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Tripoli battle prolongs Libya conflict

Libya is seeing a standoff between Islamists and Saudi-backed Madkhalists

Firstpost print Edition

Political transition in West Asia and North Africa operates on the principle of “The King is dead, long live the King”.

Libya’s battle for Tripoli alongside mass anti-government demonstrations that have toppled autocratic leaders of Algeria and Sudan demonstrate that both popular Arab protests that in 2011 forced four presidents out and the counterrevolution they provoked are alive and kicking.

Protesters in Algeria and Sudan are determined to prevent a repeat of Egypt, where a United Arab Emirates and Saudi-backed military officer rolled back the gains of their revolt to install a dictatorship, or of Yemen, Libya and Syria that have suffered civil wars aggravated by interference of foreign powers.

In Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the UAE-Saudi-Egyptian-backed warlord, hopes that his assault on the capital Tripoli, the seat of the country’s United Nations-recognised government, will either end the conflict militarily or at the very least, significantly increase his leverage in peace talks.

For now, the offensive has waylaid a UN-sponsored peace conference that was expected to achieve an agreement that would have ensured that Islamists would continue to be part of the Libyan power structure.

Haftar, like his regional backers, accuses the Tripoli government of being dominated by Islamists, the bete noire of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose preferred religious group, the Madkhalists, is an important element in the field marshal’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

On a visit to Saudi Arabia days before launching his attack on Tripoli, Haftar reportedly was promised millions of dollars in support in talks with Saudi King Salman, and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in defiance of a UN arms embargo.

Inspired by Saudi Salafi preacher, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, Madkhalists seek to marginalise Islamists and political Salafists by projecting themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay. They propagate absolute obedience to the ruler and abstention from politics, the reason why toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi tolerated them during his rule.

The battle for Libya could prove to be Haftar’s most difficult military offensive. His LNA already controls Libya’s second city of Benghazi and much of rest of the country, where it met relatively little resistance. It also serves as a warning to protesters in Sudan whose demands for fundamental change risk upsetting the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s applecart.

The three counterrevolutionary states welcomed the toppling of Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir as a way of removing Islamists from the country’s power structure but are unlikely to want to see the emergence of a truly democratic government that relegates the military to barracks.

With no swift victory in sight in the battle for Tripoli, Libya risks another round of protracted war that could be aggravated by the fact that it is as much a domestic fight as it is a multi-layered proxy war.

Though the spectre of civil war like in Syria looms, Libya is different in the sense that it is a fight involving foreign-backed militias rather than that of an autocratic incumbent supported by some foreign powers against an array of militias backed by disparate regional players opposed to one another.

That does not mean that war would be less devastating. Thousands are already fleeing the southern suburbs of Tripoli. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that half a million children were at risk. The fighting also threatens to disrupt Libyan oil exports and spark a renewed wave of migration across the Mediterranean to Europe.

The risks are heightened by the fact that the Tripoli government is backed by Turkey and Qatar, the two regional powers opposed to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s designs. Qatar has been the target of a 22-month old economic and diplomatic boycott while in Syria, Turkey is facing off with groups supported by the Saudis and Emiratis.

If that were not enough, Haftar’s fight with the Tripoli government has also turned into a battle between Italy and France for control of Libya’s oil resources, with France providing military advisers and intelligence to the field marshal and Italy backing the government. Russia has printed Libyan dinars to help Haftar fund his operations.

Unlike Sudan, Libya has passed the corner. Years of civil and proxy wars have devastated the country and laid the ground for more violence. Algeria and Sudan still have a chance of avoiding the fate of Libya, or for that matter, Syria and Yemen.
To ensure peaceful transitions in the two countries, restraint will have to guide the military and security services as well as the protesters with the support of the international community. For now, the military and its associated elite in Algeria appeared to be more assertive in its attempts to maintain its grip on power. In Sudan, the armed forces have so far adopted a more accommodating approach.
As the battle in Tripoli unfolds, Libya emerges as a live example of what is at stake. Protesters are up against forces whose backers have proven that there is little they will shy away from achieving their objectives.
The King’s fate is at stake in the fighting in streets of southern Tripoli. His fate hangs like a sword of Damocles in the balance, in the streets of Algiers and Khartoum.

(James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as well as its Middle East Institute)

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