By Anas El Gomati
Recent political talks to end the civil war in Libya have relied upon the flawed logic of inclusion and compromise to unify rival factions, in the belief that institutional cooperation will follow.
This report analyses how this strategy is destined to fail, due to opposing and irreconcilable visions for the state and its political character.
Patronage in practice – the LAAF and its role in politics
Despite the early popularity of Haftar’s operation amongst parts of eastern society, and belief it would be secular and neutral, the LAAF has become deeply involved in daily political life and transformed the socio-political dynamics of eastern Libya, establishing a deeply authoritarian environment as a result.
Haftar has openly claimed Libya “is not ready for democracy”.
The LAAF has routinely replaced democratically elected municipal officials across eastern Libya with their own military appointees. The LAAF has also reactivated the exregime’s intelligence apparatus establishing a ‘police state’ in order to monitor and quell social and political dissidence that it deems threatening.
The LAAF is particularly allergic to political dissidence.
The most high-profile case is the disappearance of Benghazi’s elected member of parliament Seham Sergewa in July 2019. Ms Sergewa disappeared from her home in Benghazi after publicly criticising the LAAF’s attack on Tripoli. The armed groups that kidnapped the parliamentarian, defaced her home with graffiti that read “the army is a redline” signed by a brigade loyal to the LAAF.
Despite clear ‘early popularity’ from parts of the east in 2014 who credited the LAAF for fighting terrorism, the very acts of terror that led to Operation Dignity in 2014 – mysterious assassinations – are now common practice since the end of the conflict under the badge of the LAAF.
The corpses of civilians kidnapped by the LAAF from their homes lay mysteriously strewn across roads in Benghazi’s outskirts. LAAF commanders commit public executions of handcuffed and blindfolded prisoners. They also employ social media as a tool to intimidate opponents and dissidents; torturing and desecrating bodies and promoting these war crimes on Facebook for likes and shares.
It has resulted in the LAAF becoming an authoritarian tribal-members only club, that anyone is free to support, some are encouraged to join, but those living under it are unable to challenge or demonstrate dissent resulting in a deeply repressive authoritarian environment.
The GNA – a government without an army
The LAAF’s opponents that serve under the GNA’s army – in contradistinction are not bound by tribal bonds, patronage or personal political loyalty. Despite the GNA’s claims, they are also not an “army”, but a complex network of armed groups without strict political loyalty to the GNA, many of who formed during the revolution in 2011.
Protestors took up arms and began to establish armed groups along local communal lines that broadly rejected Qaddafi’s authoritarian rule and sought to end the Jamahiriya in all its forms.
The social and political composition of these groups differ from one to the other, with some having hardline revolutionary values, secular or Islamist views to those who simply established armed groups to represent their cities or local neighbourhoods against Qaddafi’s forces during a period of insecurity.
They also contain armed groups who emerged as a result of the institutional vacuum, political opportunism and lucrative economic opportunities to exploit in 2011.
The absence of a post-Qaddafi unified national military gave many of these new groups opportunities to establish their grip on the nascent post Qaddafi military and security institutions.
Whilst, these armed groups are of a diverse social and political disposition, many used their shared revolutionary legitimacy in a way that led to a widespread belief of militia rule, leading them to become a focal point of grassroots social and political dissidence.
Some of these armed groups began to undermine Libya’s first democratically elected government by interfering in politics, most notably in May 2013 when a number of armed groups entered parliament to force through a political isolation law to ban Qaddafi era politicians from holding public office.
Today, some armed groups under the GNA are also guilty of arresting and shooting protestors during recent anticorruption demonstrations, which led to armed groups engaging in conflict with each other. With such a divergence and difference amongst the armed groups under the GNA and the absence of a clear patronage network like the LAAF, it is difficult to determine what binds the GNA’s network of armed groups together.
These groups have emerged at different periods in Libya’s transition, evolved over time exhibiting wildly contrasting behaviour. Interference in politics and economic predation is behaviour that can only be attributed to a limited number of armed groups, but not the entire network.
To further complicate matters many of these armed groups have dissolved, been subsumed by larger coalitions or their fighters returned to civilian life after the revolution, thus changing the composition of armed groups and factions over time.
Whilst a portion of armed groups remain searching for economic opportunities to exploit, many have become professionally trained units that loyally serve under the GNA and fought under the banner of a successful US-backed counter ISIS campaign in Sirte in 2016.
The rise of Burqan al-Ghaddab – the network of armed groups behind the GNA
A more effective way to categorise the armed groups under the banner of the GNA is understanding what triggers their mobilisation and why they fight. What is often neglected in contemporary discussions of categorizing armed groups in Libya, is the trigger for mobilisation.
Not only why regular civilians take up arms, but why they form networks, and why many choose to fight only at specific turning points in Libya’s political transition. Today, the latest form of this network of armed groups who mobilised to fight under the banner of the GNA’s military operation to defend Tripoli since April 2019 are Burqan alGhadab.
The Burqan al-Ghadab network cannot be categorised by any unifying tribal or ethnic composition like the LAAF and does not possess a rival SPC to establish tribal bonds. They adhere to the GNA’s military chain of command but are not bound by a personal loyalty to Fayez Serraj, with some having fought each other, or indeed having fought the GNA itself in the past.
The critical centre of gravity that binds these groups ideologically, triggers their autonomous mobilisation and establishes their formidable unified power on the ground, has been the threat of authoritarian rule. This ideological threat is the vital political lightning rod that crucially led to the mass-mobilisation of forces across the country from an amalgam of ethnic, tribal and politically diverse groups to defend Tripoli from Haftar’s power grab on April 4th 2019.
The nature of the threat even served to mobilise civilians who had never taken up arms and fought before to join the coalition. This rejection of authoritarian rule is not only the key driver of the conflict and trigger to pick up arms, but key to understanding the GNA’s military power and the current ideological fault lines in Libya.
The surge of forces under Burqan al-Ghadab that mobilised to Tripoli goes beyond any surface level rejection of Haftar or embrace of Serraj. It is rooted in a fundamental rejection of authoritarianism, a deep memory and experience of the Jamahiriya, and rejection of its latest incarnation of Haftar’s LAAF.
The deeply embedded ideological drivers within these rival networks and structures of armed groups are both the source of the GNA and LAAF’s power on the ground, and the political fault line that divides the country.
These structures remain deeply incompatible at a structural level and irreconcilable at an ideological level, an issue the current UN-led political talks and military unification fails to address.
Regional Geopolitics: The role and reasons behind the UAE and Turkey’s intervention
The local networks of armed groups and actors are not alone in their ideological incompatibility, this also extends to their international backers and their respective political projects in Libya.
The April 4th 2019 civil war is not only a critical chapter for Libya’s rival factions, but the unveiling of a decade long geopolitical battle sparked by the revolution in 2011 and its latest ideological fault line as international players squared off in direct military combat against one another in Libya for the first time in April 2019.
The LAAF’s power grab was supported by the UAE and conversely the GNA’s defence of Tripoli was supported by Turkey, and as the conflict has developed the ideological differences to the rival local factions and foreign sponsors alike have become more pronounced.
Libya’s local factions have received years of military support that influenced the conflict dynamics, but the role of the international actors has dramatically changed in recent times and surpassed levels that could be described as assistance.
Both Turkey and the UAE have invested and deployed ground troops, drone forces, air defences, armoured personnel vehicles and violated the arms embargo to supply military hardware and ammunition on the ground.
These rival foreign states are no longer playing a supporting role, they are in the driving seat of the conflict. Foreign powers may dictate the frontlines and ceasefires of conflict as much as the local factions, but they can also shape the diplomatic processes that establish peace and determine the political outcome as a result.
Turkey, cosponsored the Moscow political talks where they hosted Serraj and Haftar in January 2020 days prior to the Berlin talks. The UAE have also convened Serraj and Haftar for UN brokered talks in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 in an attempt to unify the GNA and LAAF in political talks prior to the offensive.
The degree to which the rival international players are directly involved in shaping both conflict and peace, illustrates the significance of the final political outcome in Libya.
Foreign actors have been drawn to Libya for a variety of economic motives and geo-strategic reasons, but little is written about the deeper underlying ideological objectives that have drawn foreign sponsors to exclusively support either of the two rival political factions and their networks of armed groups in Libya.
What is the UAE doing in Libya?
The LAAF has received backing from France, Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but the UAE remains its largest and longest serving military sponsor. Its political motivations for doing so are complex and not readily identifiable.
Libya is thousands of kilometres away from the UAE and shares little more than language and elements of Arab culture. Nevertheless, the UAE have been deeply invested in Libya and supported Haftar’s rise since he first established the LAAF in 2014, and attempted to overthrow Libya’s first democratically elected parliament.
The UAE’s motives are not personal, and not tied to the personality of Haftar, but is at the deeper structural and ideological level of the LAAF. The UAE has provided years of essential military support and supplies to first establish and empower the LAAF but also encourage its expansion across Libya’s vast territory since its inception.
According to the Pentagon, the UAE secretly deployed F-16s to LAAF affiliated brigades in Tripoli in 2014. They delivered the first drones in Libya’s civil war to assist the LAAF’s ground offensive and capture control of eastern Libya in 2016.
They went on to establish the first foreign military base at Al Khadim in 2016, a sign of their military commitment to Libya, and the first foreign military base in the country’s history since Qaddafi expelled the US military from Wheelus airbase (now Mitiga airport) in 1970. It is often believed that the UAE’s foreign policy is exclusively motivated by counter terrorism.
This belief posits the UAE’s political and military support for Haftar and the LAAF as exclusively driven by a desire to establish a “secular” force in Libya through counterterrorism and a fear of ‘Islamist dominance’.
This policy has come under scrutiny for Haftar’s overt anti-democratic political objectives, but also the role and rise of the LAAF’s Salafi-Madkhali armed groups.
These Salafi armed groups have deeply held religious views they seek to promote across Libya’s society, a rigid anti-democratic outlook, and have exponentially grown in number and power as a result of the UAE’s support to the LAAF as a direct contradiction of this policy.
Anas El Gomati is the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first Libyan think tank, and a visiting lecturer at the NATO Defense College in Rome, where his work focuses on political analysis and public policy. He was a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on socioeconomics, democratic governance, the security sector, and political Islam in Libya.