Editors: Nadja Berghoff and Anas El-Gomati
A decade on from the February 17th revolution, how the global disorder transformed Libya into a battleground for interest, ideology and influence.
By Anas El-Gomati
In the decade that has passed since Libya’s February 17th revolution, one cannot easily determine whether the story reads as an obituary or a love letter.
Certainly, it was not the near dream-like sequence of events that took place in neighbouring Tunisia, which despite the inevitable challenges remains to date a functional democracy.
Equally, events in Libya did not replicate those of Syria and the ensuing human tragedy; nor did it result in the theft of the revolution, as it did in neighbouring Egypt at the hands of it’s military.
Unique in many ways, the Libyan experience shares elements with all of its neighbours. Early signs of promise were there from the start; a peaceful transition of power from the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s official anti-Gaddafi opposition and the political custodia of the revolution to the country’s first democratic elections to select the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012.
This was followed by two brutal civil wars first in 2014 and again in 2019 following two attempted military coup d’etats by a former Gaddafi-era official, General Khalifa Haftar.
In the last year Tunisia has hosted Libya’s political talks, alongside Egypt who supported the latest civil war that drew thousands of Syrian mercenaries supplied by
Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and Russia to fight one another. The role the international community played in securing the conditions to support Libya’s revolution are well known, namely the high profile passing of UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1973 in March 2011 under the doctrine of the ‘Responsibility to protect’.
Often missing from the commentary surrounding Libya’s revolution and its aftermath is how it opened the floodgates to a new global disorder that established the conditions for a new Great Game that has drawn new and old powers to it’s vast expanse in a battle for influence, interest and ideology.
The diplomatic rifts and regional aftershock that followed the NATO-led campaign Operation Unified Protector (OUP) culminating in the overthrow of Mu’ammar al Gaddafi and his Jamahiriya after 42 years of autocratic rule continues to be felt a decade on.
The US took a step back to ‘lead from behind’ during the NATO campaign marking a broad unwillingness to carry the burden of the campaign.
The Arab Spring coincided with America’s decision to withdraw from the Middle East and North Africa, leaving a void to be filled by others. Washington delegated the operation to European partners, who were increasingly pulling in different directions and unable to fill the void.
At a diplomatic level, the NATO operation’s mission creep established a new bipolar faultline amongst the permanent members of the UNSC — in particular Russia and China vs the US, UK, and France — that have paralysed it since 2011 from it’s conceived vision of managing tensions, preventing military confrontations and preserving peace and stability.
These rivalries prevented the UNSC from averting a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria in 2011, but by 2019 had revealed new fault lines within the UNSC and it’s inability to deal with this multipolarity in the context of Libya’s latest conflict.
The UN secretary general Antonio Gutteres landed in Tripoli on April 4th 2019 to offer his backing to a political roadmap to democratic elections in Libya only to be met with heavy gunfire as the Libyan Arab Armed Forces led by General Khalifa Haftar, who confidently marched on Libya’s capital from the town of Gharian.
The UN chief departed Libya failing to condemn Haftar by name. That same day the US, United Kingdom (UK), France, Italy and United Arab Emirates (UAE) issued a jointstatement opposing any military action and promising to hold to account any Libyan faction that would precipitate further conflict.
Despite this threat, Haftar continued his assault undeterred by the vocal and prominent diplomatic threats. It would later transpire that the Trump administration had privately endorsed Haftar’s war, that French Special Forces had been discretely embedded with Haftar’s forces and that the UAE were conducting airstrikes in order to support Haftar’s assault.
The events of the Arab Spring have also reshaped the regional order, and established new ideological rifts. Qatar’s early, proactive support to the Arab Spring primarily through it’s soft power irked their Gulf neighbours, the UAE, who set to reverse the course of the revolutions by also intervening in Libya.
A decade and a Gulf crisis later, the UAE’s main adversary in Libya is no longer Qatar, but Turkey — demonstrating the extraordinary shifts across the region, and the introduction of powerful new actors pursuing their own geo political and economic interests in Libya across the region.
Libya’s own civil wars have in no doubt been shaped by the failure of their political elite to compromise, forge consensus, and cooperate. Many have pointed to the emergence of a conflict between ‘Islamists’ and ‘secularists’ or the historic rivalry between it’s regions in the east and west of the country.
These binaries offer some explanatory power to aspects of the war, underlying tensions and much of the competition above the surface but fails to address the shadow cast by the demise of Gaddafi’s Jamihiriya and the competing structures that underpin the state and define its political character.
The Jamahiriya was essentially a tightly controlled patrominal network that tied aspects of the state’s security infrastructure to particular tribal constituencies in order to maintain Gaddafi’s authoritarian grip on the country.
When this patrimonial network collapsed in 2011 it left little in terms of tangible institutions that could provide a foundation for a new Libya. At the heart of the February 17th revolution’s narrative was a deep rejection of this patronage network and the authoritarian concept and definition of tribal identity that underpinned it.
As this tribal patronage network collapsed during the revolution many constituencies would lose their patronage to the state and by extension their social and political privilege following the emergence of new armed groups who began to establish their own discrete rival patrimonial structures.
Much of Libya’s intercommunal conflicts can be traced back to this moment, and the ensuing power struggles and competition defined by their relationship to either the old or new socio political order.
This power struggle became more overtly political following the passing of a political isolation law in 2013 (under duress from new armed groups) to marginalise former Gaddafi era officials from holding positions in the new state.
This attempt at De-Gaddafication would delegitimize much of this patronage network, and ripen constituencies and stakeholders alike to conflict with years of low level power struggles and a scarred social fabric acting as the fuel.
The emergence of Khalifa Haftar in the summer of 2014 and his attempt to discreetly reestablish the Jamahiriya’s tribal patronage network through the establishment of the LAAF was the spark that lit the flame as the country became engulfed in a civil war that divided the country.
The resulting political divisions and parallel institutions illustrate the degree to which these patrimonial networks matter. The seven years of UN brokered diplomatic talks between rival elite players hosted by a variety of external players in Libya’s conflict to reconfigure a new Presidency to accommodate Haftar’s patrimonial network reflects the degree to which civil-military relations still matter to the state and and how the prevailing political character of Libya’s post Gaddafi state still remains up for grabs.
In the context of this global disorder, competing patrimonial networks and the ideological vacuum left behind in Gaddafi’s demise, Libya’s civil wars have become the theatre for global powers to pursue their own unilateral interests.
This Long Read seeks to explore the foreign policy of 12 key states that have either intervened militarily or diplomatically over the past decade since the February 17th revolution in 2011.
The paper is unique in that it not only examines the key turning points in Libya over the past decade, but also the key domestic issues and the impact of the collapse of the global liberal order as determinants of each country’s uniquely different foreign policy towards Libya.
These papers broadly reveal a variety of uniquely different perspectives as to Libya’s unique geo strategic importance and the variety of micro conflicts at play in Libya that have determined it’s complexity.
Beginning with how Libya’s vast hydrocarbon reserves drew in states seeking it’s riches and the resulting competition. How it’s strategic importance differs from each country’s vantage point; as either Europe’s migration corridor, NATO’s soft underbelly in a geo politically contested meditaranean, an ungoverned space where Salafi Jihadists could take root or as a gateway and source of instability towards the Sahel and the Maghreb, matters which depending from where you view them determine the order of priority in each state’s view of it’s foreign policy towards Libya.
Finally, in the context of the Arab Spring this paper sheds light on the emergence of a broader region wide ideological struggle to determine Libya’s political character a decade on from the Arab Spring.
This paper examines the emergence of these ideational alliances and their collision with alliances and actors pursuing their own geo-political interests to form a complex multi layered and multi polar conflict that despite recent local political progress illustrates the intractability of Libya’s conflict.
Nadja Berghoff – Programs and Communication Fellow at Sadeq Institute.
Anas El-Gomati – Director, Libya’s 1st think tank. Chief contributor Security & Governance.