While the ongoing instability in Libya is sometimes used to critique the impact of the 2011 Arab Spring on the nation, a closer look into the situation shows us the uprisings did have a positive effect and that the current conflict there is being perpetuated by external actors. With the democratic elections that resulted from it, Libya is in fact a success story of the Arab Spring. The country overthrew an authoritarian ruler and has an internationally-recognized government in place, and it is outside regimes such as the ones in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Russia, France, and Jordan who have sustained the Libyan conflict by supporting Khalifa Haftar, a renegade military commander attempting to oust a legitimate authority. The recent offensive on the capital city of Tripoli and its Government of National Accord (GNA) – launched by Haftar in April of 2019 and backed by these various foreign forces – has further exacerbated the crisis in Libya, displacing and killing thousands of citizens in the process.
Historical Context for the Current Situation, 2011 Arab Spring – Present
The Arab Spring, a wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in the early 2010s which began in Tunisia, reached Libya in February of 2011. Anti-government protests against then-leader Muammar Gaddafi first emerged during that month in the city of Benghazi. Protesters called for Gaddafi to step down and for political prisoners in the country to be released. As the protests grew and spread to the capital city of Tripoli, Libyan government and security forces began opening fire on protesters and using lethal force to quell the demonstrations. The escalation of violence on behalf of authorities drew widespread condemnation and fractured the Gaddafi regime and its military support, leading to a number of high-profile resignations and deferrals which paved the way for a successful uprising.
International pressure for Gaddafi to step down increased and in March of 2011, the United Nations Security Council authorized a resolution to enforce a no-fly zone and protect Libyan civilians. To implement the resolution, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led coalition was established in order to weaken and disable Gaddafi’s air and ground forces, and prevent them from continuing to carry out attacks against civilians. Ultimately, the goal of NATO’s intervention was “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” and this is in fact what was achieved. Without this vital seven-month long campaign, Gaddafi would have been able to sustain his brutal and inhumane crackdown on the Libyan people.
During the course of the NATO operation, diplomatic efforts were made to resolve the crisis through the agreement of a ceasefire plan, but rebel leaders rejected the proposal since it did not make way for Gaddafi’s departure from Libya and pro-Gaddafi forces continued to launch attacks. Despite growing international isolation and opposition advances, Gaddafi was able to hold power in Tripoli until August of 2011 when rebel forces took control of strategic sites in the city and captured his headquarters, forcing him to go into hiding. By September of 2011, the National Transitional Council (NTC) was officially recognized by the UN General Assembly as the legitimate representative government of Libya, and Gaddafi was eventually killed by rebel forces in his hometown of Sirte the following month in October of 2011.
Following the overthrowing of the Gaddafi regime, the NTC became the de facto government of Libya for a period of ten months. It played a critical role of maintaining relative stability in the country during a fragile time of uncertainty in the lead up to the democratic elections of July 2012. Despite some regional rivalries spilling into armed assaults on a few of the polling places, the elections were largely a success, with the interim government announcing that 94% of the polling locations had been able to open normally and voter turnout was around 62%. For some context on how these figures relate to longstanding democratic countries, turnout in major U.S. elections normally falls below this within the 55%-60% range. In these 2012 Libyan elections, the National Forces Alliance – a coalition of over 40 smaller parties headed by Mahmoud Jibril – won 39 of the 80 seats assigned for political entities. The second-most number of seats went to the Justice and Construction Party, which took 17. Overall, independent observer groups from around the world praised the work of the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) in planning for and conducting a fair and transparent election. This is especially the case considering a multitude of factors such as the repression of political institutions under the Gaddafi regime, the country’s lack of experience holding truly free elections, and time constraints with the preparation for it. After the elections, the NTC handed power to the newly-filled General National Congress (GNC) in August of 2012, marking a major milestone as the first peaceful transition of power in Libya’s modern history.
The GNC became the governing authority in Libya for approximately two years. Towards the end of this period in late March of 2014, the GNC voted to replace itself with a new House of Representatives. The latter was elected through this process, however not all members of the GNC accepted the results, leading to renewed conflict. It was not until December of 2015 that delegates from Libya’s rival factions signed the Libyan Political Agreement – a United Nations-brokered power-sharing deal that established the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Under the agreement, executive authority is given to the GNA while legislative authority is given to the House of Representatives. The GNA initially received a vote of confidence from the House of Representatives in March of 2016, but the legislative body ended up voting against approving it that summer, leading to the ongoing dispute over governing Libya which still exists today.
The House of Representatives’ authoritative challenge to the internationally-recognized GNA since 2016 is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its leader, renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar. After multiple failed attempts to organize new Libyan elections in 2017 and 2018, progress was made in early 2019 with the planning of the Libyan National Conference, which was set to take place between April 14th and April 16th, 2019. The main aim of the conference was the recommendation of methods and dates for holding a new round of elections in 2019. However, in early April of 2019, less than two weeks before the meeting was to begin, Haftar announced the launch of a military offensive against the GNA in an effort to try and capture the capital city of Tripoli.
Since then, the crisis in Libya has intensified, as Tripoli and surrounding areas have often been subjected to indiscriminate LNA air attacks that have resulted in a major increase in civilian casualties. In fact, according to a recent study, Haftar’s LNA forces are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths in Libya since the beginning of their military offensive last year and well over half of the estimated casualties since 2012 are believed to have taken place in the mere 14-month period between the launch of the campaign and today. Throughout the course of this period, attempts at brokering a ceasefire and blocking foreign intervention have proven unsuccessful, with one of the latest developments being that representatives from the GNA and LNA have agreed to restart ceasefire talks. In the end, Haftar has been able to pose a serious threat to the GNA because of the backing of several foreign actors, who have helped him to perpetuate the conflict at the expense of the Libyan people.
Perpetuation of the Conflict by External Actors
The conflict in Libya has been complicated by the involvement of external actors, many of whom seek to benefit economically and politically. Over half a dozen states are meddling in Libya, each with their own justification for doing so. However, regardless of justification, it is indisputable that the entrance of foreign actors into Libya’s civil war has prolonged the conflict and led to more violence. Of the foreign powers active in Libya, it is Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey that are the primary actors. The secondary actors are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France. All of the aforementioned countries back Haftar’s LNA, with the exception of Turkey which supports the democratically-elected GNA.
Libya’s Primary External Actors
Egypt has played a fundamental role in destabilizing Libya through the backing of Khalifa Haftar. Motivated by a desire to stamp out all forms of political Islam, the Egyptian government led by Abdel Fateh el-Sisi has funneled money, weapons, and logistical support to Haftar’s Libyan National Army. Egypt views these political parties in the region as a threat to its national security. Going as far back as the 2014 campaign to capture Benghazi, Khalifa Haftar has been unwavering in his determination to completely eradicate these groups in Libya. This endeared him to an Egyptian government that only took power after overthrowing a democratically-elected administration themselves.
Egypt has also supported Haftar under the guise of national security, claiming that the warlord is committed to stamping out all forms of terrorism. Haftar has fostered an image of himself as a secularist fighting against extremism, although his forces include radical groups. Egypt’s intelligence agencies have increased their partnership with the Libyan National Army, and Egypt joined Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in vocally supporting Haftar’s campaign to take Tripoli. Additionally, Egypt has violated United Nations sanctions by illegally taking delivery of weapons before shipping them to Haftar’s strongholds in eastern Libya.
Egypt has previously recognized the Government of National Accord as Libya’s lone legitimate government, but its actions have frequently contradicted this stance. Most recently, the Cairo Declaration has epitomized Egypt’s hypocrisy on the issue of Libya by essentially designating Haftar’s forces as the lone security apparatus in the country, despite their recent military defeats. Egypt is also willing to turn a blind eye to human rights violations committed by Haftar, but accuses Turkey and others of sponsoring terrorism in Libya. During an address to Egyptian army personnel, Abdel Fateh el-Sisi warned that Egypt would consider directly intervening in the Libyan conflict if GNA forces advanced on the strategic city of Sirte. In doing so, Egypt would be in direct conflict with the internationally-recognized government, further emphasizing Egypt’s support for Khalifa Haftar.
Similarly to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates is deeply involved in Libya on behalf of Khalifa Haftar. The United Arab Emirates shares Egypt’s mistrust of political Islam, and is determined to stamp out its influence in the Arab World. The Emirati government has waged a campaign of disinformation to discredit political Islam through media, policy, think-tanks, lobbying, and more, due to Abu Dhabi viewing it as an existential threat to its rule. The rise of democracy is also dangerous to the dynastic power structure currently utilized by the U.A.E., and Emirati leadership view these administrations as a long-term threat to itself and other Gulf monarchies. The U.A.E. has a preference for governance through “authoritarian stability” where civil society is not permitted to mobilize, and authoritarian leaders have the lone voice. Accordingly, the U.A.E. has a desire to install Khalifa Haftar as an authoritarian leader in Libya. By doing so, Libya would join Egypt as a bulwark against democratically-elected governments in North Africa, and the U.A.E. would have another authoritarian strongman friendly to it.
In addition to its political considerations, the United Arab Emirates has economic motivations for becoming involved in Libya. In light of the Libyan National Army’s recent military defeats, it has become clear to Abu Dhabi that Khalifa Haftar no longer has the ability to unite Libya. Long-time observers of the Libyan conflict have deduced that the Emirati military strategy in Libya has turned to preserving LNA control of eastern and southern Libya through a political agreement. In doing so, Abu Dhabi aims to secure investments in Libya’s vast oil reserves, and access to the Mediterranean Sea through the port of Benghazi.
The Emirati military support for Haftar has been particularly destructive, primarily through air and drone strikes. The UAE has conducted over 850 attacks on behalf of Haftar since the civil war began, sometimes targeting civilian areas indiscriminately. A 2017 United Nations report implicated the Emiratis in building an airbase for the Libyan National Army, which helped catalyze Haftar’s initial offensive on Tripoli. The Gulf state is also suspected of violating multiple United Nations arms embargoes to equip the Libyan National Army, including taking delivery of arms from other countries, such as Russia, before delivering them to Haftar’s forces. There has also been Emirati recruitment of mercenaries to fight alongside the Libyan National Army. Primarily, armed militia groups from Sudan have been recruited by the Emirates to fight alongside Haftar in Libya, including the Janjaweed militia, who are accused of committing genocide in Sudan.
On the other side of the Libyan conflict, Turkey has become a primary backer of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord. In January, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent troops and armed drones to Libya to support the government in Tripoli. In doing so, Turkey was simultaneously defending its own interests and the interests of the GNA. Turkey signed a maritime agreement with the GNA in November that re-drew Libya’s maritime borders and gave Turkey control of recently discovered gas fields in the Mediterranean. This was done to offset a similar agreement between Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus that would have cut Turkey off from drilling in the Mediterranean. In exchange for agreeing to re-draw its maritime borders, the GNA was promised military support from Turkey in the midst of Khalifa Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli.
Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are all opposed to Turkey’s intervention in Libya. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning Turkey’s interference in an Arab country and called it a violation of international law. An Egyptian state-run newspaper called Turkey’s presence in Libya an attempt to rekindle the Ottoman Empire. And despite the Emirates blatantly breaking arms embargoes on Libya, the Emirati Foreign Ministry accused Turkey of smuggling weapons into Libya and destabilizing the country. Turkey is opposed by these countries due in part to its acceptance of political Islam and democratization in Arab countries. Turkey was a vocal supporter of the Arab Spring and supported the democratically-elected Morsi government in Egypt, among others. Turkey has also thrown its full weight behind Qatar in the ongoing Gulf crisis, rejecting the claim propagated by Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Egypt that Qatar was spreading terrorism. The governments in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo view Turkey’s support for democratic reforms as a threat to their authoritarian stability, and the region in general.
Since entering the conflict, Turkish forces have helped turn the tide in favor of the GNA. Turkish air support helped repel Haftar’s attack on Tripoli, and more recently, GNA forces with Turkish support captured several key towns from the Libyan National Army. The strategically vital al-Watiya airbase was recently recovered from Haftar’s forces, and the GNA continues to push eastward with Turkish air support. A spokesman for the Government of National Accord said they would not stop until all of Libya was liberated from under Haftar’s control, and the discovery of mass graves in areas recently won back from the LNA emphasize the urgency under which the internationally-recognized government is working.
Libya’s Secondary External Actors
Turning to Saudi Arabia, the largest Gulf monarchy has sided with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in Libya, although it has been less outward about its support for Khalifa Haftar. Saudi Arabia has joined the Emirati and Egyptian crusade against the rise of political Islam, and views the rise of democracy through the Arab Spring as a threat to its authoritarian rule. Saudi leadership, led by divisive crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, views Haftar as an authoritarian leader it can rely on ideologically.
Unlike Egypt and the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia has not been as outward in its support for Haftar, and has provided financial aid instead of tangible military support to the warlord. The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia was funding Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Saudi Arabia has also been accused of funding Russian mercenaries fighting alongside Haftar’s forces.
Another external actor that has played a similarly subtle role to Saudi Arabia in Libya is Jordan. Jordan is supporting Khalifa Haftar over his self-professed ability to rid Libya of extremist groups. After a 2015 meeting between Haftar and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the Jordanian monarch expressed his support for Haftar’s campaign against terrorist organizations. To this end, Haftar requested that his forces receive counterterrorism and other military training from the Jordanian armed forces, which King Abdullah II agreed to. In practice, this has amounted to Jordanian training of armed militias fighting alongside the Libyan National Army.
In addition to military training, a United Nations report accused Jordan, alongside Egypt and the U.A.E., of violating arms embargoes to supply Khalifa Haftar’s forces. The same report alleged that Jordan was responsible alongside the U.A.E. for the “majority” of military transfers to the LNA. Jordan has also sold drones to Haftar’s forces, and has facilitated the transfer of arms to the Libyan National Army.
Turning away from the Middle East, Russian interference in Libya has further destabilized the country. Moscow’s interest in Libya is not political, as is the case for countries such as Egypt and the U.A.E. Instead, Russia is interested in Libyan oil and gas fields, in addition to broadening its overall sphere of influence in the Middle East and supplanting the United States and NATO as a dominant foreign power-broker in the region. To this end, Khalifa Haftar has given Russia access to Libyan oil fields under his control in exchange for economic support, diplomatic cover at the United Nations, and military advice.
To ensure he receives Moscow’s support, Khalifa Haftar has promised energy deals and access to Libya’s warm water ports on the Mediterranean. Haftar also lobbied officials in Moscow for more direct military support to fight extremist groups in Libya, particularly Al Qaeda and ISIS. Russian military units have not been deployed to Libya, but the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization with ties to the Kremlin, is known to be operating on the frontlines of the conflict. Despite supporting Haftar, Russia has also made overtures to the Government of National Accord in an attempt to become the dominant foreign peace-broker in the country. Russia hosted a summit between Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj aimed at brokering a peace deal between the parties. Russia’s goal is to become a major patron of Libya at the conclusion of the war, which would include strategic access to warm water ports on the Mediterranean Sea, and lucrative oil and gas contracts for state-owned companies.
Finally, France has played an obscure role in prolonging the Libyan conflict. Despite paying verbal homage to the internationally-recognized government, France has subtly supported Khalifa Haftar as part of its ongoing anti-terrorism campaign in North Africa. The European Union is the largest backer of the Government of National Accord, but France has split with the bloc on the issue of Libya and has been linked with providing financial and military support to Haftar’s forces. Driven by concerns over terrorism at home, French policymakers have deduced that installing an authoritarian strongman is the best way to prevent radical groups from attaining a foothold in North Africa.
Specifically, France supported Haftar’s operation to capture the Fezzan region in Libya’s southwest, citing the area’s lawlessness as being beneficial to the radical groups it was trying to eradicate in the Sahel and across Africa. Fezzan is also home to a large portion of Libya’s oil and water resources. By aiding Haftar in his operation in Fezzan, France undermined the internationally-recognized government by providing its enemy with vital resources. The securement of these resources also legitimized Haftar in Libya’s future political dialogue and further hurt the GNA’s negotiating position. Additionally, France has provided Haftar with advisers, clandestine operatives, and special forces. France also took responsibility for its weapons being used by Haftar’s forces in violation of the U.N. arms embargo, although it said its forces had simply “lost” the equipment.
Despite Libya being an initial success story of the Arab Spring in toppling an authoritarian government and securing democratic elections, the ongoing Libyan conflict has undoubtedly been prolonged by the interference of malicious, foreign actors. The regimes in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Russia, and France are all complicit in undermining the internationally-recognized GNA and contributing to bloodshed in Libya. On the other hand, Turkey has been the lone country to defend Libyan democracy through its material support to the GNA. Since Turkey’s military entrance into the Libyan civil war, the GNA has gained the upper hand over Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Had the destabilizing actors never intervened and perpetuated the conflict, Libya would be heralded as an unquestioned success story of the Arab Spring.