Outside interference is fuelling discord in Libya

Outside interference is fuelling discord in Libya
Comment: While Gaddafi built a reputation for getting involved in other countries' business, Libya is now on the receiving end of foreign powers taking an interest, writes Guma El-Gamaty.
7 min read
10 Mar, 2017
UN envoy Martin Kobler speaks to detained migrants in Tripoli [AFP]

Libya under Muammar Gaddafi (1969-2011) was well known for interfering in the affairs of other countries around the globe.

Driven by his desire to propagate his own populist socialist ideology based on his notorious Green Book and his "Third International Theory", Gaddafi directly aided various rebel groups and regime change attempts in many Arab, African, Asian and Latin American countries.

It is well documented that "Gaddafi was an individual that was highly active in the affairs of other states, and would often offer policy recommendations that some found 'bizarre'".

Considering this legacy of Libya's interference, it is ironic that almost immediately after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya became a territory in an international proxy war.

Countries, including Arab nations, who were quick to support the Libyan revolution in 2011 have since been jockeying for influence in shaping the new Libya. They have been directly sponsoring and aiding individuals and groups that have become their proxies in the ongoing Libyan conflict.

What was seen by Libyans as "positive" intervention in 2011 has since evolved into a divisive "negative" interference, fuelling antagonism and conflict within a relatively homogeneous Libyan population.  

Libyans themselves undeniably bear part of the responsibility for this, due to their inability to resolve their differences peacefully through national reconciliation and consensus.

Nevertheless, outside interference in Libya has been largely responsible for the continued conflict and discord. Countries such as Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey, France and Russia have all been accused of providing logistical support for one competing side or another in the ongoing internal Libyan conflict.

Other countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, the UK and the US - who have also been involved closely with Libya - have been perceived as having a more balanced approach, where they do not favour or support one side.

Out of all the Arab competing players in Libya, "no other Arab country plays as powerful a role in Libya as Egypt". Driven by a fear that Islamists, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, may gain a significant share of power in a potentially very rich neighbouring Libya, Egypt has put its weight and full support behind anti-Islamist General Haftar in the east of Libya.

The support has been political and military, where Egypt has supplied arms, training, and intelligence, even waging airstrikes against Haftar's opponents inside Libya. Egypt fears that the Brotherhood's Libyan branch, if it gains power and access to Libya's wealth, may potentially provide support for the Brotherhood in Egypt, directly undermining the Sisi regime.

The relationship between Haftar and Egypt therefore "is not just defined by significant arms deliveries but also by a shared political project" to defeat a common enemy at any cost. 

The United Arab Emirates, which was generally supportive of the Libyan uprising in 2011, has also been heavily involved in the Libyan conflict since. The UAE seems to have a variety of motives for interfering in Libya, although one motive is similar to that of Egypt, in that it sees the Islamists' rise to power as a potential threat - as they could support the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE, thus potentially undermining the ruling family's control.

The UAE, along with Egypt, went as far as waging air bombings of targets around Tripoli in August 2014 when Libya Dawn forces were fighting militias aligned with Haftar.

The UAE also sees a need to counter the alleged support of Turkey and Qatar for Islamists and their allies in the west of Libya; Turkey, for ideological reasons, has made no secret of this political support. Qatar, on the other hand, has offered political and financial support to both Islamists and their ideological opponents.

Libya has effectively become a battleground for influence

A well-known Libyan figure, Mahmoud Shammam - perceived to be a secularist - had until recently enjoyed huge Qatari financial backing for his media organisations, including a television station which broadcast from Doha.

Libya has effectively become a battleground for influence, through the rivalry of competing Gulf states. Leaders of the UAE see the rise of the allegedly Turkish and Qatari-backed Islamist groups in Libya as a threat and "an unsettling development, due to the potential implications for the UAE's long term political and economic order".

The economic implications reflect another underlying motive, in that the UAE sees a stable democratic Libya as a potential competitor to its own model of being an international business hub, attracting global companies and investments.

Libya certainly has many competitive advantages over the UAE: a strategic location with close proximity to Europe, a moderate climate, vast natural resources - and it is also a very large country with a small population of just over six million people.

Just as Dubai effectively took over from Hong Kong as the main business and transit trade hub of the region, Libya could potentially replace Dubai - especially with its geographical location in North Africa being a very convenient gate to the whole of the African continent.

A stable Libya could potentially offer transit trading facilities rivalling and exceeding Jabel Ali in Dubai. Libya could become a large new financial centre with free trading zones in North Africa, hence attracting international companies to set up operations and move away from the UAE.

Sudan, one of Libya's neighbours, had many scores to settle with Gaddafi who undermined regimes in Khartoum from the early 1980s. Sudan was quick to support the Libyan uprising in 2011 by providing not just medical aid but also weapons and ammunitions.

Due to its Islamist-leaning tendencies, many believe the Sudan government is still offering military support to Islamist groups in the west of Libya; meanwhile Sudanese opposition rebels from the Darfur region are fighting as mercenaries with Haftar in the east of Libya. Despite this, Sudan's involvement in Libya is believed to be limited and less significant, at least compared with other neighbours and Arab states.

France admitted last July that three of its soldiers died in military action near Benghazi in the east of Libya while helping Haftar in his war. This official revelation clearly exposed a contradiction between France's declared policy of not taking sides through supporting national dialogue and its real actions on the ground.

France's interests in Libya are well known, as it historically administered the southern region of Fezzan, adjacent to the French former colonies of Chad and Niger. Fezzan is believed to be potentially rich in reserves of oil, gas and minerals including uranium. 

Russia has also sent out strong signals that it is willing to enter into a strategic cooperation with Haftar in the east of Libya, potentially supporting him militarily with a supply of arms and training. These signals prompted British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to warn Russia against interfering in Libya: "We don't need the bear sticking his paws in".

But only last week, Russia invited Fayez Serraj, the head of the UN-recognised Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, to visit Moscow. He was accompanied by a large delegation and reportedly discussed lucrative business contracts in oil and gas, transport and military co-operation.

This indicates that Russia is now taking a more long-term unbiased strategy in Libya.

The two other important neighbours of Libya to the west, Algeria and Tunisia, have genuine security fears

The two other important neighbours of Libya to the west, Algeria and Tunisia, have genuine security fears concerning the possible flow of arms and terrorist groups from Libya through their shared borders.

However, neither Algeria nor Tunisia have "built a network of proxies in the country like other Arab or regional powers". In fact, both countries have indicated recently that they are working on a joint initiative to bring all sides of the Libyan conflict together, to reach an agreement on a political solution to end the ongoing discord.

Ironically, while most of the countries engaged with Libya have declared their support for the UN-sponsored dialogue and the agreement signed in Morocco on 17 December 2015, they also continue to support their allies and proxies on both sides of the conflict.

Hence, their actions continue to fuel and prolong the conflict and suffering in Libya. It is hoped that some of these interfering countries could pursue a different strategy, by using their leverage on the competing groups, to persuade them to heal the divisions and agree upon a compromise, allowing the Libyans to achieve a political accord and consequently end the ongoing discord.

Guma El-Gamaty is a Libyan academic and politician who heads the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the UN-backed Libyan political dialogue process. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Guma_el_gamaty

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab