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.
France: Strongman Syndrome
By Jihâd Gillon
Libya occupies a unique place in France’s history in the Maghreb. Neighbouring it’s former colony in Algeria, and protectorate in Tunisia, French foreign policy and the colonial strategists who initially crafted it saw their wider geo-strategic interests in Libya’s vast expanse.
General De Gaulle’s insistence during World War II to take control of the Fezzan region was more than just about the French free forces countering Italian troops between 1942 and 1943, it was also about countering their allies in the race for influence in the Sahelo-Saherian region.
It was considered of the utmost strategic importance to establish a foothold in a region that shouldn’t be part of the British empire in post-WWII Africa.
During the Gaddafi era, a perception of Libya as a potential threat and source of instability to the former French colonies of the Sahelo-Saharan region and their post independence status-quo began to grow, and moreover the need to respond to such a threat. This was epitomised by the Chad-Libyan conflict (1978-1987), during which rebel commander and then President of Chad Hissene Habré managed to expel Gaddafi’s troops with the critical support of Paris during Opération Manta in 1983-1984 and the beginning of Opération Epervier in 1986.
French socialist President at the time, François Mitterrand, confessed that “if Gaddafi were to stay in Libya, that’s not really a matter of concern…Gaddafi isn’t eternal and the problem is therefore circumscribed.
[However] Gaddafi must stop working to expand Islamic Integrism”, a vague description of Gaddafi’s ideas outlined in the Green Book, but an early French tendency to describe complex political ideologies as being vaguely Islamic.
Relations would reach a new low following the accusation that Libya was behind the crash of the DC10 UTA civil French airplane in 1989 in Ténéré desert, in Niger, killing 170 civilians, the incident reminding the French authorities that even a weakened and increasingly isolated Muammar Gaddafi could create problems.
The trial in absentia of the six Libyan suspects – including Abdallah Senussi, Gaddafi’s step brother and chief of intelligence and life sentences in 1999 would lead fifteen years of virtually non existent bilateral ties.
Gaddafi’s famous rapprochement with the West following the Iraq war in 2003 included conditions in order to open a new chapter with France. Libya’s recognition of responsibility for the DC10 crash and the offer of financial compensation to the victim’s families became the platform to reestablish bilateral ties.
These ties would deepen following the 2007 election of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Four months after he was elected, Sarkozy flew to Tripoli to secure the release of five Bulgarian nurses held in Libya since 1999.
Weapons contracts and a nuclear cooperation agreement soon followed. This period remains a matter of great controversy in France, where Gaddafi is believed to have been a major contributor to the financing of Nicolas Sarkozy’s electoral campaign in 2007.
The trial of the now former president is still pending, yet these suspicions have fueled suspicion to ulterior motives behind France’s military intervention in 2011.
France’s active role in spearheading the military campaign in the early days of the Libyan revolution is difficult to reconcile with it’s broader Arab Spring policy.
Paris’ aggressive response towards the Gaddafi regime in 2011 was not exclusively motivated by humanitarian concerns of Benghazi, under threat from Gaddafi’s encroaching forces.
Only a month earlier, in ex-French protectorate Tunisia, the birthplace of the revolutions where popular uprisings toppled president Zin el Abedine Ben Ali, the French Interior Minister Michèlle Alliot-Marie proposed technical support to confront and put down the protestors.
This policy highlighted not only the French leadership’s lack of concerns towards the aspirations of the Arab street, but it’s initial policy to the Arab Spring that was out of touch with Western diplomacy at the time. Following the Egyptian revolution, French foreign policy would not miss a third window of opportunity as protests erupted in Benghazi on February 17th 2011.
In the following weeks, France would become the loudest advocates at the UN Security Council and within a nascent NATO coalition of military intervention in Libya to protect the revolution Benghazi’s civilian population, amidst increasing rumours at the time circulating amongst the business milieu in Paris of eye watering commercial opportunities in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Despite many pointing to French philosopher Bernard Henry Levy as France’s key interlocutor following his trip to Benghazi, the French military establishment had begun to deploy it’s military on the ground in Benghazi, and would rely on their intelligence and relationships – in particular those of Paul Soler a French military officer, who had established relationships to rebel commanders and groups on the ground.
With the election of François Hollande in 2012, Libya would take a back seat as French diplomatic attention would turn to another theatre of the Arab Spring, taking place in better-known Syria. The Libyan file would shift away from the Foreign ministry to the ministry of Defence under Jean-Yves Le Drian.
With the electoral victories of Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt, and a complex civil war in Syria, Paris’ new administration’s foreign policy would progressively favor a more security and stability focussed approach towards the Middle East and North Africa.
This period is notable for the increasingly close ties the Hollande administration had built with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Under the Sarkozy administration, France established a military base in the UAE, it’s first and only base in the Middle East. The Hollande administration would seek to capitalise on this by establishing deeper strategic ties across defence, energy and cultural ties, and in 2013 would begin military cooperation with the UAE in Mali, their first joint military cooperation.
At an ideological level, In France, the UAE found a strategic partner who would not split hairs over a broad definition of the term Islamist to include violent and non-violent groups irrespective of it’s consequences for the region’s democratic transition, bringing France closer to the UAE’s own foreign policy in the region.
During this period as the Sahel became further destabilised, the Libyan file would move from the periphery to one of the French President’s top foreign policy priorities.
Towards the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, Salafi Jihadist groups began threatening Mali’s capital Bamako, forcing the French military to intervene under Operation Serval to repel Al-Qaida-linked fighters.
This period reshaped France’s view of Libya. From Paris’ point of view, and with the support of regional heads of state like Chadian president Idriss Déby, post Gaddafi Libya, a wash with weapons for arms trafficiking in addition to porous borders became viewed as the source of the Sahel’s instability and the main causes of the Salafi-Jihadist threat to the whole sahelian region.
This sparked a major change towards France’s Libya policy in late 2013 and early 2014 as Paris began to search for a simple solution to the complexities of post Gaddafi Libya.
The Strong Man Illusion
The emergence of Khalifa Haftar, who offers an uncompromising ‘Strong man’ approach to ‘solving Libya’ could not have come at a better time.
When Haftar launched Operation Dignity in May 2014 he offered a seductive ‘reset button’ to the perceived chaos and complexity of the Libyan revolution in 2011 and with it the simplest of solutions to Libya’s complexity, a war against all those that stood against democratic institutions, political parties, and Salafi Jihadists alike under ‘a purge of the Muslim Brotherhood’.
France’s need for a ‘strong man’ in Libya was also fueled by increasing concerns in France about illegal immigrants passing through the Meditaranean from Libya, against a backdrop of increasing European populist rhetoric and the ideological progress of far-right parties in Europe, Haftar’s solution seemed ideal.
Moreover, the General seemed like a reliable figure given his military support by Abu Dhabi and Egypt in the early days of Operation Dignity with whom Paris had begun establishing strong ties to.
As a result Paris quietly develops military cooperation with Haftar in Benghazi, a point revealed after the fact in 2016, following the death of several french military personnel in a helicopter crash in Benghazi.
France’s foreign policy and strategic alliance to these two key authoritarian Arab powers is indirectly favored by the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis.
France’s economy had been hit badly, and the sale of military material and combat aircrafts to Cairo and Abu Dhabi became justified as a promotion of the French workforce. This ‘commerce first’ approach gave Egypt and the UAE substantial leverage on French foreign policy, in particular Libya.
The clear ideological synergies that developed between the three with the cultivation of a growing anti-Islamist rhetoric cemented the alliance.
In this convergence of economic ties, military cooperation ideology were the seeds of a new geo political ‘anti-Islamist axis’ that began to grow between France, the UAE and Egypt as they established close cooperation in Libya.
Significant domestic changes in France strengthened the Elysees’ conviction towards it’s Libya policy despite Haftar’s failure to take power in 2014, and the subsequent United Nations brokered peace talks to end the war through establishing the Government of National Accord (GNA) under Faiez al-Sarraj in 2015.
The traumatizing Islamic State attacks in Paris in November 2015 Paris, a month before the establishment of the GNA gave policy weight to the personality of Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar promoted in several french media outlets as a Libyan “De Gaulle” fighting to free his country from the plague of Salafi Jihadist, and remains France’s favoured candidate in Libya despite France’s public commitment to the GNA.
In contrast Faiez Serraj, is perceived as weak, with little leverage on the multitude and undisciplined armed groups controlling Tripolitania. As Haftar rejected the GNA following it’s arrival to Tripoli in 2016, Paris was faced with a difficult decision as to how to respond to Libya’s new political crisis.
Officially, France approves the Skhirat agreement and its outcome but privately has many doubts over its implementation. Paul Soler, the French officer that had fought in Benghazi in 2011 had by this time become elevated to the status of a trusted insider in the Elysee and doesn’t hide his preference for Haftar, leading to the French Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to meet Haftar’s political adviser Fadel al-Deeb in Paris in 2015, and begin closer political cooperation following the establishment of the GNA.
Despite Emmanuel Macron’s election as President in May 2017, France’s policy engagement towards Libya would only deepen as a result of the nomination of Jean-Yves Le Drian as minister of Foreign affairs.
The new president, the youngest one of the Fifth Republic, wishes to demonstrate France’s stature on the global state early on in his Presidency and selects the Libyan crisis, viewed in the Elysee as a potential easy win only two months into his Presidency.
France’s state apparatus becomes the subject of intense lobbying in favor of Haftar, by Emirati and Egyptian networks in the French capital, but also by the Elysée’s military advisors and Le Drian that transitioned Haftar from a military general to being viewed as a statesman as opposed to a General under the state in Libya.
This reshaping of the crisis is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of France’s foreign policy since 2011. Despite Haftar’s role as a spoiler in Libya following his rejection of the UN brokered Libyan Political Agreement, and the GNA, he is invited in July 2017 by the Elysee to La Celle Saint Cloud, to meet with Sarraj on equal footing.
Haftar is not only reshaped as a statesman, but reshaped from his role as the spoiler of Libya’s 2015 peace process to a key part of it’s solution in 2017.
Macron would host both Serraj and Haftar again in 2018 to agree unifying the LAAF under the GNA followed by democratic elections, despite Haftar’s high profile claim in French media that “Libya is not ready for democracy”.
Haftar’s unilateral withdrawal from diplomatic talks to launch an assault on Tripoli in April 2019 would be a diplomatic embarrassment for Paris as it faced accusations by the GNA of having encouraged his warmongering, with al-Sarraj calling Macron personally.
The suspicion stems from Haftar’s meeting with Jean-Yves Le Drian days before the attack, and the response to Haftar’s question as to why he hadn’t seen him for so long being “we were waiting for your victories”.
Despite France’s explicit denial of it’s support to Haftar during this period, Paris fails to explicitly name or condemn Haftar in it’s diplomatic communique’s as being chiefly responsible for Libya’s latest civil war.
The embarrassment would continue after Haftar’s staging ground for the assault, Gharian falls to GNA forces in July 2019 who retrieved French procured US anti tank missiles amidst Haftar’s arsenal of weapons, casting suspicions as to whether French special forces coordinated the attack with the LAAF.
Since July 2019, France has retreated to the diplomatic and political periphery. Frances’ principal military ally in Libya the UAE were bolstered by Russian military support, and in turn drew in Turkey and has further complicated the geo politics of Libya’s conflict.
As Haftar’s Tripoli campaign collapsed in June 2020, diplomatic talks resumed in search of a compromise between the GNA and LAAF. Despite Haftar’s loss of momentum, the future of Paris’s foreign policy may not have entirely changed as it begins to identify actors within the GNA with whom it could build a strategic relationship.
The GNA’s Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, with powerful relationships to the armed groups in Tripolitania and influence in the powerful Western city of Misrata is perceived as being a potential alternative ‘Strong man’ from the GNA camp.
Despite Bashagha’s harsh criticism of France during Haftar’s assault, his recent overtures and two visits to Paris in the latter part of 2020 suggest he is willing to establish a new relationship with the french authorities. However, the latest chapter of Libya’s transition has challenged Paris’ foreign policy assumptions.
Visible divisions amongst the GNA’s armed groups and in particular the key armed groups who control the capital and have voiced their opposition to Bashagha demonstrate the challenges ahead in Libya, and the assumptions of a strongman.
Similarly in Haftar’s stronghold in Benghazi, feuding armed groups and tribes within the LAAF have begun to demonstrate the fragility of Haftar’s strong and stable approach.
The conclusion of the UN political process and emergence of outsiders such as Abdelhamid Debeiba and Mohamed Menfi has also demonstrated Libya’s unpredictability and the costs of tying itself too closely to actors whose influence could be dwindling.
France’s coming elections in 2022, their lack of confidence in understanding the new complex environment and the return of the United State’s under the Biden administration could signal a lessening of Libya’s priority in Paris.
Jihâd Gillon is a French journalist and head of MENA at the French-speaking Pan African magazine Jeune Afrique. He works on foreign interference and French diplomacy in Libya and the Gulf crisis. He also writes for La Revue the French monthly magazine, where he focusses on Salafi Jihadist groups, with a particular focus on Syria.
Nadja Berghoff – Programs and Communication Fellow at Sadeq Institute.
Anas El-Gomati – Director, Libya’s 1st think tank. Chief contributor Security & Governance.