Research note originally commissioned November 2015
The conflict in Libya reflects a wider conflict of values taking place across the Middle East, with the proponents of these values supporting the warring sides in the Libyan conflict. The governments of Qatar, and to an extent Turkey, can be seen as promoting Islamist politics and indeed they have supported Libya’s Tripoli-based Islamist government. The UAE and Egypt can be seen to be promoting an anti-Islamist politics stance, with Egypt’s government portraying itself as holding back Islamist chaos from engulfing North Africa. They support the Tobruk-based government in the east of Libya. Tensions between the countries have manifested themselves in a number of forms, including diplomatically, and can be said to be playing out in Libya. The US may this summer have brokered a deal between the UAE and Qatar to pave the way to peace in Libya but it is unclear whether their proxies would lay down arms.
The two parallel warring parliaments and governments in Libya reflect a conflict of narratives currently covering the Middle East. The internationally-recognized government in Tobruk in the east of the country could be said to represent a secular style of governance, the critics of which claim is a dead ringer for the nationalist, militaristic authoritarianism of the pre-Arab Spring ancien régimes of North Africa. The Tripoli-based government is a grouping of those who rejected the elections that brought the Tobruk government to power. It is broadly Islamist and could be said to be representative of Muslim Brotherhood-type politics, namely political Islamism, seen as a threat to progress by supporters of the competing narrative.
General Khalifa Haftar, once loyal to Ghadafi and later exiled, returned to Libya and launched Operation Dignity, a military operation to bring all of Libya under the control of the Tobruk government. His connections with Ghadafi do not help in wavering suspicions that he is a reactionary counter-revolutionary.
To garner support for his operation, Haftar has sought to sell his operation to the wider world as being anti-ISIS, painting his opponents in the Tripoli government as being radicals. This has unfortunately had the effect of forcing otherwise disparate elements together under the Operation Dawn coalition, which now includes both radical and more moderate Islamist militias. However, even Ansar al-Sharia, one of Libya’s longest-standing and most radical Islamist militias, is on the fence when it comes to ISIS. Operation Dawn is actively fighting ISIS in Darna. Two Abu Selim Martyrs Brigade fighters reportedly fled and being ordered killed by ISIS in Darna for refusing to swear loyalty to al-Baghdadi.
The Tobruk government has been receiving support from Qatar, which across the Muslim world has a tendency to put its weight behind political Islamists. The support has supposedly been delivered via Turkish and Sudanese intermediaries, countries with governments which also have sympathy for Islamist politics. The Tripoli government receives support from the UAE, seen as opposing Islamist politics, and from Egypt, where the ruling government under Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi came to power on the back of a coup d’état removing Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government.
Haftar, describing his faction’s relation with Egypt, plays on Arab nationalist (‘neo-Nasserian’) rhetoric, focusing on common ties. Egypt’s interventions in Libya in the form of airstrikes at the beginning of 2015 came within Sisi’s government’s narrative, which cites their actions as protecting Egypt and North Africa from chaos and radical Islamist takeover. Sisi recently called on David Cameron for his government to ‘finish the job’ the British intervention in Libya started. Sisi’s government may well be seeking to deflect attention away from domestic problems. After the airstrikes (which were in response for the murder of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya), Qatar withdrew its ambassador to Cairo in protest, despite support from the Gulf Cooperation Council for the strikes. The clash of values between Qatar and Egypt is seen to be behind Egypt’s arrest and long-term detention of several Al Jazeera journalists. Al Jazeera is a Qatari outlet and, while a respected journalistic body, receives accusations of promoting Qatar’s desired narrative.
The US this summer may have helped broker a deal between UAE and Qatar to pave the way for peace in Libya. While they seem to have agreed, it is unclear whether their proxies, Haftar in particular, would be willing to lay down arms.