Regional rivalries deepen divide in Libya

EIU: The entrenchment of both sides in Libya’s low-level civil conflict would not have been possible without considerable outside support for each faction. The two major groupings—the official government based in Al Bayda in eastern Libya and the Libya Dawn coalition, which controls much of western Libya—can both rely on powerful regional partners for the resupply of weapons, financial assistance and diplomatic support. Severing these lines of support would gradually sap the ability of both sides to sustain a military confrontation. However, this is unlikely to happen in the short to medium term because the support of many regional powers is rooted in a wider struggle for political and ideological dominance in the Middle East.

In this way, Libya, like Syria, has become a theater of an indirect conflict between power blocs—in other words, a proxy war. Almost all the powers concerned took part in the 2011 military intervention to oust Muammar Qadhafi, but since then their objectives within the country have diverged widely and are likely to remain so for some time. Rival governments in eastern and western Libya are therefore seeking stronger ties with foreign governments in the region that are politically aligned with them.

Support for Tobruq and Al Bayda

The chief military backer of the elected Libyan parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), and the internationally recognised Libyan government is Egypt. This is partly a function of geographical proximity—the HoR is based in Tobruq, near the Egyptian border—but mainly because they share a common political enemy in the Muslim Brotherhood and its associated factions. (The official government of the prime minister, Abdullah al‑Thinni, has recently relocated from Tobruq to Al Bayda, about 250 km to the west, for security reasons.)

Egypt, together with the UAE, is widely believed to have conducted air strikes on behalf of the Libyan armed forces on Islamist positions in Benghazi and Tripoli, despite repeated denial of any involvement by the governments in question. Libyan military officials have confirmed, however, that the bulk of their military resupplies comes through Egypt, and the Egyptian government has announced that it will train the Libyan police and army forces in counter-terrorism methods.

Egypt’s main strategic interest in Libya is the security of its western border, which, as the UN has confirmed, is a major route for weapons and drug-trafficking. Linked to this is Egypt’s own battle against radical Islamists, who have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai in recent months and many civilians in bombings across Egypt. Egyptian officials have insisted that at least some of these attacks were co‑ordinated from Libya, by radical elements in Dernah and Benghazi, although no convincing evidence for this has yet been provided.

Although the UAE is believed to have participated in air strikes, its support is more diplomatic and possibly financial. The emirate could be on hand to provide financial assistance to the HoR in the event that the parliament is denied funds by the Central Bank of Libya. More recently, it has also clamped down on Libyan nationals in the UAE suspected of supporting the Brotherhood, arresting at least 30 within the past three months.

Backer of the Libya Dawn coalition

The Libya Dawn coalition, which controls Tripoli but is anchored by forces from Misurata, would similarly find it difficult to exist without the support of two major regional powers: Turkey and Qatar. Turkey’s interest in Libya is primarily financial. According to the Turkish Ministry of the Economy, Libya was Turkey’s second-largest goods export market in Africa in 2012, and its largest source in Africa of construction contracts, which totalled US$27.7bn in 2013 (compared with just US$1bn in Egypt). Turkey realises that given its ties to the Brotherhood and Qatar, it stands to lose out if the HoR is able to extend its rule over the whole of Libya. To this end, Turkey has appointed a special envoy to Libya, Emrullah Isler, who has infuriated Mr Thinni’s official government by holding meetings with the shadow, Islamist-dominated, government in Tripoli. The open support for the Brotherhood from the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, led an anti-Islamist general, Khalifa Haftar, to demand in September that all Qatari and Turkish nationals leave Libya immediately; this prompted a mass exodus of Turkish nationals from the country.

For some years now, Qatar’s strategy has been to give financial backing to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Libya this has been no different. Qatar remains likely to provide financial assistance should the Tripoli authorities need it, and has also been accused of sending weapons to Islamist forces through Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport.

However, there are signs that Qatar is retreating slightly from its position as a main global backer and financier of Brotherhood-style political Islam. In September Qatar asked several high-profile Egyptian Brotherhood officials to leave the emirate, some of whom are since believed to have moved to Turkey. The move caused consternation among Libyan expatriates in the Gulf, coming at around the same time as the arrests of Libyans in the UAE.

Foreign mediators

Attempting to straddle the divide between Tobruq, Al Bayda and Tripoli has been the UN, and in particular the UN’s special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, who has been tirelessly crossing the country for almost two months. He hosted talks in Ghadames in September between sitting HoR members and members from Misurata who have so far boycotted the HoR sessions. These talks were a promising first step, and there are plans for them to continue. However, Mr Leon has so far avoided meeting any of the former members of the General National Congress, the HoR’s Islamist-heavy predecessor, who back the parallel “government” in Tripoli, in order to avoid legitimising them. In order to start a genuine national dialogue, he may well have to concede on this point and acknowledge their de facto power.

Regional rivalry between backers and opponents of Islamists has proven to be highly divisive for Libya, which has emerged as a proxy battlefield for the two forces. With the absence of an influential neutral mediator, foreign intervention by some of Libya’s neighbours could deepen the divide and harden attitudes between the country’s rival factions.