Libya and Egypt: analogies, differences and regional factors

backPrinter-friendly versionSend to friend

Since mid-May, Libya has seen a violent struggle that resembles and echoes in many ways that experienced in Egypt over the past year. However, the Libyan situation has its own peculiarities which must be kept in mind if one wants to understand where the country may be heading. Libya’s ongoing clashes are part of what could be defined as the “regional consequences” of Egypt: a vision of the post-uprising transitions that sees the Muslim Brotherhood as the enemy, a “terrorist” organization that needs to be eradicated. This is part of a regional realignment in which states such as Qatar (that once supported the Brotherhood) succumb to a coalition with Saudi Arabia and other conservative monarchies that consider the “new” Egypt its linchpin – now ruled by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as elected president.

The main protagonist of Libya’s recent events is also a top member of the military. Retired Major-General Khalifa Haftar was one of the most prominent members of the Libya’s army that defected to the anti-Gheddafi rebels in 2011. On Valentine’s Day of this year, he staged a coup which was soon ridiculed by most Libyan political players. He came back on the scene on May 16th when he headed several groups from within Libya’s official army in a violent attack against Islamist and extremist groups in Benghazi that left scores dead. Two days later, a militia which claimed to be acting as part of Heftar’s “Operation Dignity” attacked the Libyan Parliament precisely when it was due to vote in a new prime minister. Since then, two armed coalitions have been facing off: on one side, an alliance between officers from Gheddhafi’s army who defected to the revolution three years ago and the anti-Islamist militias from Zintan (about 150km from Tripoli); on the other side, the militias who stand closer to the Muslim Brotherhood along with Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Islamist group that also runs charities. The militia from Misrata, the most powerful in the country, initially stood aside despite having a longstanding working relationship with the Brotherhood. It entered Tripoli only recently, ostensibly to protect Parliament and government institutions. The weekend after Heftar and his coalition started fighting in Benghazi, popular demonstrations took place all over the country, leading many commentators to see similarities between this retired general and his colleague Sisi next door in Egypt. Indeed, Libya’s predicament shares several features of Egypt’s.

As in Egypt, one of the two factions claims to be fighting “terrorism” and aims to marginalize if not obliterate the Islamist camp. In fact, both Mubarak and Gheddafi had at times marginalized and only occasionally lured political Islam to pursue their ends. In Libya, general distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood is the consequence of its unpopularity under Gheddhafi as much as of the distrust of political parties which is one of the legacies of his regime – and the Brotherhood in Libya is the only organization that managed to build a structured national party.

Like in Egypt, the anti-Brotherhood faction has a member of the military at its helm with some degree of popular support that reflects dissatisfaction with how the transition has worked so far. Much like in Egypt, public opinion seems polarized between the Islamist and the non-Islamist camp, though the division seems to focus on power and on ownership of the revolution rather than on ideology: there is no real “liberal” or “secular” camp in Libya, it is a socially conservative country where the role of Islam in public life and legislation is not really questioned.  

In fact, the list of differences with Egypt is long, but it can be summarized in two points. To begin with, Sisi lead a military coup d’etat, something that is inconceivable in a place like Libya that lacks both a functioning government and an effective military – the remnants of the Libyan army that sided with Heftar were marginal and badly equipped under Gheddhafi and have hardly gotten any better thereafter. Second, Libya’s polarization has little to do with the clash between secularists and Islamists that is witnessed in other parts of North Africa. Rather, opposition to the Brotherhood here has other roots: they lost the parliamentary elections in 2012 but then gained control of the legislature due to a law that excludes those who have even loose ties with the former regime – incidentally starting with the leader of their rival party, the National Forces Alliance; they are blamed for having nurtured rather than dealt with the problem of sprawling militias, who receive money from the government but guarantee neither security nor the conditions for the production of oil and gas.

Libya is not the replica of Egypt’s coup and will therefore likely produce an original outcome. The current confrontation seems to lead more in the direction of a civil war with protracted violence between two opposing fronts rather than a coup after which the non-Islamists control state structures. At the moment, no one seems to have the military or the political edge.

It is not clear whether the Egyptian military has given the go-ahead to Heftar’s “Operation Dignity” or whether Western governments opposed it. Nevertheless, it is explicit that Heftar, as well as his supporters, have the Egyptian model in mind: an armed reaction to the disorder and violence created by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wings. On its part, the Libyan Brotherhood is very aware of what happened in Egypt and is responding by refusing to dissolve the Parliament it controls and by using its militias such as the Libya Revolutionary Operation Room (LROR) and the 17 February Brigade.

This is where another difference between Libya and Egypt becomes relevant. Here, contrary to the situation in Egypt, Europeans have clear leverage over the parties. Libya’s energy revenues come mostly from Western Europe, and European countries such as Italy, the UK and France are training the Libyan army and police. Libya has €50 billion in frozen assets in Europe and access to the old continent (in terms of travel as well as properties and markets) is crucial for Libyan warlords and politicians.

This leverage must be wisely and carefully used to save Libya from sliding into a civil war which now seems very likely. Calling for “restraint” from both factions, as a May 26 joint communiqué by the US, France, the United Kingdom and Italy did, is not enough. Emphasis must be placed on preserving – and consistently strengthening – democratic institutions. This means two things: democracy and Parliament cannot be suspended (as Heftar wants), rather more inclusiveness is key to restoring law and order in the country; the Muslim Brotherhood cannot cling to power, delaying parliamentary elections which are a crucial component to the restoration of legitimacy for Libya’s main democratic institutions. With these two intertwined elements in mind, Americans and Europeans should bring all the major power-brokers to the table and use their leverage, showing that a peaceful economy back on track is much more convenient than a war economy, while militia and political leaders have only to lose from a civil war. Whether this is still possible is not certain, but decision-makers have an obligation to try hard.