Little noticed by a world transfixed by the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the surreptitious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and China’s assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas has been the escalation of fighting in Libya. In recent weeks, battles have become more pitched and regional governments have secretly intervened to counter gains by Islamic militias in Tripoli. Libya’s implosion is exposing and deepening fault lines throughout the region.
Since Moammar Gadhafi was deposed as leader of Libya in 2011, Libya has slid slowly but inexorably toward civil war and anarchy. A coalition of forces found sufficient common cause to work together to oust the long-serving dictator, but whatever unity existed rapidly disintegrated once he fell from power.
Various militias, loyal to tribes, religions, regions and leaders sparred for power. A parliament, known as the General National Congress (GNC), was formed by national elections held in 2012. Its authority has been limited, however, by the determination of local groups, backed by those militias, to hold on to power.
The GNC stayed on past its official term, but agreed earlier this year to hold elections to create a new parliament that would this time be called the House of Representatives. The election was held in June, but turnout was just 18 percent, raising questions about the new legislature’s legitimacy. If that was not enough to undermine the new legislature, the new parliament is dominated by liberals and federalists. That was the final blow for the Islamists who controlled the GNC.
Even though the House of Representatives is the official legislature, earlier this month the GNC reconvened and appointed its own prime minister, Omar al-Hasi, who is backed by the Islamist parties that are in the minority in the other house. Now, Libya has two leaders and two national assemblies.
While the image of two competing assemblies makes for good political theater, the reality is much more complex. For a start, the Islamic forces are by no means unified. The movement consists of extremists like Ansar al-Shariah, a militant group from Benghazi, and moderates.
Until recently, those groups kept their distance from each other, but the emergence of a powerful secular army, headed by Gen. Khalifa Heftir, has pushed them together. They have formed a council of revolutionary militias and are fighting under the banner of “Libyan Dawn.”
All Islamic forces are not under that flag, however: The alliance has denounced groups like the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood for being insufficiently zealous in their support for “the Islamic cause.”
Aligned against them is Heftir, a former general who has vowed to eliminate the Islamists from Libya. Vowing in May to take power by force, he assembled a powerful arsenal, including airplanes, that allowed him to take the fight against his rivals to the air. That drive stalled, but it managed to harden divisions in the country.
Alarmed by the prospect of an Islamic resurgence in Libya, other regional states have apparently decided to intervene. Late in August, it is reported that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched airstrikes against Islamic forces fighting for control of Tripoli. This follows an attack allegedly carried out by the two countries against an extremist camp in the eastern part of Libya.
Heftir took credit for both assaults, but no one believes that he has the capability to launch such attacks.
The involvement of regional powers is a troubling development. First, it threatens to intensify the damage to Libya and drag out the fighting as those foreign governments ensure that their side remains well armed. Officials from the United Nations and Western governments are concerned that the airstrikes — which did not keep the Islamists from taking the Tripoli airport — will make it more difficult to reach a negotiated settlement to the fighting.
A joint statement by the United States and European allies warned against “outside interference …[that] exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition,” and called for “all parties [to] accept an immediate ceasefire and engage constructively in the democratic process.”
Second, it highlights the emerging schism among regional governments. The Libyan fight is becoming a proxy war with the governments in Cairo and the UAE backing old-style, sometimes secular Arab leaders against extreme Islamists, backed by Turkey and Qatar.
This conflict is playing out in various forms in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and it is the ability of governments and factions across the region to seek and find like-minded forces that is the most disturbing for the region.
These battles could be the harbingers of larger conflicts that could rewrite the map of the Middle East and Northern Africa — or plunge the region into chaos, instability and violence even if the rebels do not succeed.