Not by bus. Not with food. Not with water. No, hundreds of Egyptian migrants have been made to walk on foot under the hot June sun toward the Egyptian border in the past week as part of the largest anti-migration campaign in eastern Libya in recent years.
The videos and photos of the migrants, which have circulated on social media and Libyan outlets since early last week, give a glimpse of the scale of the campaign carried by authorities under the command of the Libyan National Army in the Butnan district of eastern Libya, which includes the border towns of Musaid and Beir al-Ashhab. However, the exact extent of the campaign remains unclear.
A Libyan security source put the total number of migrants arrested at 4,000 and added that they had all been deported, in comments to Reuters.
While eastern Libya is a migration hub for Syrians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis, many of whom are flown in via the private Syrian airline Cham Wings, local sources tell Mada Masr that most of those detained in the anti-migration campaign were Egyptians.
This is confirmed by statements carried by Cairo24 on June 4 made by Major General Ibrahim al-Shuhaibi, the head of the Libyan Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency, who said that about 4,000 Egyptians had been arrested in warehouses that smugglers use to move people to Italy. About 2,000 of these had been deported to Egypt, Shuhaibi said.
On Wednesday, Faraj Qaim, the deputy interior minister in Benghazi, announced the end of the security campaign, about a week and a half after it started.
What prompted this sudden move by eastern Libyan authorities? The migrant tragedy in Butnan has financial and political dimensions for LNA leader Khalifa Haftar and his sons. In the weeks leading up to the campaign, Haftar, who is increasingly cash-strapped and has seen his bet on former rival Fathi Bashagha implode, has held talks with high-ranking European officials on controlling migration in Libya.
Mada Masr spoke to sources close to the Haftars, Libyan and Egyptian officials, local political actors near the border, and sources involved in the migrant trade to better understand how the Haftars are using the management of migrant routes to extract money and support from European partners and settle political scores in a shifting domestic political scene.
The anti-migration campaign began on May 30, when security was deployed to Butnan to respond to protests by local residents in Musaid against the tightening of security measures by the border guards of the general command of the LNA. A 14-year-old boy was killed in the ensuing clashes, and others were injured. The protesters set fire to several security headquarters in Musaid and the border crossing.
As clashes intensified in Musaid, the LNA general command sent security reinforcements led by Qaim, the GNU deputy interior minister, to support the Tobruk and Musaid security directorates to control the situation.
The LNA Military Information Division confirmed that the police and military units sent to Butnan on June 1 to support the Tobruk and Musaid security directorates were able to “arrest more than 1,000 illegal migrants from different nationalities, found in smugglers’ farms and houses across Musaid”, and found “workshops for boat manufacturing for the purpose of smuggling migrants across the sea.”
The LNA’s presentation of itself as a bulwark against “illegal migration” is complicated, however, by its own involvement in managing migration.
In a 2018 United Nations Panel of Experts report, the Subul al-Salam Brigade, which is affiliated with LNA, is singled out for its involvement in “the smuggling of migrants despite being mandated by LNA to combat trafficking at the border.”
A 2022 research paper by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime notes that the biggest effects of the LNA’s loss in the 2019 Tripoli war were not political but financial, as the war had emptied its coffers prompting Haftar’s shapeshifting network of fighting forces and economic actors to increase their profit-seeking behavior in illicit activities, such as drug smuggling or human trafficking, either directly or through taxation. One of the LNA-affiliated actors the report singles out is the notorious Tariq Ben Zayed (TBZ) Brigade, which is led by Khalifa Haftar’s son Saddam.
The 20/20 Group, an armed faction within the TBZ that is responsible for carrying out the dirty work of migration management overseen by Saddam in the greater Benghazi region, especially in Banina in the south, which has many warehouses used as shelters for migrants brought in by charter flights from Syria, Southwest Asia, and East Africa, according to a source who works as a mediator between the TBZ and local smugglers. Those migrants, the source says, are made to work for the LNA’s Military Investment Authority in exchange for facilitation of their journey to Europe.
According to the source, it was the 20/20 Group that set off the social tension that preceded the May 30 security deployment, after Saddam tasked Ali al-Mashy, the head of the group, with telling smugglers from the Qatan and Haboun tribes working on the border that they had to move their operations to Benghazi if they wanted to continue their work.
This caused a major rift between the tribes and the LNA-affiliated groups to whom they pay taxes, the source says.
Since Haftar took hold of eastern Libya, the Butnan district, extending from the Egyptian-Libyan borders in the east to Jebel Akhdar in the west, has remained outside his political or security arrangements, which in other areas have included removing elected mayors and assigning allies to preside over the local authorities in eastern Libya in order to prevent any opposition to his iron grip.
The fact that Butnan escaped Haftar’s control due to tribal considerations, namely the significant influence of the Obeidat tribe to which House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh belongs, allowed the smugglers from the tribe and its allies in the Qatan and Haboun tribes to amass significant power, increasingly so since the rise of the migration flow from Egypt in the light of the escalating the economic crisis in the past year.
A political source in the Butnan district told Mada Masr that the security campaign against smugglers aims at allowing the LNA to take hold of the border region that has been run far from the reach of Haftar’s sons, despite the fact that Saddam has strong connections with influential figures in Butnan.
The source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, voiced the concerns rising among the Obeidat tribe with regard to the true intentions of Hafar’s sons, stressing that it is well understood across Butnan’s social landscape that the wide security campaign has goals beyond combating irregular migration, especially in light of the growing conflicts between Aguila Saleh and Haftar’s sons.
The long-term strategy for the Haftars relied on building out a domestic political apparatus to fight for greater representation in transitional and post-transitional governments that could help them secure a greater piece of Libya’s oil-rich domestic economy. However, in recent weeks the main structure for this apparatus imploded, with the eastern legislature voting to expel Fathi Bashagha, a businessman and former military officer from the western city of Misrata who had fought against Haftar in the 2019 Tripoli war but had struck an uneasy alliance with Haftar and Salah in February 2022 to form the Government of National Stability as a parallel government in the east of the country. Bashagha had launched multiple attempts to enter Tripoli by force after striking the deal with Haftar and Salah but faced embarrassing defeats each time.
In the last two weeks, Haftar’s sons played a crucial role in the ouster of their Misratan ally Fathi Bashagha from his position as head of the GNS, after his refusal to provide funds to Saddam and Belqasem Haftar as well as their allies from the south of the 128th Brigade head Major Hassan Matouq al-Zadema and MP Ali Busriba, the deputy of the Zawiya region.
A source with a direct connection to Haftar’s sons, Zadema, and Busriba confirmed to Mada Masr that the three parties collectively demanded that Bashagha give them approximately 1 billion Libyan dinars from a total of 1.5 billion dinars in the accounts of the GNS. Bashagha refused, the source says.
Analysts, MPs, and other prominent Libyan figures spoke on local television about money paid by Haftar’s sons and Ali Busriba to members of the eastern parliament to oust Bashagha and House speaker Aguila Saleh.
Members of the eastern parliament who are loyal to Haftar justified the ouster of Bashagha by pointing to his inability to enter Tripoli and financial impropriety by his government while accusing Saleh of parliamentary decisions.
Salah was spared the same fate as Bashagha by an Egyptian intervention, according to an Egyptian government source who told Mada Masr that Egypt sent a high-ranking security delegation to meet with Haftar to deter him from allowing his sons to go through with their plan.
The Egyptian intervention in favor of Salah did not please Haftar’s sons, especially Saddam, who was not thrilled by the alliance with Bashagha in the first place, according to a senior LNA officer and a Libyan political source that acts as a mediator between the Haftars and the GNU.
Egypt on one side and the Haftars and UAE on the other side have provided support to opposing sides of the fighting in Sudan. Sources close to Saddam in Benghazi describe him as the Emirate’s long arm in eastern Libya and the effective leader of the LNA since the Tripoli war after the decline of his father’s role due to old age and deterioration of his health, and the political repercussions of the capital’s war.
Saleh did not attend the session to suspend Bashagha. He announced in an interview with the Saudi television channel Al Arabiya his disapproval of the step, describing it as an unlawful move that should be reversed.
Haftar’s sons have not given up on the domestic political route to secure money. They are angling behind the scenes to secure a footing in new political arrangements that are being negotiated with the GNU in Tripoli, according to the Libyan political source familiar with the discussion between the two sides. The new arrangements would see a GNU cabinet reshuffle that would hand out appointments to sovereign ministries for Haftar affiliates, which would facilitate a sustainable source of funding for Haftar’s sons.
But as this domestic bid for cash looks less likely to yield results in the short term, Haftar and his sons have looked to secure cash from elsewhere: foreign countries looking to control migration management.
The security operation in Butnan took place three weeks after Haftar’s visit to Rome at the beginning of May, where he met with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and interior.
While the Italian government did not issue an official statement about Haftar’s meeting with Meloni and her security cabinet, media outlets in Rome said that the right-wing prime minister demanded answers from Haftar about the unprecedented increase in arrivals of migrants on Italian shores from eastern Libya.
There had been over 16,000 arrivals to Italy from Libya between the start of the year and May 2, up 166 percent from the same period in 2022. About 10,000 of them originated from eastern Libya.
On the other side, Haftar’s press office said, on May 5, that, during his meeting with the Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Piantedosi, he discussed ways for strengthening cooperation between the two countries in terms of security and the fight against illegal migration and providing training programs for members of security agencies.
A source close to Saddam Haftar said that the Libyan military leader demanded from the Italian side both financial and military support in order to control the southern and coastal borders so that he can help in managing the migration flow, after blaming the Italian side for funding militias in western Libya in the past years for the purpose of stopping the migration flow, while failing to support the LNA.
Italy had been very cautious in recent years in dealing with Haftar and has refused to provide any support to his forces in eastern Libya because he received support from France. However, it seems like the migration issue is pushing Italy to reconsider. Italian Foreign Minister Affairs Antonio Tajani defended the recent reception of Haftar in Rome against the opposition’s criticism, emphasizing that it was “right to talk to him about illegal migration.”
On the sidelines of the La Forza dell’Italia party conference in Milan, Tajani said, “we are mobilized to protect the interests of the Italian citizens and to address and solve the migration issue, which is very difficult since a series of events and contributing factors create an unexpected situation, and especially with regard to the migration flow” as reported by the Italian website Decode39.
In recent years, the Italian policies in Libya were limited to communication with the GNU in Tripoli and armed groups in the west to help manage the migration flow.
On May 29, Haftar received British Ambassador to Libya Caroline Hurndall to discuss economic and migration issues and support to the political operation facilitated by the United Nations. During the visit, the British military attache signed a contract with the Libyan Academy to provide English lessons to navy officers in Benghazi.
On the following day, Haftar received a high-ranking Maltese delegation, led by the Permanent Secretary of the Maltese Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs Christopher Cutajar. Haftar’s press office only referenced the negotiations between the two parties concerning the strengthening of cooperation between Libya and Malta. Yet, Valetta’s media revealed many more details.
Malta Today reported that Haftar discussed with Cutajar how irregular migration groups are using chartered flights to transfer Bangladeshi migrants from Syria to Libya where they get onto boats to Europe.
Whether the massive anti-migration security campaign in the last week will be enough to open the money spigot for the Haftars remains to be seen.
But for Nour Khalil, the director of Refugees Platform Egypt, it is clear that the European Union’s continued funding to oppressive governments and armed militias with the aim of suppressing migration has led to the dangerous use of that funding at the expense of migrants’ rights and lives.
“The European plan to extend European borders to block and prevent migrants outside the European fortress,” Khalil says, “will not prevent migration, but will only temporarily hamper it, but at huge cost of increasing the danger in the journey and escalating violations against migrants.”