Canan Atilgan / Veronika Ertl / Simon Engelkes

Egypt is similarly affected.

The loss of economic advantages for Cairo from its neighbour has further exacerbated the country’s economic plight. At 770 million euros at the end of 2014, bilateral trade therefore represented only a fraction of the 2.1 billion euros revenue prior to the Libyan revolution. In 2015, there was an estimated decline in Egyptian exports to Libya of 75 per cent.

Furthermore, the situation for Egyptian migrant workers in Libya is uncertain. Repeated kidnappings of Egyptians and the execution of Coptic Christians by IS have forced many to flee. Before 2011, 1.5 to 2 million Egyptian migrant workers in Libya sent around 28 million euros back to their homeland each year. In 2015, there were only 750,000 migrant workers remaining. A drop in these return remittances harbours the potential for social unrest and further destabilisation in Egypt.

The Role of Regional and International Actors

In addition to the wide-ranging challenges that Libya is facing through political and economic collapse, regional and international actors have also taken on an increasingly active role in the conflict in terms of mediation talks about a peace process, but also through military and political support to the individual warring factions.

Although almost all states involved have pledged themselves rhetorically to the “Libyan Political Agreement” and the unity government, in many cases it is evident that they are promoting their own interests, thereby impeding the peace process. Just as in other countries in the region, the U.S. policy of the Trump administration is still unclear with regard to Libya. Based on the statements made by the President and his

advisors, U.S. commitment is expected to be restricted to supporting the fight against terrorism and, concomitant with this, a convergence with Haftar, who presents himself as the leader of the war against Islamist and terrorist factions. The recent meeting between Haftar, the US ambassador and the US-AFRICOM commander in July 2017, appears to confirm these expectations and takes place only one day after the announcement that a new diplomatic and military US strategy for Libya is due to be finalised before long.

Meanwhile, in the absence of a clear U.S. policy, other international actors have established themselves as major players and, in doing so, have had a decisive influence on the political and military power relations. With their support for Haftar, Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have facilitated his military successes and territorial expansion. For Egypt and the Emirates in particular, the ideological component plays a central role here: the two governments see the GNA as linked with Islamist-motivated groups and have grave concerns about this playing a stronger role in Libya’s future political system.

Haftar’s decision to reject and fight against Islamist-motivated factions is thus an appropriate fit with both countries’ priorities. In the case of Egypt, its geographical proximity and shared border also play a key role, since Egypt sees itself as having a central part in the shaping of Libya’s future due to its security concerns and close economic ties.

From the perspective of el-Sisi, too, it is important to prevent a government coming to power that is affiliated with Islamist factions. Russia has established itself as a further actor in Libya filling the vacuum left by the U.S.; its role has grown in particular over the course of the last year. While Russia nominally supports the internationally recognised unity government, deepened contacts with Haftar and the HoR in the east have become increasingly evident.

Haftar has visited Moscow a number of times to campaign for the weapons embargo on Libya to be lifted and to solicit support in the fight against Islamist factions in the east of the country. A UN weapons embargo, in place since 2011, prohibits the export of weapons to Libya, with the exception of the channels controlled by the GNA. However, the visit by Haftar at the start of the year to the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, fuelled rumours of arms treaties being transacted and plans for the establishment of a Russian marine base near Benghazi.

According to international media reports, Russian military advisors and technical personnel are located in Libya. For many observers there is no mistaking that Haftar could secure not only the backing of Egypt but also of Russia. Without this, shifting the balance of power in Libya in his favour would be out of the question.

In this conflict situation, the EU has limited room for manoeuvre in Libya. The EU is in fact the greatest advocate of the LPA, yet its activities are focused for the most part on regulating the flow of refugees in the Central Mediterranean. This prioritisation by the EU is evident not only through its allocation of significant financial resources to migrant-related projects in Libya via the EU Emergency Trust Fund, but especially through the EU NAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, which began in June 2015.

The goal of the operation is to disrupt the business model of trafficking networks and people smuggling rings in the Central Mediterranean area and, in doing so, to reduce the migration flows heading towards Europe. After the second extension until the end of 2018 and a renewal of its mandate, the operation now also includes training the Libyan coast guard, monitoring the waters to suppress illegal oil exports from the country, as well as helping to implement the UN weapons embargo in the waters off the coast of Libya.

While positive results were reported pertaining to saving human lives and capturing smugglers, one current study shows that the aspired destruction of the smuggler networks’ business model has not yet been achieved. Thus, in 2016, there was again a surge of 18 per cent recorded in irregular migration to Europe via the Central Mediterranean route compared to the previous year’s figure; and the first six months of 2017 saw another rise of 19 per cent.

The second EU mission in Libya, the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM), provides training and advice with the aim of increasing the capacity of the Libyan authorities to secure the borders, and developing and implementing a strategy for integrated border management in the longer term. The mission is, however, severely restricted by the security situation and the limited room for manoeuvre of the GNA. With regard to migration, the southern member states, Italy in particular, feel abandoned by the rest of the EU countries. In reaction to repeated warnings of overload, in early July the EU Commission adopted an action plan to support Italy for greater solidarity in handling the refugee problem in the Central Mediterranean.

Furthermore, a stronger role for the EU seems to be obstructed by discrepancies between its member countries and partially unclear strategies for supporting the peace process. Due to Italy’s key role in the migration issue, but also to the historical and commercial links between the two countries, the former colonial power is the leading actor of European diplomacy in Libya. Efforts to curtail migration flows by means of agreements with Libyan stakeholders have proven to be problematic, however. For instance, an agreement made in February 2017 between Italy and the GNA was annulled by a Libyan court. In parallel to this, Italy is conducting talks with tribes from the south of the country to try to find allies for better control of the southern border regions.

The most recent meeting of al-Sarraj and Haftar under the direction of Emmanuel Macron was accordingly met with disapproval in Italy, since the country feels that its diplomatic role is at risk. So far, the EU has not been successful in positioning itself as a strong geopolitical actor in Libya. The EU has so far been unsuccessful in positioning itself as a strong geopolitical actor in Libya. In fact, some European countries are following different goals because of their disparate priorities.

This is most evident in the dealings with General Haftar. Since the start of 2016, France has supported Haftar’s LNA by passing on intelligence information in the fight against Islamist factions in Benghazi. Other countries, too, increasingly see Haftar as a strategic component of a political solution. This dynamic ultimately culminated in a meeting between al-Sarraj and Haftar in July 2017, initiated by Macron. The resulting agreement implies the admission that the GNA has failed and that Libya’s political future is only conceivable with Haftar in a key role.


Dr. Canan Atilgan is Head of the Regional Programme for Political Dialogue Southern Mediterranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung based in Tunis, Tunisia.

Veronika Ertl is Research Associate at the Regional Programme for Political Dialogue Southern Mediterranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung based in Tunis, Tunisia.

Simon Engelkes is Project Coordinator at the Regional Programme for Political Dialogue Southern Mediterranean of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung based in Tunis, Tunisia.


Related Articles