By Sydney Wise

Lisa Anderson explains how external response to the Libyan conflict largely synchronizes with existing alliances and strategic interests.

Lisa Anderson, 70, President of the American University in Cairo (AUC) from 2011–2016 and its Provost in the three years preceding, is an expert on Libyan affairs and bilateral education in the United States and the Middle East.

She has authored Pursuing Truth, Exercising Power: Social Science and Public Policy in the Twenty-first Century in 2003 and The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1820-1980 in 1986.

Now, Anderson is Dean Emerita at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where she served as dean for a decade before coming to AUC. In that time, she also chaired Columbia’s political science department and directed its Middle East Institute.

Utilizing her expertise in Libya, both past and present, Anderson discusses how power struggles in the country play out on the geopolitical chessboard.

Cairo Review Assistant Editor Sydney Wise spoke with Dr. Anderson in February of 2020.

Sydney Wise: What spillover effects from Libya are felt by the Mediterranean region?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: I think the difficulty is that everybody treats Libya as a problem for other people; it would be useful for us all to think, at some point, of everybody else being a problem for Libya. Right now, what Libya represents is an arena: a playing field for people to work out problems that aren’t really Libyan problems.

For example, the Italians—and the European Union as a whole—think of Libya pretty much only as a source of oil and illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. They don’t think very much about what is going on within the country as long as they can ensure continued access to oil and some way of preventing migrants from getting into the Mediterranean.

These are the main European priorities. The European states are willing to pay a fair amount of money to Libyan militias to prevent migration—there’s a little bit of a protection racket going on there. The Europeans are very much aware of what they’re doing, and they think, at this point, that it’s the only way to stem migration.

The Turks are really more concerned about exercising influence in this world of residual Islamist movements, Muslim Brotherhood or otherwise. But, they also have a longstanding interest in Libya because it was one of the last Ottoman provinces that was ruled directly and relatively successfully at the end of the empire. Even under Muammar Gaddafi, Turkey and Libya had important commercial relations. Some parts of the country, like Misrata, had particularly large amounts of trade. So, they see this both in ideological terms and in commercial terms.

Beyond that, the Gulf countries are particularly involved in Libya right now, and further afield, so is Russia. For these countries, Libya is once again a sort of arena in which they can play out conflicts that they have among themselves. The Emiratis are supporting the groups within Libya that are opposed to groups supported by the Qataris and allied with the Turks. So, there are a lot of regional geopolitics being played out here that have virtually nothing to do with domestic Libyan politics.

Sydney Wise: Your points here remind me of a piece that was published in the Cairo Review’s last issue on nuclearization. It was written by Karim Al-Baz, and he used the term “Lebanization,” which basically describes external states taking advantage of conflicts by backing whatever party most closely aligns with their views. So, we see this in Libya as well.

Dr. Lisa Anderson: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I wouldn’t describe it as completely comparable to Lebanon, because Lebanon has been Lebanon for a lot longer, if you will. But this sense that external actors are using local actors as proxies for wars that are not about the local issues is quite clear. Yes.

Sydney Wise: And among these external actors, do we see any blocs of aligned response, like within Europe, for instance?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: Well, it’s interesting, because I think the Europeans are somewhat divided; and again, I think that divide is about European politics. France seems to be more sympathetic to Haftar and the Russian-Emirati axis, if you will, than some of the other European countries. That’s because [French President Emmanuel] Macron would like to have what I suppose he thinks would be an “easy win” in being able to get everybody to the table for peace talks. That clearly didn’t work—or at least it hasn’t worked yet.

By contrast, the Italians are just much more concerned about making sure that nobody gets into boats that end up landing in Italy. So, I think the Europeans are, in a sense, as divided as everyone else. Libya has always seemed to outsiders as a place that couldn’t be that complicated.

People say “Why can’t we just go in and fix everything? And if we do, we’ll be powerful, we’ll be influential in the Mediterranean, we’ll be seen, we’ll seem to be effective actors on the world stage,” and so forth. They don’t realize that, in fact, it’s a very complicated country and that there are a lot of other players who are also aspiring to the same global visibility. And so, people have been defeated by that, repeatedly.

Sydney Wise: What effect do you think these blocs of response have had on attempts to have negotiations towards peace, whether they’re sponsored by states or international organizations?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: At this point, I don’t think anyone could plausibly make the case that external interference has been productive. I think that until the countries that are supplying arms and money to the actors on the ground actually decide that they themselves have tired of this, and for whatever reasons don’t want to pursue it anymore, there will be a limitless appetite for continuing a low-level conflict. Because even if a peace agreement is relatively equitable, somebody is going to end up losing something.

External actors are going to lose the prospect of being able to win everything. They are going to lose money once the war economy ends. A lot of people, both within and around Libya, are making a lot of money out of this conflict, and a lot of people are using it as a vehicle to needle and undermine their opponents elsewhere in the world.

There’s not an appetite at this point on the part of any of the supporters of any of the factions for peace talks that are serious. So, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’ve long believed that if, suddenly, somehow the borders of Libya were actually closed and nobody could import any weapons, money, mercenaries, or other kinds of support, then the Libyans themselves would come to terms with peace relatively quickly. But, there’s no incentive to do that.

Sydney Wise: We’ve talked a little bit about Europe, but what amount of influence do the United States and Russia exercise in all of this?

Dr Lisa Anderson: The United States, actually exercises very, very little, and deliberately so. I think that under Obama, after the U.S. ambassador was killed in Benghazi, the United States really wanted to keep their distance.

So, for a long time, they just backed the United Nations—they just didn’t want to be involved. The Trump administration has essentially taken the same stance of simply not thinking it’s important enough to get involved.

I think that Trump has conveyed some sympathy for Haftar, mostly because the Emiratis and the Egyptians would like him to; they would like the United States on their side in the conflict. But, I don’t think the United States has put much energy or resources into this. By contrast, the Russians have seen an opportunity to become involved, in part because the United States is not particularly so. But I think they, too, would be happy to get everybody in Moscow around a table and come up with a peace agreement if that were easy.

Although that would be a way of needling the United States, the Russians do have their hands full; Libya isn’t that important to them, and I don’t think that they’re going to be willing to put in the resources to ensure either that someone wins or that there are actually serious peace talks. Regardless, once again, Russia’s motivations are not about Libya. Very few players actually care about Libya.

Sydney Wise: In January of 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Libya could become “a second Syria.” What do you think she meant by that, and was she right?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: I think she meant that Libya and Syria are both sources of refugees, sort of impossible problems to solve, and opportunities for Russia to take advantage of the European failure to organize themselves enough to have any impact, positive or negative, on the conflict.

So, she thinks—and I think—that the Libyan conflict will continue, with some justification.  I also think that, again, Europeans refer to Syria because they are most concerned that there is no permanent solution to the refugee problem, and that the refugees are either going to come to Europe or end up being very expensive to support wherever they are.

Sydney Wise: Do you see states’ responses syncing along the lines of these existing regional dynamics, like refugee flow?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: I don’t think most of the countries around Libya care; the concern about refugees is really a European concern. Particularly, it is because Libya is a transit for sub-Saharan and economic refugees and migrants.

I don’t think that the regional countries, particularly the border countries, are especially concerned about that. Historically, the flow of migrants has actually been in the other direction; Tunisians and Egyptians have gone to Libya to work in the construction or oil sectors.

There’s a lot of back and forth; there are also Libyans living in Tunisia and Egypt. I don’t think that they are likely to experience refugee flows the likes of what you see in Jordan from Syria. Libya doesn’t have that kind of population in the first place, and most of the Libyans who are outside the country have been outside for some time.

Sydney Wise: How do institutions in Europe and in North Africa respond—for example, the European Union versus the African Union or the Arab League?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: I hate to say this, but I think the Arab League is completely broken and has no response at this point to these kinds of problems—and I think that they would acknowledge that. The Arab League is reflecting the challenges of deep divisions within the Arab world about a variety of policy issues separate from Libya.

In light of this, I don’t think that they’ve been able to have any effect in Libya at all. The African Union, similarly, doesn’t have a great deal of influence in Libya or on the political developments in the country.

The European Union, again, is trying to ensure that refugee flows do not resume, while ensuring that oil flows do resume and continue. Additionally, once in a while, there’s some intra-European competition over influence in general, in which Libya sometimes plays a role; but they can compete over lots of other things, so Libya isn’t pivotal to them. In the world in general right now, this is not a good moment for international institutions. Even the United Nations (UN), which is probably the most important international institution involved in Libya, is really struggling to direct any of the efforts at peace talks or ceasefires.

They simply cannot; not only will the Libyan parties in the conflict be disinclined to listen to them, but the whole rest of the world is listening. If the Russians and the French both want to host peace talks and neither are telling the UN special representative that they’re doing so beforehand, it’s hard for the UN to play a genuinely constructive role—although I think it is the strongest, most knowledgeable, and best intentioned of any of the players outside of Libya.

Sydney Wise: So, I think we’ve come to the conclusion that peace negotiations as they stand right now are not effective in resolving the conflict. What needs to change?

Dr. Lisa Anderson: I think most of the outside actors just have to say, “we’re not going to do this anymore”, whether they decide that it isn’t constructive for them or they are just exhausted. For many of them, Libya’s pretty far away, pretty small; it’s not a big threat to them and not a big issue for them.

Until the conflict itself becomes counterproductive for them, I just don’t see how it’s going to end. So, what one hopes is that the countries who are using Libya as an arena for external conflicts decide that they will address those issues directly, and leave Libya alone to resolve its domestic affairs.

I don’t think that will be easy, but I think it will ultimately be a lot easier than remaining involved indefinitely.


Sydney Wise is contributing editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Her past work has been published at the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies.


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