The Complex Interlocking of the Libyan Crisis
By Karim Mezran & Alessia Melcangi
After so many years of civil war, it has become evident that competition among various actors is principally over the country’s resources and control of its financial institutions.
The External Actors And Their Conflicting Interests: Who Aspires To Gain What?
In light of these internal tensions, local actors increasingly need the support of external players to gain more leverage in this complex and unstable political landscape.
As a consequence, the influence of foreign sponsors continues to weigh on the Libyan theater, dragging the conflict into regional tensions and making it one of the most dramatic on-going proxy wars in the world.
On the verge of reactivating political dialogue between parties, foreign powers such as Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and different international organizations appear committed to sponsoring the different intra-Libyan political talks aimed at seeking a common institutional framework for future developments.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is, without doubt, one of the main external actors interfering in Libya. The Emirats’ interest in Libya goes back to the days of the revolution in 2011, during which it backed anti-Qadhafi’s rebels. This action of the Emirates in supporting the rebels has continued until now, but support has only gone to faction who opposing the Islamist component of the rebel forces.
The main motivation of the UAE’s action in Libya — among other interests, especially economic interests — is its hostility towards any form of political Islam, as well as the UAE’s ambition to become a relevant active geopolitical player. Because of this, the UAE will support any actor that could prevent the ascent to power of any Islamist party in any Middle Eastern country.
The UAE is having a difficult time in reconciling its official position of supporting the UN-sponsored GNA (reiterated in January 2020 at the Berlin Conference), with that of breaking international laws, in particular the arms embargo on Libya, by continuing to arm Haftar’s forces.
Egypt is another extremely important actor in the Libyan crisis. The official motivation for Egypt’s support of Haftar’s adventure is necessary to keep stable and secure its western border with Libya. Undoubtedly in Cairo’s mind are the many economic advantages and possibilities that could derive from Egypt’s control of Libya.
After Haftar’s defeat in June 2020, in order to protect the position of its ally, the Egyptian regime declared the line that goes from Sirte to Jufra, where Haftar forces were regrouping, as a red-line not to be crossed by GNA forces; violation of this position would trigger a strong military reaction by Egypt.
When the truce around Jufra and Sirte seemed to hold, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi started devoting significant effort to the development of an Egypt-sponsored intra-Libyan political negotiation.
Russia and France are the two other main supporters of Haftar. Russia’s interests in intervening in the North African states are various: They range from the possibility of recuperating important credits owed to Russian companies by the Libyan government since the time of Qadhafi, to exploiting Russia’s relevant position in the post-war reconstruction of the country.
Having a military presence in a country that is strategically located on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, just a few hundred miles from Italy, a strategically significant NATO member country, constitutes a bonus for Russia’s projection of power.
As of today, Russian mercenaries loosely affiliated with the official Moscow government constitute the main military support for Haftar’s troops on the ground. France also has played an important role in supporting Haftar’s position.
With its actions, Paris has gained the golden medal of ambiguity. In words, it has been a supporter of the GNA government, but in fact, as has been proven many times, France has supported Haftar’s forces. This ambiguity of France has de facto blocked any meaningful action by the European Union.
The lack of action from European countries to defend the legitimate government in Tripoli in the face of Haftar’s attack against the Libyan capital has opened a wide door for Turkey’s intervention. For Turkey, there is not a single driving interest to point to, but rather a mixture of economic, political and ideological factors that have prompted Turkey’s action in Libya.
As of today, Turkey is negotiating a more permanent military truce with Russia and, at the same time, fostering intra-Libyan negotiations to resolve the crisis. The USA has played a backside position by supporting UN-led negotiations and limiting its involvement to the diplomatic level.
ARE THERE ANY CHANCES FOR A RETURN TO THE NEGOTIATING TABLE BETWEEN THE CONFLICTING PARTIES?
Some Final Considerations
The different phases of the Libyan crisis, from 2011 to date, remind us that the conflict has an economic dimension as significant as the political and the military dimensions. Any strategy aimed at stabilizing the country should consider all these three correlated components in an integrated way.
Over the years, the priority has been given to the political aspects of the crisis, mainly offering political solutions to reunify the country. However, without further progress to heal the rifts in the country’s economic and financial institutions, military and political tensions will become endemic, making the prospect of a concrete solution even more remote.
Since the ceasefire proposed by the GNA at the end of August, intra-Libyan dialogue seems to have regained momentum. Unfortunately, current conditions on the ground differ from those of the past few years.
The two rival factions appear more fragmented and divided than before, meaning that the use of GNA-LNA duality as a tool for interpreting the current conflict is losing its relevance and efficacy for understanding the Libyan context.
Both factions suffer internal tensions and a progressive erosion of internal consensus:
(a) Within the GNA, this process is caused by the weak political posture of Serraj and the recent moves of actors such as Maiteeq and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who appeared to be
acting on their own, probably frustrated by the lack of initiative and a low performance of the GNA as a collective entity;
(b) Within the LNA, the rift between House of Representatives (HOR) Speaker Agila Saleh and Haftar has grown larger, with many Eastern militias distancing themselves from the Cyrenaica general following the unsuccessful siege of Tripoli.
On top of it, these actors have to consider the dangerous consequences that could arise from the growing malcontent and the restlessness of the population both in the West and in the East.
Considering this context, it is relevant to note that popular mobilization throughout Libya against the ongoing intra-Libyan talks is emerging: It is fueled by general skepticism shared by part of the population about the capacity of these dialogues to lead to a real solution, especially in light of the egotism of various personalities, the high level of corruption and incompetence of the political class, as well as the failure of UN and EU mediation and continuing interference from external actors.
Given this fragmentation within the two main factions, the various intra-Libyan talks are now mostly led by individual actors who consider these negotiations an opportunity to secure a personal position in this new fluid power structure.
It is apparent that Libya is witnessing a progressive return to the traditional Libyan way of play politics, which focuses on the role played by an eminent personality, a leader, a notable or a tribal chief around whom different interests converge regardless of political affiliations or individual beliefs.
These emerging actors seem more interested in holding positions of power rather than ensuring the end of hostilities and the resumption of a transparent and democratic political path forward.
An example is evident in the reaction to Serraj’s resignation announcement, which unleashed a race by many individuals to present themselves as the best candidates for the position of prime minister or at least in the new government that most probably would follow the resignation of Serraj.
Looking at external interferences, a reason why every political process until now has failed could be the lack of an actor strong enough to bring together all the rival parties and their external sponsors to the negotiating table.
In the absence of a pivotal actor, it is incumbent upon the UN to organize a series of meetings among the opposing groups to create consensus for a UN-backed solution, leading to the formation of an effective national unity government.
WHAT IS NECESSARY TO REACH A REAL PACIFICATION PROCESS IN LIBYA?
– Avoid the partition of the country to keep Libya united and and focus on the restart of UN-led negotiations along military, financial and economic tracks.
– Demobilize militias. They represent an endemic problem that can be solved with a strong internationally-backed peace agreement and an institutional reconciliation strategy to favor their institutionalization, merging and integration under a unified central command.
– At the political level, focus on local authorities, who have been considered custodians of true reconciliatory processes, to de-conflict the situation in Libya.
– Control and eliminate economic-based threats to peace, and begin a deep process of reform to address the economic crisis caused by low oil prices.
– Reach an agreement signed by the main stakeholders based on a comprehensive roadmap that includes identifying the main interests of the opposing sides and guaranteeing that these interests are respected, and ensuring that the Central Bank remains the only actor controlling the distribution of oil revenues in the country.
– Create a minimum consensus among the two sides’ foreign backers on the UN-led political process. Of course, it is clear that undertaking each of these points is not an easy task, but could give purpose and energy to an unmotivated and angry population.
Karim Mezran is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Alessia Melcangi is a TT Assistant Professor of Contemporary History of North Africa and the Middle East at Sapienza University of Rome.
The Foreign Policy Research Institute