The crisis in Libya has often been described as a proxy war, that is, a conflict where foreign actors support and equip a certain faction or a number of factions in a third country and exert all efforts to see their faction(s) overcome the others and ascend to power. The purpose is obviously to expand a country’s power and influence.
Qatari and France plotted against Qaddafi, while Egypt upholds Haftar
Libya seems to fit that definition as the decision to intervene to protect Benghazi was taken by France under significant Qatari pressure. The Emir of Qatar told Libyan revolutionary commander and eminent sheikh, Ali Sallabi, that he was ready to pay Sarkozy, France’s then President, any sum of money to have Qaddafi disappear.
By July/August 2011, Qaddafi was overthrown, and Tripoli captured by various factions of rebels.
The way the revolution was conducted in the military field, by armed groups belonging to various groups that were ideologically divided and socially fragmented yet united under the desire to oust Qaddafi, led to a fragmented, riotous, and wild security sector.
The tribal leaders and the group of military officers who started their careers under Qaddafi were struggling to control a plethora of pro-Islamist armed protesters and clandestine organizations who rapidly spread across the eastern province.
By 2016, the Egyptian neighbours, terrified by the chaos, violence, and economic crisis raging through a province just to Egypt’s west decided to take action and supported Khalifa Haftar’s ascent to power in the province.
By providing him — a former general in Qaddafi’s army — with nearly unlimited funds, weapons, and a disinformation campaign, they enabled Haftar to rise and become eastern Libya’s undisputed military leader.
The Egyptians and Emiratis became his main sponsors, eventually followed by a contingent of Russian contractors, a few thousand Sudanese and Syrian mercenaries and, last but not least, France.
The internationally recognized government in Tripoli, led by Fayez Serraj, was supported by Italy, the US, the UN and, arguably, Qatar and Turkey.
These coalitions remained as such throughout the 18 months it took for the Western Tripolitanians and their Turkish allies to repel and defeat Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, which began on April 4th, 2019.
After a diplomatic failure, Erdoğan steps in
What everybody in Libya clearly understood was that the deadlocked situation on the Tripoli front was not resolved by the overestimated “diplomatic” approach, but rather by the despised “military” approach.
The Turkish intervention saved Tripoli and defeated the Eastern general’s bid.
This left a legacy on the ground. The Libyan troops in and around Tripoli — as well as some of the militias from Misurata and some cities in Tripolitania — were reorganized, trained, and equipped by Turkish advisors.
This fact established a type of bond between the Libyan troops and Turkish officers, which was then used by the latter in order to establish control and influence in the western province of the country.
Nevertheless, the behind-the-curtain agreement the Turks probably struck with the Russians did not allow them to overrun Haftar’s forces completely but compelled them to stop at the “Sirte line”, just before the border with the eastern province.
This allowed the Egyptians and Emiratis to refurbish Haftar’s troops, regroup, and reorganize them thus enabling Haftar to retain full control of Cyrenaica and remain an important political and military actor.
As such, the unique possibility offered by the Turkish intervention to re-unify the country was wasted and Libya remained de facto divided between at least two parts.
Dbeibah vs Bashaga: a (new) two-sides division
The more recent period has been characterized by a small shift in the deployment of international actors with some changes in alliances and proxy relations.
The UN-led negotiation process, which was headed by the former Secretary General Special Representative — now Special Advisor — Stephanie Williams, produced a Government of National Unity (GNU) led by the much discussed and controversial businessman Abdel Hamid Dbeibah.
This government was appointed with the main purpose of preparing the elections previously scheduled for December 24th, 2021.
That day came and passed with no election taking place. At this point the Parliament, which has been de facto relegated to the town of Tobruk with scarce legitimacy, rapidly moved to dismiss Dbeibah’s government, nominating Fathi Bashaga, a former Misurata Officer, as the new Prime Minister.
Dbeibah refused to surrender and thus plunged the country back to a two-sides division.
On one side, Egypt, Russia, France, and (surprisingly) Qatar stood with Bashaga and his eastern supporters.
On the other side, Italy, Turkey (with some distinctions), the UN, the US. And (surprisingly) the UAE stood with Dbeibah.
Once again, the situation developed on the ground leaves no doubt about the interference in Libyan domestic affairs for a plethora of foreign actors, each pursuing its own parochial interests rather than those of Libya and of the entire region.
Today Libya is a divided country with no fully legitimate institutions, prey to the converging interest of a foreign power and its local accomplices (even though we prefer to call them “proxies”).
The situation is such that we don’t believe in the possibility to find a Libyan-Libyan solution, at least not fully or exclusively. However, the possibility of a political solution to the civil war can be reached through an Egyptian-Turkish agreement.
These two powerful regional actors have the power of imposing their will and decisions on their allies on the ground and obtain their compliance. The terms and details of such an arrangement are yet to be defined, but what we have sketched out is more than enough to understand it will logically occur.
The couple of thousands of Russian contractors on the ground (from the Wagner group) will not interfere, not only because of their limited number, but also because the brutal war in Ukraine has constrained and limited Russia’s actions in the Mediterranean.
For now, the Libyan population remains hostage to a local-international deadlock which, unless rapidly resolved, could plunge the country into another set of civil war bloodbaths.
Karim Mezran is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. As a distinguished Libyan-Italian scholar, he brings significant depth of understanding to the processes of political change in North Africa. He is an Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and also a Non-Resident Fellow at ISPI.