Losing Libya

Gaddafi billboard. Derj, 2009.

Libya has almost vanished from Western news. Every so often you’ll catch a report, or see an article. It is only referred to as a total disaster, but there is little real effort to account for the crisis. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get someone like Simon Jenkins digging into the West, but not nearly often enough.

The Syrian Civil War is often analysed in terms of the roles played by international powers. This is quite correct. In every civil war, the country in question becomes a battlefield between proxy forces, and sometimes even occupying armies.

For instance, the Lebanese civil war propelled forward by the competing interests of Israel, Syria and Iraq. It’s not a coincidence that the civil war ended when Saddam Hussein moved to annex Kuwait.

With Syria, it is common knowledge that the Russians back Assad, but it is less commonly known that the Turks support Islamic State. But this analysis is standard. Except with Libya, we don’t hear much about the foreign interests at all. The mainstream prefers to focus on the travails of the UN-backed government and the rise of Islamic State in Libya. This is clearly about manufacturing consent.

If you depend on the BBC, you won’t have heard that the United Arab Emirates and Egypt back the Council of Deputies; while Qatar and Turkey supports the GNC in Tripoli. Even Russia and Sudan have taken sides in the conflict. Meanwhile, the United States and its European allies Britain, France and Italy are considering intervening in Libya with the aim of stamping out Islamic State militants. But the West needs a government to legitimate its operations.

Politics by Other Means

So, we find ourselves back at square one. We are told Libya is in turmoil, nefarious forces are on the march and military power holds the answer. Yet the Western powers cannot simply wage a new war, they need a pretext and they need sympathetic leaders in Libya. The problem is that the country has been torn apart by a power vacuum.

The Libyan Civil War has raged since the summer of 2014, when the country ceased to have one government. As part of Operation Dignity, General Khalifa Haftar moved to overthrow the General National Congress, which was trying to extend its mandate beyond the ballot box. That same summer, the Council of Deputies was elected and claimed for itself the authority to govern the state. However, just 18% of voters took part in the elections.


So the GNC rejected the election and soon reconvened. It should be noted that the GNC was elected in 2012 with 61% of the electorate turning out to take part. The displacement of the GNC and the election of a new parliament furthered the disintegration of central institutions. In the end, the centres of power were left in a state of disarray. Islamist militias, who backed the GNC, moved to force the Council of Deputies out of Tripoli.

The key moment being the battle for Tripoli airport in July and August of 2014. Islamists from Misrata (now known as Libya Dawn) duked it out with the Zintani Brigades, who were aligned with General Khalifa Haftar. Eventually, the Zintani militiamen were defeated and the airport was captured. What was lost on many observers at the time was the role of foreign support here. The Misratan militia were supported by Qatar, while the group from Zintan were backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Although the Arab Gulf regimes are over Syria and Yemen, the monarchies are split over Egypt and Libya. The Emirati strategy has been to try and counter the Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, Qatar has sponsored Islamist movements in a bid to expand its own influence. Meanwhile, Saudi foreign policy has been defined (or perhaps, ill-defined) by a mixture of the two. But the Gulf powers have failed to secure their regional aims.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, and particularly Qatar, played a large role in trying to control the Libyan uprising given the country’s oil wealth. Traditionally Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have sought to externalise the threats to their own rule. Much like Assad in Syria, Colonel Gaddafi presented an alternative to the GCC model. So Qatar and the UAE moved quickly to support the rebel forces in 2011.

During this same period, the NATO bombing campaign breached the bounds of the UN mandate and, ultimately, killed at least 25,000 people – if we believe Libyan rebel leaders – and 50,000 wounded. Others suggested the figure could be even higher. Eritrea-based journalist Thomas Mountain calculated a death toll of 60,000. We do know that NATO dropped 30,000 bombs on Libya in a little over six months. This was the beginning, not the end.

Dual Power

It is no wonder that President Obama looks back on the adventure as his “worst mistake”. NATO carried out the bombing raids, but there was no European leadership on the future of Libya. There was no impetus for the kind of social and economic planning needed to construct institutions and repair the damage done by the war. No Marshall Plan was on the horizon. It was a neoliberal war, in other words.

The case of Libya confirms the incompetence and malice of Western leaders. But it also undoes our assumptions about politics. Sovereignty is revealed to be conditional, not total or absolute. In the absence of unity, nothing prevails. The country remains paralysed by around 2,000 militias, while the two parliaments squabble over the spoils, such as the Libyan sovereign wealth fund, and the media look for a side to pick.

For instance, the Council of Deputies was often described, in the Western media, as ‘internationally recognised’. Although it was recognised by world powers, the Tobruk parliament’s domestic mandate expired last year. The claims to legitimacy remains far more contested than the mainstream media would lead the public to believe. This is still the case as the UN tries to impose its own government on the country.

The UN-backed government now has control over several major ministries. The Government of National Accord (GNA) is meant to stand as a transitional unity government, yet it could not bring together either of the two parliaments. So the Western powers pushed for the GNA to assume its right to rule anyway. The cabinet was quickly rushed into the country from Tunisia. A series of towns were quick to align with the GNA, and the Tripoli parliament dissolved its own government.

There are multiple stakes here: Libya is a major route for refugees to reach the European mainland. If the EU can secure the Libyan coastline, as it is trying to secure the Turkish-Syrian border, it hopes it can end the flow of so-called ‘migrants’. The other obvious factor is oil, and production has collapsed as a result of the conflict. As such the civil war is not a problem for Europe, except insofar as the fighting may disrupt the international order.

The war isn’t over

The pace of events make it clear: the second intervention is coming, it’s just a matter of time. Of course, Britain, France and the US already have special forces active in Libya. Recently, the US made clear it is ‘open’ to arming the GNA in order to fight Islamic State. American forces have been especially active in trying to build up support for an offensive on IS. This process has been ongoing for months.


In the meantime, General Sisi has called on the West to stay out of Libya, instead proposing that the US throw its weight behind Haftar to wipe out the jihadis. Naturally, General Haftar and General Sisi recognise the authoritarian instincts they hold in common. This should not be surprising, the aims are to block Islamism and stifle the possibility of democracy. Not that these two are separable in Sisi’s mind.

The Libya Dawn coalition in western Libya includes the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. This being the same balance of forces that General Sisi extinguished in the 2013 putsch. Now the Egyptian military peers across the border, it sees an oil-rich country in disarray in terms of its own need to assert power at home. The Islamists are still out there. In short, the Sisi regime understands its interests in Libya in the same shape of its domestic battle.

As head of the Libyan National Army, General Haftar has taken the fight to the various Islamist factions in Benghazi. He comes out of the last glory days of Arab nationalism. But this is not to read Haftar as some harbinger for a new secular nationalism. He stands with Sisi and the Emirati royal families in trying to prevent the spread of Islamist movements in the region. It is the mass appeal of such movements which is the threat.

The New Game in Town

At first, Russia, Egypt and the Emirates were backing the Council of Deputies and General Haftar, though this may soon change. For the time being, Haftar can rely on Egyptian and Emirati support. He can always fall back on Russia as the US tries to make the GNA the new game in town. It’s plausible the Libyan National Army could seize the oil fields in the east and then issue its own demands. In any case, Haftar cannot be written-off.

By contrast, the prospects of the GNC look bleak. The Congress was backed by Qatar, Sudan and Turkey, but the Tripoli parliament can hardly pose as an alternative to the UN-backed government. So many of the MPs have defected. Qatar, Sudan and Turkey may well reconsider their support for Libya Dawn, but this does not mean the Islamist militias will vanish overnight. Awash with arms, the Libyan crisis is set to continue despite the efforts of the UN.

Although Libya was one of the major sites of the Arab revolts, the country has not been able to move into an era of democratic governance. Instead, we find Libya mired in a conflict, in which the balance of forces on all sides are opposed to democracy. But even as democracy is not on the cards, the forces unleashed by the Arab Awakening can’t simply be closed down by the shift of funding, oil fields and arms contracts.

Photograph courtesy of Carsten Ten Brink. Published under a Creative Commons license.