Tarek Megerisi


Libya served as the central battleground for the intra-regional rivalries that defined the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the 2010s. Despite the problems it posed to all the interfering parties, Libya’s strategic assets have an enduring appeal, ensuring that all those who intervened never truly left, but rather just continuously reshaped their interventions.

Today, Libya remains the battleground of a cold conflict between competing powers who claim to be normalizing their relations. As such, Libya’s contested transition symbolizes the flaws of the current normalization process and highlights the fault lines where it might eventually fracture. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and its geopolitical and economic ramifications also exacerbated key variables of the Libyan conflict, such as energy demand, Western diplomatic bandwidth, hostility to Russia, and price spikes of essential goods. These changing variables in turn increased the battle for Libya, risking a return to a state of chaotic disorder and potentially, dragging the rest of the region with it.


Libya emerged as a prized target in the regional battle that was catalyzed by the 2011 uprisings. At the heart of North Africa, with almost 2,000 kilometers of coastline on the central Mediterranean and representing a gateway to the rest of the continent, Libya’s geography is highly strategic for powers looking to increase their influence in the Mediterranean or Africa. Moreover, with the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and a treasure in foreign exchange reserves (in 2011), there was a strong economic attraction.

Libya was fragile after a complex civil war to remove long-term dictator Muammar Gadhafi, and its weak political class led an ill-defined transition following the war, making it vulnerable to intervention. Interventions in Libya—attempts to co-opt Libya’s transition and ruling class to serve the interests of the intervening nation—were often a precursor to conflicts that would erupt regionally or dynamics that would continue to evolve across the broader region.

For example, the early years of Libya’s transition was defined by an intra-Gulf competition between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, years before the rivalry devolved into the infamous Qatar blockade of 2017. The two small yet ambitious and resource-rich states competed antagonistically to increase their influence across the MENA region following the 2011 uprisings. While Doha hosted former political oppositions, Abu Dhabi instead attempted to empower institutional remnants of former regimes. In Libya, as elsewhere, neither really succeeded, and combined, they aggravated existing drivers of instability.

The rise of Libya’s renegade general Khalifa Haftar in 2014 showcased an Emirati-led alliance with Egypt, and then France, to project power and increase their influence across the region, an evolution of their earlier rivalry with Qatar. Egypt’s newly empowered military found an ideological ally in the UAE as it sought to cultivate a new military institution in Libya, which could replicate their putsch.

Meanwhile, Paris was seduced by the anti-Islamist rhetoric of Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Haftar himself, and backed the would-be strongman to expand their own influence in Libya whilst strengthening what they considered to be strategic and potentially lucrative regional alliances with the UAE and Egypt. Russia’s role in printing banknotes for Haftar’s enterprise, and the deployment of the Wagner Group signified a more interventionist foreign policy that leaned heavily on private military contractors.

Finally, the antagonisms between Türkiye, Egypt, and the UAE, felt in Syria, northern Iraq, and the eastern Mediterranean was inflamed by the Turkish military intervention to defend Libya’s capital Tripoli from Haftar’s 2019 assault. The decisive role of Turkish drones in their intervention in Libya was a seminal moment and the tactics trialed around Tripoli would evolve through conflicts in, for example, Syria. Even in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine conflicts Turkish drones played a decisive role.

Accordingly, every iteration of the ratcheting regional battle is etched into the history of Libya’s transition. Similarly, the stalemate following Haftar’s defeat in 2020 can be considered the start of the regional normalization process. Despite the collapse of Haftar’s forces, Russia kept Libya divided down the middle at the city of Sirte, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi declared it a red line, threatening to send troops should the Turkish-backed Libyan government forces try to reclaim it.

This regional power balance between Russia and Türkiye, the potential escalation by Egypt, and Haftar’s glaring failure, all contributed to a collective rethink. The election of Joe Biden as president of the United States (U.S.) suggested a changing geopolitical environment that would be less tolerant of destructive adventurism.


Since then, the once-competing regional powers have begun to “normalize” their relations by repairing them, reducing violent competition, and looking for shared opportunities. Different aspects of this normalization are again reflected in Libya’s attempts to transition through elections following Haftar’s war on Tripoli.

The UAE and Türkiye continue to use Libya as a platform, consolidating their holdings, looking to the other’s sphere, and exploring projects of mutual benefit. Egypt and Türkiye remain in a cold war, however, where Libyan issues—primarily Cairo’s desire to control Tripoli and the perceived threat from Turkish consolidation— are partially obstructing their normalization. Since the end of the war, Türkiye has capitalized on its victory by establishing deep economic and security ties with Libya’s new government led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, which was formed in February 2021 to lead the country to elections but has instead been diverted to more profitable pursuits.

Controversially, in October 2022, Türkiye entered into broad memorandums of understanding with Dbeibah’s government9 designed to facilitate Turkish exploration for offshore gas in waters disputed between Greece and Libya as part of its eastern Mediterranean gambit. The UAE helped consolidate Haftar’s position after the war, allegedly bankrolling the Wagner Group’s continued presence.

Emirati companies have also engaged in reconstruction and other activities in Haftar-controlled eastern Libya. Ankara and Abu Dhabi have made economic encroachments into each other’s spheres while attempting to extend their influence over key personalities therein. In addition, Turkish energy companies are exploring investments in eastern oilfields through Haftar’s son Saddam, while the UAE is scoping out roles in the new free trade zones that are being developed under Dbeibah.

The paradigm of the post-normalization intrigue where all benefit, but some more than others, was illustrated by Abu Dhabi brokering a deal between Dbeibah and Haftar, ending the latter’s long-term oil blockade. Crucially, the deal involved appointing the former central bank governor Farhat Bengdara as the new chairman of Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC)16 who is closely connected to Abu Dhabi, allegedly even holding Emirati citizenship.

Whilst all but the Libyans themselves benefited from the increased capital flows following the resumption of oil sales, the UAE now dominates Libya’s key asset. Unlike the UAE, Egypt has pursued a more confrontational policy with Türkiye, despite the ongoing détente between Ankara and Cairo. Initially, Egypt also exploited Dbeibah’s business-diplomacy to great profit. However, Cairo quickly turned on Dbeibah, and in 2022 spent considerable time trying to replace him with a new prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed through Egypt’s main proxy, Libya’s parliamentary speaker.

Ankara was wary of Egypt’s strategy, which they considered overly entitled given Cairo lost the war for Tripoli, yet it retained control of Libya’s legislature and was now actively trying to capture its judiciary and executive. So, when Bashagha attacked Tripoli after failing to politically seize power, Türkiye decisively intervened to end the fighting and tried to stabilize the situation.

This friction between Egypt and Türkiye over Libya hampered their reconciliation process. Despite continuous failure, Cairo doubled down on their Libya position, publicly refusing to recognize Tripoli’s government at the Arab League22 and trying to diplomatically isolate them. One of Cairo’s alleged three conditions for full normalization with Ankara was to end Türkiye’s military presence in Libya.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 triggered geopolitical shockwaves that arguably heightened the precariousness of the normalization and Libyan stability. First, the West’s absorption in the conflict and its support for Ukraine left other foreign policy issues unattended, allowing Libya’s transition to drift and be delegated to regional actors.

Consequently, Libya’s hopes of resurrecting the failed elections of 2021 received a major blow the year after as Egypt took control of the process, refocusing the transition from elections to Egypt’s bid to reshuffle Libya’s government. Today, the shifting focus to combatting Russian operations globally has led to senior U.S. officials reaching out to Haftar and a Libya policy that centers on constructing a new joint military body to expel the Wagner Group from Libya, rather than focusing on Libyan elections. The economic shockwaves of the invasion of Ukraine that impacted already fragile economies like Egypt and Türkiye, likely catalyzed more direct maneuvers for Libyan assets.

This aligns with Egypt’s shift from working with Dbeibah to trying to replace him. Although Libya accounts for roughly just 1% of the global oil market as of 2022, the oil price spike and urgency to compensate for Russian sanctions elevated Libya’s value and led the UAE to seize the NOC by lifting the oil blockade.

The Abu Dhabi deal, which added roughly 850,000 barrels per day to the global markets,28 was likely facilitated by Biden’s failed attempt to persuade Saudi Arabia to increase production by 600,000 barrels per day. Without the desperate need for additional oil in the market, the initial move to replace the NOC chair would have faced stiffer resistance, and the division of Libya’s oil revenues among its conquerors would have received greater scrutiny. Ultimately, the inflated oil revenues that do not benefit ordinary Libyans, together with price inflation and ongoing liquidity problems have caused the quality of life in Libya to drop rapidly.


If, as the cliché goes, war is simply politics by other means, then Libya’s case study demonstrates that the ongoing normalization in the MENA region is simply war by other means. Whether the more sophisticated Türkiye-UAE dynamic, involving consolidation alongside political moves for key assets or influence in rival territories, or the cruder Egyptian challenge to Turkish positions, the underlying antagonistic and competitive dynamic persists, leaving numerous possibilities for it to reignite into a hot proxy conflict.

Moreover, the entire competition is built upon the exploitation of Libya’s weakness. Following over a decade of state failure, dilapidation, and numerous failed international attempts to drive political progress, Libyan patience is wearing thin. The longer this venal abusive mode of politics persists, the more likely that a mass disruptive event will occur (such as in 2011), undermining the entire basis of normalization in Libya and other states where regional powers compete.


Tarek Megerisi is a senior policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His work mainly addresses how European policymaking toward the Maghreb and Mediterranean regions can become more strategic, harmonious, and effective— with a long-term focus on Libya. He has worked on a range of issues, including post-conflict stabilization, development and democratization, Libya’s domestic and international political processes, economic reform in Tunisia, and the eastern Mediterranean disputes.


SOURCE: The Middle East’s Fragile Reset: Actors, Battlegrounds, And (Dis)Order, Dossier, November 2023

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