Regional dimensions to the Libyan conflict

Published in North Africa

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Air strikesaimed at the Libya Dawn militia in recent months could further escalate and regionalise the conflict in Libya. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely reported as having launched the air strikes, but the bombings seem to be part of increasing intervention in Libya by various regional powers in spite of their calls for non-intervention. If allowed to continue, the involvement of the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, in pursuit of their own interests, could provoke a full-scale civil war in Libya, and prevent Libyans from finding political solutions to the current impasse.

Political fallout from Gaddafi’s ousting

NATO’s ousting of the Gaddafi regime had many implications. Four key issues continue to impact on the region. First, thousands of armed Tuareg fighters, previously employed by Gaddafi, have caused instability across the Sahel. In 2012, northern Mali was overrun by Tuareg rebelling against the discrimination meted out to them by the Malian government. The fact that some Tuareg groups, such as Ansar Dine, subscribe to a radical ideology was used to sanction a French-led intervention. While this forced a Tuareg retreat, it did not deal with the underlying problem; conflict could flare up again.

Second, the new Libyan regime’s inability to secure its southern and western borders means Libya has become a hub for arms smuggling to and from areas as far afield as Lebanon and Syria.

Third, gridlock within Libya’s parliamentary body, the Libyan General National Congress (GNC), led to the formation of extra-governmental organisations. Several of these, such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), are radically militant, and hold no truck with democracy.

Fourth, the Gaddafi regime kept its security forces weak, and the new state has so far been unable to retrain or re-equip its forces. Instead, various militia groups have stepped into the vacuum. Some operate within the Ministry of Defence, but others are funded by various regional states and act as proxies in furthering their funders’ interests. Reportedly numbering over 250 000 fighters, these militias have been able to force the GNC’s hand at times. For example, in May 2013, the GNC and other state institutions were besieged and forced to enact a ‘political isolation law’, resulting in several parliamentarians being forced out of office for supporting the former regime. And in October 2013, the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnappedby militia, although he was released the same day.

Libya and Egypt

The ousting of Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, caused significant consternation among militants in Libya, including the ASL, which had reportedly smuggled arms from Libya to militant Egyptians in the Sinai, where Egyptian soldiers and checkpoints are under attack. While the Libyan government has remained neutral about upheavals in Egypt, Libyan parties such as the Islamist Justice and Construction Party (JCP) condemned the coup. This worried the post-Morsi regime.

Further Libya’s vast oil resources, which are located close to the Egyptian border in the east, have been touted as a means of solving Egypt’s current energy crisis. This was all the more achievable in light of the secessionist tendencies of many tribes residing in Eastern regions. Forces comprising the Petroleum Facilities’ Guards (PFG) under the command of Ibrahim Jathran had actively halted oil exports causing losses of over thirty-five billion dollars of government revenue, and a Barqa political office to agitate for more autonomy in the East/Cyrenaica was established.

Thus in an effort to secure his country’s oil interests, Egyptian general, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, warned against the dangers from Libya in his first televised speech after his presidential nomination. In a later interview he called for western involvement in Libya under the guise of acting against terrorism. Egyptian officials and media have also touted the notion of a rebel ‘Free Egyptian Army in Libya’, possibly to pave the way for future Egyptian incursions into Libya.

The rise of Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar has been good for Egypt. Like Sisi, Haftar couches his operations in terms of counter-terrorism, and actively seeks Egyptian assistance in his fight against Islamists. In numerous statements he has reiterated his support for Sisi, and called on Egypt to deal with issues related to the Libyan-Egyptian border as it sees fit. He even welcomed Egyptian air strikes in Libyan territory.

Egypt has partially obliged. Egyptian intelligence assisted Haftar – holding a meeting in July2014 to discuss ways of reversingHaftar’s lack of support in Tripoli and Benghazi. Egypt also encouraged other states to strengthen Haftar. Sisi met Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to discuss joint ‘counter-terrorism’ measures, and said Egypt’s forces should be able to reach Algeria in ‘just three days’ - crossing Libya.

Meanwhile, Egypt has closed its Libyan border. Haftar acknowledged that Sisi had offered to send troops to protect the Red Valley and Dak regions, where most of Libya’s oil is located. While this may have simply been an attempt to elicit further Egyptian support, Egypt’s oil shortages do make this a real possibility.

However, Egypt’s troops are not in Libya yet, and this seems unlikely to change soon with Egypt’s military resources already stretched by responding to rebel groups in the Sinai. The situation in Libya is very fluid, and Egyptian forces will probably only be dispatched if Haftar has a good chance of victory. For now, Egypt’s assistance to Haftar will remain limited to intelligence sharing plus diplomatic and logistical support.

The role of other powers

Saudi Arabia and the UAE

The popular uprisings in the Middle East–North Africa region in 2011 reconfigured the regional power balance: with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states losing influence, the so-called ‘moderate axis’ was weakened, and its backbone, Egypt, bent.

The leaders of the Gulf kingdoms base their legitimacy on their Islamic credentials, and on the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Thus the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the JCP in Libya and Ennahda in Tunisia – which advocate an Islamic form of democracy – undermines the hegemony of these kings.

To prevent Islamist groups from spreading further, the Gulf states adopted various measures. They helped depose Morsi, backing the Egyptian military diplomatically and financially to the tune of overUS$20 billion, and supporting the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. They urged foreign non-Arab powers not to interfere, and encouraged the Egyptian military to reject US/EU-brokered negotiations that might have led to a reconciliation between the regime and the Brotherhood. In Tunisia, the UAE has continually been funding the opposition Nidaa Tounes movement, thus helping to oust the Ennahda-led government. Further, when Qatar refused to abide by the categorisation, in March 2014, of the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist’ organisation by certain Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their diplomatic representatives from Qatar. Another measure became manifest on the sidelines of a Mediterranean foreign ministers meeting in Paris in June 2014, when the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammad Zayed reportedly met Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and offered to financially back an Israeli invasion of Gaza if Hamas could be oustedd in the process. Lieberman then publically disagreed with Netanyahu’s refusal to send troops into Gaza, thus ending the alliance between Israel’s Likud and Yisreal Beiteinu parties.

The success of these measures encouraged the Gulf states, led by the UAE, to try to influence developments in Libya by maintaining relations with various Libyan opposition figures residing in the UAE. Mahmoud Jibril, Aref Nayed, and Abdel Majid Mlegta are key in this regard. Jibril heads the National Forces Alliance (Libya’s largest political party by parliamentary seats) and was the de facto prime minister during the 2011 uprising. Mlegta is one of his closest associates and brother to Othman Mlegta, who is head of one of Libya’s militia groups, the al-Qaqa brigade. Nayed is Libya’s ambassador to the UAE, and a staunch critic of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Haftar’s coup attempt in February 2014 was funded by the UAE through these figures. Following Libya’s low-key response to Haftar’s coup attempt, the UAE began funding his ‘Operation Dignity’ (launched in May 2014) to the tune of over US$800 million. In addition, the al-Qaqa and al-Suaiq brigades use armoured personnel carriers and ammunition manufactured in and procured from the UAE. (It is interesting to note that with Libya awash with weapons, the UAE promotes its interests there by funding the purchase of ammunition and paying soldiers’ salaries, rather than by supplying them with new arms. It is also noteworthy that Libya’s political isolation law passed in May 2013, and cutbacks in military posts and made former politicians and soldiers (such as Jibril) susceptible to the UAE’s agenda.)

Haftar’s claiming responsibility for the August air strikes on Tripoli was disingenuous, and was an attempt to create panic among rival militia groups which control the area around the airport. The efficiency and timing of the attack were far too sophisticated for Libya’s air force, now controlled by Haftar, which comprises less than a dozen poorly-equipped craft. The UAE, on the other hand, has the region’s best-equipped air force (excluding Israel). With over sixty F-16 Block 60 fighter planes, French Mirages, various soviet craft, well-trained pilots, and a few Airbus 330 refuelling jets, the UAE has the capacity to dominate the skies over a wide area.

Qatar

To enhance its diplomatic status, and implement a foreign policy independent of Saudi Arabia, Qatar has provided asylum to dissidents from, and funded political groups in, post-uprising MENA states. For example, Hamas’s politburo head Khaled Meshaal now lives in Qatar, which also partly funds and maintains close relations with the Egyptian and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, Qatar provides military and financial support to militia groups in Libya, especially Libya Dawn, and maintains close relations with the JCP. The 2013 UNSC report on Libya also accused Qatar of supplying arms to various groups without notifying the UN.

Algeria

Following reports that Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar was in Libya, and fearing militant infiltration, the Bouteflika regime deployed over 3 500 Algerian paratroopers and 1 500 logistics personnel to Libya’s western regions. Together with US and French forces, the Algerians have secured water and electricity infrastructure in this region, and created a security corridor. The aim is to extend this corridor to Sabha and possibly the city of Nalut. To this end, the Algerian regime has met with Sisi’s government. Algeria and Egypt seem to be implementing a pincer-type operation to stem the growth of militant groups.

Nevertheless, Algeria’s position on Libya is generally more neutral and nuanced. Algeria’s political system has incorporated Islamists, and its government is therefore less threatened by Islamist participation in politics. Thus, while Bouteflika would probably like Haftar to be victorious, he is mindful of the influence Sisi might gain if Libya Dawn were destroyed.

What Algeria seeks above all is regional stability, and Bouteflika can be expected to try to ensure this. Before Gaddafi was overthrown, Algeria was one of the last countries to recognise the National Transitional Council (NTC), preferring to side with and support the Gaddafi regime until the very end. Bouteflika’s regime denies that its forces are in Libya, but its deployment of forces in the past (in Egypt in 1973, Amgala in 1976, and Mali in 2012) illustrates that Algeria is willing to participate in conflicts beyond its borders no matter what its official policy might be.

Conclusion

If left unchecked, the actions of the UAE and Egypt will prolong Libya’s crisis. UNSC Resolution 2174, adopted in August 2014, seeks to tighten the Libyan arms embargo and sanction militia forces. Its implementation will be the key to containing further conflict. Failure to act against the activities of the UAE and Egypt could encourage them to expand their operations. The recent convening of the Libyan House of Representatives after the June election may further complicate matters. The poor performances by Islamists – who gained only around thirty of the 200 available seats – coupled with the institution’s apparent preference for the Zintan militia resulted in the GNC being reconstituted. This led to the existence of two centres of power. The House of Representatives is recognized by the international community while the GNC still has support on the ground. The international community thus needs to be extremely wary of militarily intervening, especially if that means backing certain militia over others. France’s recent calls for such need to be opposed –it was the French advocated NATO intervention which led to the current situation, a different response needs to be conceptualised at this juncture.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:08

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