The Libya Conundrum

Opinion Articles

What is happening in Libya? And how will Egypt react? Libya today has devolved into a violent political struggle between two major blocs: the internationally recognized, Tobruk-based parliament versus Tripoli’s parliament and administration. Over the last few months, hardliners on each side have become increasingly entrenched in a quest for power and control of the country’s key resources, at the expense of security and rule of law. The humanitarian consequences have been dire, with more than 400 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Food and medicine are in severely short supply. Egypt, historically Libya’s most influential neighbor, is rightly concerned.

First, some background on the atomization of Libya. Throughout 2013, Islamist factions within Libya’s elected parliament became dominant, damaging the opposing secularist bloc. In the eastern provinces, radical groups and common criminals continued a campaign of aggression, intimidation, and assassination of opponents, former officers, and the security forces. Against the backdrop of deteriorating security, General Khalifa Haftar attempted to unseat then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government, in February 2014. A former officer under Muammar Qaddafi, Haftar had defected in the 1980’s and returned to Libya after the 2011 revolution. Following his failed coup d’état, Haftar appointed himself the leader of the Libyan National Army and attacked Islamist formations in Benghazi. His purpose was to purge the city, without distinguishing between moderates and militants. In response, Islamists, collaborated with Misrata’s forces to stage a counterattack in Tripoli. Islamists occupied the capital and its environs. This forced the elected assembly into exile, to the eastern city of Tobruk, where they are under Haftar’s protection.

The space for negotiations between the two governments is shrinking. The United Nations, in intensive shuttle diplomacy led by Special Representative Bernardino Leon, is mediating between the warring factions in order to forge consensus around the need for a national unity government to bring Libya out of the current crisis. The challenge has been to reconcile two divergent narratives that frame the situation. On the one hand, the Tobruk parliament and Operation Dignity characterize the fight as one between secular, nationalist, pro-democracy forces against radical jihadists. On the other, the Tripoli-based Dawn supporters dub it a struggle between supporters of the February 17 revolution and counterrevolutionaries who wish to bring back elements of the former regime.

A fundamental factor in favor of UN mediation in the face of these obstacles is the international community’s generally cohesive stance behind Leon’s efforts—most importantly, arguing for the principle of non-intervention by foreign powers. The advantages of non-intervention are two-fold: it would prevent each faction in Libya’s domestic struggle from gaining military and economic support from external actors; and thus empower moderate elements and create an environment more conducive for negotiations.

Yet the opposite is happening in Libya. First, Qatar and Turkey have and are providing arms and equipment to the Tripoli-based faction. Second, it has become evident—as well as openly announced by members of the Dignity operation—that Egypt is heavily involved in assisting efforts against Islamists in both the east and, as continuous airstrikes indicate, in the west. Libya is thus becoming a proxy for a larger regional struggle that pits anti-Islamist coalitions (led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) against the presumed supporters of Islamists (Turkey and Qatar). Such international support for the factions undermines UN mediation efforts. In particular, the backing that Egypt provides to General Haftar and Operation Dignity empowers those forces that want to continue the armed struggle until the whole country is “liberated” from those who understand that there is no military solution to the crisis, rather only a negotiated one.

Since the collapse of order in Libya, Egypt has been the most affected by the instability. The power vacuum allows extremist elements to infiltrate Egyptian territory and carry out attacks against security forces. The temptation then is very high for the Egyptian state to intervene directly in Libya and secure at least a buffer zone, but also possibly exert full control over as much of Libya’s eastern territory as feasible. An open intervention by Egypt’s military, however, would not only hinder a peaceful settlement in Libya, but also negatively affect Egypt’s interests. It would entrench the polarization of Libyan forces on the ground, further diminishing prospects for a political solution, and entangle Egypt in a war against forces that will gain wider support as the local population shifts from anti-Islamist sentiments to animosity toward a foreign invader.

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