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Libya: The battlefield of the New Arab Cold War

Libya’s “Islamic State” executed 21 Coptic workers from Upper Egypt. These workers are among the roughly 200,000 Egyptian workers that remain in Libya. There was a time when between one and two million Egyptian workers came to Libya to earn money. I remember seeing them in the oil fields and then pushing carts in the smaller towns as street peddlers (I also recall periodic expulsion of Egyptian workers from Libya – in 1984, in 1995 – all part of the political tussle between Tripoli and Cairo). The unrest since 2011 has reduced the number. But a substantial population remains. In retaliation, the Egyptian government launched airstrikes against “Islamic State” targets in Dernah. More Egyptians have been taken hostage since; that was inevitable. Their fate is unclear.

Libya has two governments. The one in Tripoli, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the aerial bombardment as an intrusion of Libya’s sovereignty. At an Arab League meeting, Qatar – the self-anointed nerve center of the Muslim Brotherhood – also criticized the attack, saying, “Unilateral military action on another member state could harm innocent civilians.” Egypt’s envoy to the League, Tareq Adel, accused Qatar of “supporting terrorism.” By terrorism, Adel means the Muslim Brotherhood and not Al-Qaeda. Qatar withdrew its ambassador from Egypt. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which represents the six Gulf Arab states, tried to moderate the tension. This is not a new problem for the GCC. When Egypt’s current government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood last year, Qatar made its disapproval known. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in retaliation. The GCC had to resolve the crisis. Again, this month, the GCC entered the fray. It urged the members to patience. Messages went between the capitals feverishly. The GCC first offered mild criticism of Egypt’s actions in Libya, but then withdrew its statement. Confusion reigns.

The GCC has not been able to stand united over the past five years. The most important split is not between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but between Saudi Arabia and Oman. Riyadh is upset with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said for his secret mediation between Iran and the United States over the nuclear deal. Animosity against Iran drives Saudi Arabia. If the US-Iran deal comes through, it would threaten the environment that Saudi Arabia has created. Oman is party to this new climate. But Oman is not alone. The UAE, otherwise a loyalist of Riyadh, has been unwilling to accept a common currency for the Arabian Peninsula, while Kuwait does not want to allow Jordan into the GCC. These last two are irritants for the kingdom. Apart from what the kingdom sees as Oman’s mendacity is the dangerous game that Qatar is playing with the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Upstart of Arabia” has opened up fissures in the peninsula. The kingdom has tried to chastise the emir several times, including – it is said – forcing the abdication of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in 2013 for his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. These are the elements of the New Arab Cold War.

New Cold War

In 1965, Malcolm Kerr’s The Arab Cold War suggested that two forces – conservative monarchies and socialist republics – tore through the Arab world from Iraq to Morocco.[1] Syria, for Kerr, was the main theater for this war – the United Arab Republic (1958-61) brought Egypt and Syria into a common platform and angered the Gulf Arabs monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia. Syria remains, fifty years later, a key battleground for the Arab Cold War, although the protagonists are no longer the same. The conservative monarchies remain, having outlived the socialist republics. History was meant to have gone the other way, with anachronistic monarchies falling before the socialist future. But force plays a key role in human history, and this is what paved the road for the resilience of the monarchies. The camps arrayed in Syria now would not be familiar to Kerr: on the one side are the conservative monarchies, with their Western allies, and Turkey; on the other side is the so-called Resistance Axis, which includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah. Sectarianism seems to define the camps on the surface – Sunni here, Shia there. But other motivations are at work, including the politics of the moment.

Libya barely played a role in Kerr’s book, even in the third edition (1971), which was published after Colonel Muammar Qadhafi overthrew King Idris in a hugely popular coup of 1969. Despite its oil reserves, Libya had the feel of a backwater for Arab politics.[2] Few paid attention to its inner workings. Qadhafi’s peculiar version of Arab nationalism and Islamism seemed in charge. The conservative monarchists and their allies fled the country. What other political forces existed in Libya seemed uninteresting. Fractures opened up periodically in Libya, but Qadhafi was the master of dissimulation – when the Muslim Brotherhood re-emerged in the 1980s as the Libyan Islamic Group and began to have substantial influence in Benghazi, Qaddafi’s security forces arrested their leadership and cadre at the same time as he went on a tirade against imperialist intervention. That imperialist plots did exist gave Qadhafi the license to crackdown on any resistance to his government. Elements of Libyan Islamism would refashion themselves in the 1990s as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group with a far more deadly orientation. In exile, many of the Islamists removed the turtlenecks of the Muslim Brotherhood for Afghan turbans. Even at this time, there was little sustained Gulf Arab interest in the internal politics of Libya. A little money here and there to sustain the Muslim Brotherhood certainly leaked in, but this was no concern to Qaddafi.

By 2009, the bulk of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group had been tethered. Those who had gone into exile became part of the archipelago of jihad – fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Some – such as its leader Abdel Hakim Belhaj – had been picked up and then through “extraordinary rendition” delivered to the Qadhafi prisons. Belhaj joined other imprisoned leaders of his movement (such as Abu al-Munder al-Saidi, Abd al-Wahab al-Qayed, Khalid al-Sharif, Miftah al-Duwadi and Mustafa Qanaifid) to renounce violent jihad. They had joined Saif al-Islam Qadhafi’s “counter-radicalization” program. Libya appeared firmly in the grip of the Qadhafi regime, with little hope for any political opposition.

When the 2011 uprising began in Benghazi, it drew together a mélange of different social forces. The most vocal section came from amongst the middle-class professionals who had benefitted the most from the Qadhafi-era universities, but who longed for a greater political role in the state. Alongside them were members of the Libyan diaspora who had returned to the country at the behest of Saif al-Islam Qadhafi to “modernize” the country. None of these groups had it within them to take up the gun. They had too much personally to lose. They turned to their allies, who turned out to be defectors from the Libyan military, ordinary working-class people who had been frustrated with the drift in their country and, of course, the veterans of the jihadi groups. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed in Libya, made their reappearance across the country. As NATO decimated the Qadhafi-era institutions, this curious alliance began to jostle for power. The assassination of Abdel Fatah Younis in July 2011 was the canary in the coalmine. Younis was Qadhafi’s minister of the interior who resigned in the heat of the protests and became the head of the Free Libyan Army’s General Staff. Who killed Younis was never established – although some believe that he was murdered by former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members who formed the bulk of the Obaida Ibn Jarrah Brigade (whose members then helped form Ansar al-Sharia). The killing of Younis suggested that it would be the gunmen who would be in charge when the dust settled; the liberals and the diaspora elite would have the West’s ear, but little else. Many of those middle-class professional have been assassinated by the very forces that killed Younis, and many more have fled the country.

Proxies

It was into the chaos that the new forces in the Arab Cold War entered the country. Sections of the Muslim Brotherhood – long vilified in Libya and therefore without many deep roots – formed the Justice and Construction Party (JCP). Qatar and Turkey, long backers of the Muslim Brotherhood, rushed in to provide various kinds of support (Tunisia’s Ennahda, also part of the Muslim Brotherhood network, was bankrolled from Doha, whose money – in 2011 –  allowed the exiled Islamic movement to move from its back alley offices into a downtown building once owned by Tunisie Telecom). Libyan Shield, the militia of Misrata – led by the deeply traumatized Salah Badi – would join with the JCP and the Tripoli-based militia of Belhaj to stake their claim in Tripoli. They remain backed by Qatar and Turkey.

Qatar and Turkey’s advantage in the second flush of the Arab Spring was that they could call upon their comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood from across North Africa and into Syria. They had disciplined cadres who had used the mosque networks and their professional organisations to build a base in Egypt, Libya and Syria – despite repression. The use of Al Jazeera television to put the Qatari case further advantaged these networks – as did the sermons of Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi (this Egyptian cleric has been in Qatar off and on since 1962). Even in Libya, where the Muslim Brotherhood had much less popular support than in Egypt, it was able to thrust itself into the political domain. Canny alliances with Libyan Shield and Belhaj’s Al-Watan Party later provided it with the heft to claim a popular mandate. Qatari and Turkish envoys continue to travel to Tripoli to meet the Muslim Brotherhood government (in October of last year, Turkey’s Emrullah Isler, a confidant of President Erdogan, met with the JCP’s Omar al-Hassi).

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain would not allow the upstart of the Gulf to claim the glory of the Arab Spring. Further, Saudi Arabia has had a tenuous relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood within the kingdom. When Egypt’s Nasser repressed the group many Muslim Brotherhood professionals (including Mohammed Qutb, brother of executed Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyed Qutb) took refuge in Saudi Arabia. They provided technical and professional workers for the kingdom. But these professionals sought more political rights, which had been a source of conflict with the royal authorities. It was this balance that was once more threatened as the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt and Tunisia, seemed ready to come to power in Libya and Syria. It seemed that the day of the Brotherhood had dawned. Would it make its mark in the Gulf? Not if King Abdullah had anything to say about it. On March 7, 2014, the Kingdom named the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. It was a decisive move.

The Saudis, of course, encouraged the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, sabotaged the Syrian opposition to its advantage (undermining the Free Syrian Army to ensure that its proxy, Jaish al-Islam, led by Zahran Alloush, would thrive), and provided (as far as my sources tells me) support to a rogue Libyan General, Khalifa Hafter, to begin Operation Karama (Dignity) against the various Muslim Brotherhood currents in Libya. When Haftar’s troops came under fire in Tripoli in 2014, the UAE and Egypt conducted a bombing run of their positions, to no avail. In June 2014, Haftar said that Qatar and Turkey had been sponsors of terrorism in Libya, and he gave their nationals two days to leave the country. Since his writ does not run in the west of the country, this was an empty threat. It revealed more of the regional politics that have overrun Libya than Haftar’s own power. Haftar had to be content with his war in Benghazi against Ansar al-Sharia. It was this war that pushed the jihadis toward Sirte and Dernah, where they joined others to launch the “Islamic State.”

Regional Entente

Armed force is simply not going to be sufficient to deal with the problem in Libya. The most important aspect is the inflamed political crisis between the Qatar-Turkey camp and the Saudi-UAE-Egypt camp. Unless these two groups, manifested in Libya by the split between the Tripoli and Baida/Tobruk governments, find some way to reconcile, the field is open to the “Islamic State.” The execution of the twenty-one Egyptian workers was perhaps a provocation from the “Islamic State” to draw Egypt into this conflict for at least two reasons: first, to draw an Egyptian retaliation, which would intensify the tension between the two camps, and second, to increase the fissures inside Egypt. The only way to tackle the “Islamic State” in Libya is to produce a political process, one that has to begin on the regional level in order to allow a Libyan compact to be forged. As of now, the regional element suffocates Libyan politics.

[1] I use the third edition of Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

[2] The story here is elaborated in my Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, New Delhi: LeftWord and Oakland: AK Press, 2012.

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Vijay Prashad