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Foreign meddling and competing interests hinder any solution in Libya

July 27, 2023 at 9:00 am

People gather at The Martyrs’ Square to celebrate the 9th anniversary of Libyans’ 17 February Revolution in Tripoli, Libya on February 17, 2020 [Hazem Turkia / Anadolu Agency]

If you ask any Libyan citizen about the biggest obstacles hindering political solutions in the country, the most likely answer is: external interferences and the disputes of local de-facto politicians.

Since the country fell victim to the so called “Arab Spring” in 2011, it became an open arena for all sorts of external meddling in its internal affairs – usually individual foreign countries’ pursuit of their own interests, regardless of what the impact could be on Libya’s stability, security and economic prosperity. Worse still, most of such interests are competing with each other at the expense of the country.

The internal conflict, since erupting in 2011, has turned into a regional and international conflict in which various countries are competing with one another through their local proxies, whether they are armed militias, political movements or individual politicians, particularly former Libyan exiles who returned to the country after the fall of the former Gaddafi regime.

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In pursuing their national interests, each country has its own agenda prioritised to its own best interests, regardless of the impact such policy might have on Libya. The first victim of such endeavours is always the United Nations’ work in the country and its attempts to bring about an end to the long transitional period to a democratic system.

In a clear and blatant case of international hypocrisy at the highest level, all countries that interfere in Libya announce to the world that they are committed to assisting the UN’s efforts to bring peace to the stricken country. In the Berlin Conferences in 2020 and 2021, all international and regional powers with stakes in Libya reaffirmed their commitment to stop interfering and to reinforcing the UN arms embargo on Libya, among other promises to assist the UN’s peaceful efforts.

Yet, the very same countries, once they left the meetings, forgot the promises they had just made and, instead, continued their detrimental interfering business, as usual. Some of them, like Egypt, Russia, United States, Turkiye and United Arab Emirates were deeply involved in the war between General Khalifa Haftar’s forces and the UN recognised government in Tripoli in 2019-2020. While the Trump administration gave Mr. Haftar the green light to attack Tripoli, Turkiye sent in its troops and Syrian mercenaries to help Tripoli, and Russia’s Wagner mercenaries were fighting with Haftar while the UAE provided drones to bomb Tripoli forces.

This situation prompted the UN’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, to sound the alarm as fighting raged around Tripoli. In a video conference in July 2020, he told the UN’s Security Council that foreign interference in Libya had “reached unprecedented levels”, as both warring sides were getting support from foreign countries, despite the promises made in Berlin just months earlier.

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His former envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, complained about the foreign interference hindering his mediations and calling on all countries to “stop interfering” in Libya’s internal affairs because their activities, through local proxies, were creating what he described as a “vicious cycle” of violence.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, the US, for example, has prioritised expelling Wagner’s mercenaries from Libya, while concentrating on counter-terrorism operations in the country over little else except from keeping the country’s oil flowing.

This is one of the unique cases of clear misalignment between the US’s stated principles in supporting democracy and human rights – while on the ground, in Libya, for instance, it is doing the exact opposite.

Most of the countries playing a role in Libya today had started their game back in 2011, when local actors, particularly armed militias, sprang up to fight the former Gaddafi regime. Almost all anti- Gaddafi groups were supported politically, financially and, above all, militarily by one country or another, including France, the United Kingdom and even tiny Qatar which spearheaded the anti- Gaddafi international mobilisation in 2011 in the name of democracy, despite its own lack of democracy.

Special Forces from the UK, France and Qatar are believed to have played a role in training and assisting the rebels during the 2011 war. When NATO took over the operation in Libya, the situation only got worse.

French Special Forces, for example, are accused of taking part in the brutal murder of the late leader, Muammer Gaddafi, in October 2011. Hundreds of Qatari Special Forces are known to have taken part in the attack on the Bab Al-Azizia compound, Gaddafi’s former HQ in Tripoli in late August 2011, as the capital fell to the rebels.

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Most foreign countries, back then, found their way into the Libyan mess through shady connections, usually through spies, local collaborators and intelligence services, instead of through respected and accountable diplomatic channels.

This pattern continues even today, where foreign intelligence services still operate in Libya almost freely. A good example of this is clearly manifested in the recent visits by heads of three spy organisations that are still involved in Libya’s internal affairs.

In February this year, William Burns, head of the CIA, visited Libya where he met officials on both sides of the country. His Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, former head of Turkiye’s spy agency, was in Tripoli meeting the Prime Minster in January, while Egypt’s spy chief, Abbas Kamel, is thought to spend much of his time in communicating or visiting General Haftar in Benghazi.

One ought to remember that it was the UN Security Council which opened the door to any country to intervene in Libya by adopting its 1973 resolution. In authorising international military intervention back in March 2011, the same resolution urged all countries to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians allegedly under attack by Gaddafi forces during the 2011 civil war.

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Some eight envoys have already failed to tackle the Libyan crisis to positive conclusion. The current envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily, will soon fail as well, and the common factor behind all failures is nothing more than the two reasons: foreign interference and the failed and discredited de facto politicians who are willing to give up their country’s sovereignty very cheaply. Libyan politicians, with few exceptions, appear ready to serve the foreign bogeyman, more than their own people. They believe their own interests are better protected so long as they are loyal to foreigners, but not to Libya.

It is the very unfortunate fate of a country that had been hypersensitive to foreign interference just a decade ago. Let us not forget that Libya expelled all military bases from its territory in 1970 – simply, that is what sovereignty means.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.