Libya on the verge of political chaos: Regional and international implications
By Dr. Moshe Albo | February, 2022
|Photo: remix - maxpixel.net|
Libya is once again on the verge of political chaos that could deteriorate into another round of the ongoing civil war. The political crisis between the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA) in western Libya and the opposing political forces in the east, headed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar, has escalated in recent weeks in view of the interim government's failure to hold the elections in December 2021 as planned, as well as the heated debate on the prime minister's legitimacy to continue in his position. The political system is divided and split, whereas the international arena is inattentive in view of the aggravating crisis in the Ukraine.
"War and Peace"
The LNA forces, led by General Haftar, had established their control in eastern and southern Libya, and, in April 2019, launched a military operation to occupy Tripoli with the help of Russian mercenaries, as well as the military support of both Egypt and the UAE, aiming to complete its takeover of all power hubs in Libya. At a certain stage, the military operation seemed to be achieving its goals. The international efforts to resolve the conflict had failed, and it seemed that the conquest of Tripoli, under siege and frequently bombed, was merely a matter of time.
That was when Turkey stepped in, turning the campaign around. President Erdogan expressed Ankara's commitment to the GNA in Tripoli, signing two agreements in November 2019: a maritime boundary treaty, a direct countermeasure against the Egyptian-Cypriot steps taken in this area; and a military cooperation agreement. As part of the latter, Turkish military officials came to Libya in December 2019 to serve as consultants, alongside fighting militia forces from Syria, air defense systems, electronic warfare systems, and UAVs that effectively changed the course of this war. The attack against Tripoli was curbed in May and June 2020, and GNA forces regained control of most of the north-western part of Libya, delivering a harsh blow to General Haftar's forces, which, although aided by Russia, Egypt, and the UAE, were nevertheless defeated.
However, once the GNA forces reached the strategic Sirte-Jufra line, the campaign turned into a regional crisis, with Egyptian President el-Sisi publicly threatening that an attack on Sirte would "cross a red line" in Egypt's view, and lead to direct military intervention. The regional pressure took effect, and the fighting stopped.
A ceasefire agreement was signed by the Government of National Accord and Libyan National Army in October 2020 following regional and international pressure. The deal dictated that all foreign forces would leave Libya within three months, and a provisional unity government be formed to lead the country toward presidential elections. This step, supported by the UN, international community and United States, aimed to stabilize Libya, and enable the establishment of a political system that would be acceptable to all domestic power forces. The interim government was formed in March 2021, and elections scheduled for December 2021. Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh was appointed interim prime minister in Tripoli, and was supposed to lead the country to elections. However, that was not to be.
Elections were postponed due to a deep dispute over some of the candidates' legitimacy, as well as issues associated with the elections law, election process procedures, and oversight mechanisms. The Tobruk parliament called for the government in Tripoli to dismantle in view of its failure to hold the elections, and appointed former Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga as the new interim PM. Acting Prime Minister Dbeibeh, who has recently survived an attempted assassination, refused to accept the parliament's decision to appoint an alternate provisional government, stating that he was in the advanced stages of forming a new "roadmap" in coordination with UN envoy to Libya Stephanie Williams with the aim of holding the elections in June 2022. Both the UN and the international community still regard Dbeibeh as Libya's legitimate prime minister.
In recent weeks Libya has once again returned to the all-too familiar rivalry format: two prime ministers representing different parts of the country (east and west), with its parliament's seat in the east, controlled by General Haftar, whereas Dbeibeh's government is stationed in Tripoli, and supported by both international community and UN. This state of affairs has intensified tension and raised the concern that Libya would be swept into another round of blood-drenched civil war.
|Photo: National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency|
The regional game
Egypt and Turkey seek to maintain Libyan stability, while refraining from further escalation that would undermine the political and security steps they are leading in the region. Turkey has been promoting reconciliation with the UAE, Egypt, and Israel in recent months, and now, its ambassador to Libya, Kenan Yilmaz, is engaging in talks with both the power factors in Benghazi and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Ankara is pursuing the de-escalation of the armed conflict in Libya, and, through its meetings with members of the Tobruk parliament, and declared intention to reopen the Turkish consulate in Benghazi as well as launch a direct airline route, it seeks to establish the legitimacy of its actions in both east and west Libya. Another axis Ankara is active on is influencing the UAE, which plays a key role in Libya, by regularizing and advancing its bilateral relations with it, as manifest in President Erdogan's unprecedented visit to the UAE (13 February).
However, Turkey has not discarded its geostrategic aspirations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara seeks to broaden its influence toward Africa and Europe by gaining a foothold in the area, tapping into the gas and oil reserves in Libya's EEZ, and establishing a hold on Libya's existing oil reserves as well. The MoU signed with Libya on maritime boundary delineation was designed to curb Cypriot-Egyptian-Israeli aspirations to transport energy from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, and turn Ankara into an actor that must be taken into account in any project or move headed by one of these countries in this area.
Cairo, by contrast, wants to prevent a pro-Muslim Brotherhood government from taking over Libya, while providing both a physical and ideal framework for an organization that has been challenging the stability of Egypt's regime. It further seeks to ensure that the Islamic State will not take advantage of the crisis and lack of governability in Libya to entrench itself and pose a threat to Egypt's western border. At the same time, Cairo is exerting pressure on the international community to remove the foreign forces from Libya, referring in particular to Turkish presence and military capabilities that have had a tremendous impact on the last round of battles. Egypt is interested in the return of Egyptian workers to Libya (amounting to some two million people), and wants to lead the rehabilitation work there. Concurrently and above all else, Egypt wishes to ensure its economic-energetic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean without having Turkey interfere.
The international arena
UN envoy Stephanie Williams has been actively seeking to alleviate the political tensions in Libya, and return to the plan to hold elections this summer. The process that she is spearheading calls for the dismantling of armed militia groups, and establishment of a single, united military force (that would include Haftar's LNA). Europe's main concern is the re-eruption of civil war, leading to a refugee crisis and wave of immigration from Libya to Europe, as well as the return of the Islamic State in a way that would destabilize the region. However, the international community, and particularly the United States, lacks the attention or energy needed to resolve the evolving crisis in Libya, due to the winds of war blowing in Europe. The fact that the international community lacks the energy to alleviate the tension eases the restraints on escalation all the more.
The regional arena, and especially Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE, are disinclined to have the fighting in Libya resume in view of the risk that such escalation would compromise reconciliation processes, as well as lead to economic and security tolls, particularly in the context of a global health and financial crisis.
However, Egypt's suspicion toward Ankara has remained intact in view of Turkish military presence in Libya, the regime's deep affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the strategy led by Erdogan in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, the fact that military escalation does not serve the regional forces' interests does not necessarily mean it will be avoided. Internal Libyan political dynamics is explosive and charged with history and "bad blood" that could very easily deteriorate to violence, and, under a dangerous scenario, merge with the interests of external regional forces.
Israel should avoid intervening in the crisis in Libya, while maintaining close coordination with Egypt in view of the two countries' shared interest of preventing extreme terror factors (ISIS or Al Qaeda) from entrenching themselves on Egypt's western border, and seizing the opportunity to strengthen the strategic partnership between them.
Israel should advance slowly and remain suspicious in the process of renewing its relations with Ankara in view of the history of the ties between the two countries, and the explosiveness of the Palestinian issue that could quickly affect Turkish policy vis-à-vis Israel. At the same time, a positive trend in relations provides opportunities in the context of regularizing the EEZ issue in the Eastern Mediterranean, and anchoring possible future export of energy to Europe (even if, at present, such a step does not seem desirable or practical), while mitigating friction with Turkey.
 Sirte is Gaddafi's birth town. It is located between Tripoli and Benghazi, and is of strategic and historical importance for Libya.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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