of power pitted the two camps against each another.
The rift grew in acrimony even as the war ended and as the country’s first elections in over half a century took place in July 2012 to elect a parliament, the General National Congress (GNC). This would become the first theatre of this new, now more political, conflict.
The two coalitions continued to confront each other rather than compromise in a zero-sum pursuit of wealth and authority encouraged by their backers. The National Forces Alliance (NFA), a political coalition with close ties to the UAE, won a majority and was able to command 64 seats of the GNC (including nominally aligned members of parliament).
The Justice and Construction Party (JCP), Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-aligned political party, counted 34 seats. The myopic use of militias by domestic political actors to achieve their internal political outcomes institutionalized violence as a political tool.
Meanwhile, competition over often corrupt business dealings with international partners destroyed the integrity and legitimacy of the GNC as an institution.
Once the NFA, plagued by internal fissures and consistently outmaneuvered, failed to make its initial majority count, the coalition boycotted the GNC, severely undermining its effectiveness.
Although the UN hoped that a fresh round of elections could restart a political transition that had been lost to the greed and immaturity of Libya’s political class, the damage was done.
Libya’s foreign and domestic factions had fossilized, the use of violence had normalized, and a zero-sum mindset had become locked-in.
Libya’s Geostrategic Significance
If the Arab Spring was a time of regional flux for the Middle East and North Africa, to those in the Gulf with a more stable perch and considerable resources, it was a time of opportunity.
As the old pillars of the region collapsed— first Iraq, then Syria, and then Egypt—there was a sense that the moment was ripe for a new regional order.
Qatar took the view, perhaps born of its own history of palac e coups, that revolutions birthed new orders and new elites, and thus fully supported revolutionary actors in the hopes that this would create a regional network of friendly, if not gracious, states.
Their own role in hosting many of the region’s exiled Islamist dissidents, and the fact that most organized long-standing opposition movements in the region were themselves Islamist, meant that their regional enterprises had a distinctly Islamist flavor.
If Qatar’s approach was built on opportunism and the prospects of soft power, then the UAE’s was forged from fear and realpolitik. The harsh domestic crackdowns on activists and those offering even modest proposals for reform showed an undercurrent of fear in Abu Dhabi that the Arab Spring contagion might cross Emirati borders.
Its regional strategy since then shows an Emirati preference for evolution over revolution with a focus on securing key interests. This preference for recreating the old order with new leaders is evident in the UAE’s support for General Abdul Fattah el Sisi in Egypt, the jewel of this policy.
Emirati activities in Yemen showcase the economic angle of its policy, an oil diversification strategy to become the regional leader in shipping and logistics, all while maintaining a dominant presence in the network of ports connecting the Far East to the Atlantic.
Libya’s strategic location at the heart of the Mediterranean, the Maghreb, and as a door to sub-Saharan Africa, as well as its significant oil and gas reserves and its revolutionary upheaval, meant that it fell neatly at the intersection of Emirati ideological and economic policies.
As the remnants of the state crumbled and Libya destabilized, it attracted others like Egypt and France who saw an opportunity to build a friendly state that could be useful for their own economic, security, and regional policymaking interests. This dynamic continued as Libya’s decline persisted and worsened.
Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in politics, governance, and development in the Arab world. He has worked extensively on Libya’s transition since 2012 with Libyan and international organizations.