Anas El Gomati is the founder and director of the Libyan think tank, the Sadeq Institute. He discusses how so much of Libya’s history has been shaped by European colonial powers and other foreign states meddling in its affairs. On the flip side, E.U. developments and the rise of right-wing populism and racist anti-migrant sentiment cannot be disentangled from what transpires in Libya. In light of the ongoing fighting between rival government structures, how can the control of oil resources and state assets shift from elite strongmen to civilian bodies?
Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re watching theAnalysis.news. I’ll shortly be joined by Libyan analyst, Anas El Gomati, to speak about the situation in Libya as well as Libya’s role in the conflict in neighboring Sudan. If you enjoy this content, please consider donating to the show by going to theAnalysis.news and hitting the donate button at the top-right corner of the screen. You can also get on the mailing list so that you’re informed every time a new episode is published. Also, go to our YouTube channel, theAnalysis-news. Hit like on all the videos you want to watch and hit subscribe so that you’re notified every time a new episode drops. See you in a bit with Anas.
Joining me now is Anas El Gomati. He’s the founder and director of the Libyan think tank, the Sadeq Institute. Thank you so much for joining me, Anas.
Anas El Gomati
Thanks, Talia. I appreciate it.
There’s so much I want to speak to you about today, but I think we should start off with what happened after the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, where Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power. He was killed, and fighting continued afterwards. There was a UN-led process which tried to establish elections and a functioning government. I think it’s safe to say that the process has unfortunately failed and that there are two rival governments now; one in the West and one in the East. What’s going on right now in Libya?
Anas El Gomati
Well, it’s a really complicated story, and it’s always good to start from where you picked things up. It’s difficult to look back in retrospect and try to condense those ten years together. But I would say for the first three years, things were not as bad as they are now. There was an episode of violence that was fairly limited in comparison to the last two conflicts that Libya has endured—one in 2011, one in 2014, and one in 2019. But I don’t know whether or not Libyans would always consider what happened in 2011 to be a civil war. Of course, as you alluded to, NATO’s intervention was heavy on that. I think it also limited a lot of the potential violence that could have occurred, as we saw in Syria. I think that’s one thing that has to be said about the 2011 intervention.
In comparison, the 2014 and 2019 interventions contained the very same players and contained more players. I think that’s where the UN remitted and turned a blind eye to the maligned influence of a lot of regional players and world players that have continued to destabilize Libya. That’s been forgotten.
From 2011 to 2014, Libya was fairly stable, and its progress was actually quite positive in comparison to right now. So there were elections in 2012, with an 80% turnout, very high numbers for Libya’s first elections. There was so much pluralism in that first Parliament that Libya elected that it was a hung Parliament. There were so many different groups there because 60% of the seats were given to independent candidates not running on a party list. Forty percent were given to a party list.
I think, in retrospect, some of those things might now look like a mistake. Maybe what Libya needed at the time was strong party affiliations so that a block could come to dominate and say, “This is the direction that we’re going to take after the elections.” Many argued at the time that we didn’t really know what the Libyans wanted. We don’t know who the Libyans are, so let them elect as many Libyans as possible and let them move forward.
So in retrospect, the first couple of years were okay. Yes, there were militias that were on the ground at the time, but they were not conducting the violence that we’ve seen them conduct since 2014 and since 2019.
So for the first three years, up until Libya’s second elections in 2014, the situation was fairly stable on the ground, and there was one single government. It was elected by the Libyan people en masse. I think, in that sense, there was much to be celebrated. I think Libya’s economic outlook, its political outlook, and its stability in the region were good.
In 2014, we had a civil war, and it came down from the rise of this actor who many may know of and many may not know of, but his name is Khalifa Haftar. I think your viewer should know who he is. He has the longest-standing political career of anybody in the entire Middle East and North Africa. It spans 54 years. He emerged in 1969 with Muammar Gaddafi in a coup against King Idris. He has gone on to launch seven power grabs over a career now that spans, as I said, 54 years. Those power grabs are not just coups. They are defections from the very partners that he launched those coups with.
If we start looking at today’s recent news, the last 24 hours of what has happened in Libya, which we may get into in a little while, you’ll see Khalifa Haftar’s fingerprints and his political DNA all over that.
To set the scene, the first three years were not so bad. I think NATO’s biggest mistake was most likely abandoning Libya’s political future and the role of regional actors and not immunizing Libya from those two things. There was the creation of militias that needed to be integrated into a unified military and a subservient military, which Libya had never experienced. The reason why Libyans overwhelmingly overthrew the Gaddafi regime was that they wanted to live in a society, in a state that was not controlled by a family or by personal militias but by a neutral state security service that respects human rights and allows you to have the same level of freedom no matter where you’re from, what your surname is, what your tribe is, or what part of the country you’re from.
Since 2014, that has been quite the opposite. Khalifa Haftar emerged and declared himself the leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army, or the Libyan Arab Armed Forces. With that, he launched this coup and a war on terror that split the country in two. He split the country between two rival parliaments, the first Parliament that was elected in 2012, a second Parliament that was elected in 2014, and then two rival administrations that were unified temporarily after Libya’s last war in 2019 that Khalifa Haftar launched, but has since, as you’ve mentioned, slipped back to another partition after he failed to have elections in late 2021.
So it is a bit of Groundhog Day in Libya because there have been lots of changes in the middle of the last 12 years. At the same time, for so much change, it’s almost like old wine and new bottles. The same actors are still there from 2011, and they’re still here in 2023. Despite the unification process, the UN process that was supposed to unify all these different parts and put Humpty Dumpty back together again, you still have two different governments under different acronyms. You still have two rival military formations. You still have two rival parliaments.
Well, I would argue that the NATO intervention is what pushed Humpty Dumpty to fall off the wall, so to speak. Of course, Gaddafi was not liked by his people, or by some of them at least. Maybe some of them supported him, but a lot of people would argue that they were uprising against Gaddafi and they didn’t want him to be in power anymore. But the NATO intervention was not conducted in a way that would ensure that there would be something left of the country afterwards.
In 2011, you had so many people fleeing the country and refugees trying to escape Libya and get to Europe. A lot of people, unfortunately, died in the Mediterranean trying to make those crossings. So the intervention wasn’t benign. I’m sure the mandate was not conducted or not designed in such a way to ensure that there would be functioning institutions. We’re still seeing that there is a power vacuum. Now you have, as you said, Haftar, who has his own interests, and you have these rival governments.
Bringing it back to right now, you have a government in the West, the GNA [Government of National Accord], which is supported by the UN, but I think a lot of other European powers and by Turkey. Then in the East, you have a House of Representatives which has just suspended Fathi Bashagha. So what’s going on there? Why was he suspended? What was his vision, at least, of trying to unify Libya, or was he just trying to grab power and resources?
Anas El Gomati
Can I just touch on your point? I actually agree with you. But just on your initial point about NATO.
Anas El Gomati
I think the question about NATO’s intervention, lack of planning, and the fact that members of NATO have since gone on to undermine Libya’s stability tells you a lot about the way that that organization functions. The reality is that why are these states, what we consider to be strong states, or thought were strong states, why are they so brittle? That’s really the reality. A lot of these states, the authoritarian states, the myth of the strong man, it comes down to Fathi Bashagha’s own personal story because that’s really the crux of this story with this parallel administration that was created. They’re brittle states. They look like they’re very strong, but the moment that you poke them, they start to disintegrate because there are no institutions. There is no plan for a day after, and they’re designed to be coup-proof. I think this is where a lot of these states, whether it be Saddam’s [Hussein] Iraq, whether it be Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, or whether it be Gaddafis Libya, or tomorrow, even Egypt’s [Abdel Fattah El-]Sisi, and as we’re looking at the fall of Saddam and its disintegration into a civil war, the rise of [Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo] Hemedti, these places, their institutions are so personalized. They’re so brittle that once there is any intervention from the outside or there is an uprising, they start to fall apart.
But let me come to this question about Fathi Bashagha because it’s a really interesting point that you’ve raised about what are his motivations. His own personal story is fascinating. What you have with the story of Fathi Bashagha is an individual who joined the revolution in 2011. He was a former Air Force pilot and led a revolutionary armed group, a militia from the city of Misrata, which became famous during the revolution for being a real kingmaker and power broker in Western Libya, where the capital is in Tripolitania. He went on to then join, over several years, the political class. He was elected as a member of Parliament in 2014; that second Parliament that we spoke about, the House of Representatives. Then he was appointed as the Minister of Interior to the Government of National Accord that was established in 2015 during the UN process to unify this first division after Libya’s first civil war in 2014. Four months into the job, Khalifa Haftar attacks the capital.
Now, we should remember that the GNA didn’t have a Ministry of Defense. It didn’t have a Chief of Staff. It didn’t have a Chief of Intelligence. So he was literally the last man standing in terms of Libya’s or Tripoli’s security. He goes on to defend the capital from Khalifa Haftar’s onslaught. What begins as just a normal war escalates into a nasty, brutal, personal war of words between Khalifa Haftar and Fathi Bashagha. Khalifa Haftar calls the GNA, the units, and the forces fighting underneath him that Bashagha was leading– he calls them terrorists; and says, “I will never enter into a dialogue with them.”
On the other hand, Fathi Bashagha calls Haftar a putschist, a coup plotter, a war criminal, someone whom he will never meet with. In fact, on the record, he says, “There will be no peace in Libya whilst Haftar enjoys a political role.”
Now, that was in 2019 and 2020. The civil war culminated in a stalemate around the summer of 2020. Within six months, there is a UN political process that says, “Well, there is a rival government here in the East. There’s a rival government here in the West. Let’s again unify these two separate halves.” They create a political dialogue forum where they bring in members of the status quo, Libya’s two rival parliaments, to appoint two figures, one president and one prime minister.
Fathi Bashagha enters into that race with the head of the Parliament in the East, who is considered to be Khalifa Haftar’s staunchest political ally. So people start scratching their heads, and they start wondering, what happened to all this anonymity?
Before the end of that year, before the end of 2021, Fathi Bashagha stood in Benghazi, the eastern city that has become infamous for the events in 2012, over the last ten years, and is the center of power of Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. He shares a handshake with the man that he said there would be no political future for in the country and that there would be no peace with. Khalifa Haftar, the man who said that he emerged in Libya not for his own personal political gain or financial gain but to fight the scourge of terrorism, which he has said he will never enter into a dialogue with and shakes his hand. So the terrorists are shaking the putschist’s hand.
It’s an unusual place in Libya, but it’s a place where there are friends with benefits, but there are also enemies with benefits. That’s what happened with this creation of the Government of National Stability. These two figures emerged, and they have this narrative that surrounds them. Everyone has called Khalifa Haftar, or many people have called him ‘the strong man of the East.’ Fathi Bashagha, after his role in the 2019 civil war, became labelled ‘the strong man of the West.’
What happens is that these two strong men come together and forge an agreement, but they’re not strong enough to take the capital. They tried to overthrow the Government of National Unity that was appointed in 2021 under Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, the current sitting internationally recognized Prime Minister, and they failed to overthrow him. What happened beyond failing to overthrow him, it actually dispels a lot of the myths around the “Arab strongman.” They’re only as strong as their rhetoric suggests. In a place like Libya, where there are no angels on either side of these civil wars, I’ll be very clear about that, but there are militias that have emerged that fight for greed. There are certainly militias and armed groups out there that fight for grievance. There are those that are going to end up supporting the revolution, and there are going to be those that oppose it and support Gaddafi. The question is not who is right and who is wrong. The question is, what are they fighting for, and how do you get them to stop fighting? And so that deal that was cut between the two rival strongmen of the last civil war, the two political polls of the last civil war, failed. It failed because these two strongmen assumed that they could buy their way out of a civil war.
Civil wars are there. There’s a lot of political rhetoric that is there. There’s always going to be financial gain. There are going to be geopolitical and economic interests that are there. In a place like Libya which has some of the highest levels of gold deposits and the highest levels of cash deposits in the world, of course, there’s going to be greed, but there’s also going to be grievances. Trying to meddle and mould both together and mesh both together has been one of the reasons why we’re struggling to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. You can’t buy out everyone. You can’t buy out people that may have supported Gaddafi’s regime. They’re principled, and they believe in what they fought for.
In contrast, you might not be able to buy out those that fought against him and have now fought against Khalifa Haftar and have now fought against Fathi Bashagha. But as you can see, over a decade, one of the things that no one really looks at is how we turn away from these places for a decade, and we look back, and we say, “Oh, yeah, it’s Groundhog Day. It’s just two governments. It’s just two rivals. They’ll fix it eventually.” You forget that on a dusty Tuesday in a place like Libya, there are war crimes that are taking place on either side or any of the sides that we’ve just mentioned that have been there over the last decade. The build-up of those grievances makes those states even more brittle. It makes it even harder to then address the number of grievances that have been there for the last decade. So when you look at the rise and the fall and demise of a player like Fathi Bashagha, it tells you a couple of things– strong men beware, and those that are buying, beware of what you’re buying because, to be honest, that is a myth that has now come down crashing on the plate of analysts, diplomats, and commentators across the country and further afield. But also that the serious work that needs to go in, as you mentioned, the serious work and planning that needs to take place after the fact of an intervention like what happened in 2011 or two serious civil wars that have erupted in the aftermath, you can’t put them to bed through a handshake in Benghazi and assume there’s nothing else to see here, and everything will be rosy.
Well, yeah, why don’t we talk about that planning? Because you have this unlikely alliance, as you might call it, between Haftar and Bashagha. Are they in control of some of the oil reserves?
Anas El Gomati
Or is it the UN-led or the UN-supported government in the West in Tripoli that’s controlling those reserves? Because the Libyan Coast Guard, for example, receives an incredible amount of money from the E.U. and especially from Italy to ensure that people on the move, that asylum seekers don’t leave Libya and that they don’t arrive in Italy or in other parts of the peripheral area of Southern Europe. So they’ve been systematically pushed back. This is, of course, against international standards and against international norms. It’s [inaudible 00:18:00]. It’s pushing them back to Libya. The Libyan Coast Guard has been fully complicit in these crimes, and they’re receiving money from the E.U. to basically do the E.U.’s dirty work and ensure that people don’t leave the country.
Anas El Gomati
Who do these people represent? Are they from the West, so to speak, and are they also in control of some resources? The most important question would be, are the Libyans themselves, the Libyan population, are they benefiting from any of these resources and oil profits whatsoever, or are they just completely impoverished?
Anas El Gomati
It’s a number of questions you asked, and all of them are pertinent and straight to the point. So I’ll try and be as quick as I can to go through them.
Number one, I think when it comes to the oil reserves and how they’re controlled, that is a really unusual game that reflects the ways in which wars are fought now in the 21st century and how different they were fought in the 20th century. Libya is littered with mercenaries and foreign mercenaries. There is Russias Wagner Group that operates in Libya. There are other sides and factions that have delivered their own mercenaries. Libya is littered with militias and tribes.
If you ask Khalifa Haftar when he blockaded that oil, he said, “It wasn’t me that blockaded it. It was the Libyan tribes.” But then he’ll put out an order through the Libyan National Army to say that nobody can work from the Libyan military in any of those facilities.
In late 2021, I believe, in September 2021, after Libya’s oil was blockaded at the end of the civil war in 2019 and 2020, that oil blockade was lifted through negotiations in Moscow. So there was an element there that was hinting at foreign control. It was blockaded again after Khalifa Haftar and Fathi Bashagha established their own GNS, the Government of National Stability, that parallel government we spoke about a few moments earlier. After they blockaded the oil, Khalifa Haftar negotiated with Dbeibeh, the Prime Minister in Tripoli, and again stabbed in the back his own political ally, Fathi Bashagha, and lifted the blockade through negotiations in the UAE between, as I said, Dbeibeh and Haftar. Now, Dbeibeh and Haftar each control portions of the oil wealth. None of the oil wealth goes to the Libyan people. They’re yet to see any of it.
Basically, look at the pictures across the country. There is nothing that has been built in that country arguably since the late ’70s. That’s one of the things that Libya is desperately in need of. If you go to Libyan government estimates, Libyan is in the region of $100 billion of investment in its infrastructure alone, and that’s telling. What it’s telling is that the $100 billion is there. It’s in the Libyan coffers. They could spend that money if they wanted to. So much of that money goes into the hands and pockets of Libya’s unelected and expired political elite.
When it comes to the Coast Guard, it’s a very different question. I think it’s really important. It is one of the things that the European Union is certainly guilty of. If you look at the UN panel of expert reports, not only are they training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard in means that are deeply contrary to international humanitarian law, Libya’s own law, and Europe’s own responsibilities and maritime responsibilities, but more peculiar than that is that many of the individuals that are responsible for the smuggling of humans and human trafficking, they’re the ones that are now part of the Libyan Coast Guard.
In the West of Libya, you have individuals known as [inaudible 00:21:45] and other people like that. The town of Az-Zāwiyah is a critical departure point for refugees and migrants fleeing to Europe. By the UN’s own admission and its own panel of expert reports, there are individuals that were smugglers that attended training courses under the E.U. and were received by the E.U. themselves. They’ve either taken material support or support of some kind from the E.U.
What is getting worse now is that for the first time in the modern history of Libya, departures are exceeding in the East of the country where there has been a smuggling empire under Khalifa Haftar. Sixty percent of departures today, the 57,000 that landed on the shores of Italy over the last year, have come from Libya, at least 60% from Eastern Libya. Khalifa Haftar today has moved from being the commander of the Libyan National Army to being the commander of a smuggling network. You would think that this would also irk the European Union or member states. He was received by the Meloni administration two weeks ago and given red-carpet treatment in Rome.
It’s one of those places where when you look at the political landscape, you look at the political fingerprints on the crimes that have taken place; Libya is like living in the upside down. Nothing makes sense. The more crimes that you pursue, the more spoiling that you pursue, the more reward you get. It also tells you a number of other things. The harder you push, the more you can get. For every Khalifa Haftar, you have a plastic one sitting behind him thinking, “I could be next,” and that’s damaging. That’s why what you were talking about, international norms, they’re not just words and abstract terms that people use to describe phenomena in textbooks. They matter on the ground because if you keep breaking these rules over and over again, then everyone thinks, “If he can do it, so can I.”
Unfortunately, it is a lot of the western actors, such as the E.U., are involved indirectly or directly with their money, perpetrating these crimes against humanity. There was a UN report saying that the crimes against a lot of the migrants and asylum seekers who are detained in Libya amount to crimes against humanity– rape and all sorts of inhumane conditions in which they’re detained. Yet the E.U. policymakers, as well as the U.S. policymakers, keep talking about this rules-based order, which they stand behind in European values. They’re just complete hypocrites when it comes to actually trying to implement policies that would foster those values.
Another area that we could speak about is how the E.U. has welcomed so many refugees from Ukraine who have been forced to leave their country. They should accept these people and treat them with respect and give them asylum. At the same time, there have been no legal channels for people to leave Libya or other countries in Africa that have been stricken by conflict and other calamities and crises.
Anas El Gomati
It’s just unfortunate to see that because the E.U. has been so present in those regions and in contributing to those crises. Yet there’s a racist element to it because when these people want to come to Europe and seek protection, then it’s, “Oh, these people are just economic migrants, so they’re not really deserving of any protection.”
Anas El Gomati
I couldn’t agree more, honestly. I think the dilemma that I have in my mind, there are two things. The first is that racial discrepancy; it’s certainly not lost on an Arab audience because they started scratching their heads and saying, number one, “How come we’re not received in that way?” Number two, they don’t want to be received in the first place. They want to stay at home. There’s no refugee on Earth that ever wants to leave their home and take a boat, most likely die, be ignored and forgotten about and be described as cockroaches by other European heads of state and otherwise.
There’s something that is to be said about the fact that the best way and best policy for reducing a refugee crisis is to prevent violence from taking place in the first place. That’s where you find, unfortunately, the role of regional Arab states, the role of other European states, the role of the U.S., and Russia in Libya. They have their fingerprints all over that. I think some countries don’t care because they’re not on the receiving end. Libya is considered to be NATO’s southern flank and Europe’s soft underbelly. In many ways, the only thing that is of importance for a lot of policymakers today about Libya is to just stabilize it, and give it to someone to stop those boats from coming in. I think that’s really when you start to interrogate what their policies could have been over the last several years; why don’t you stop the malignant influence of regional actors? Why don’t you stop your own malignant influence of working with smugglers and calling them coastguards? I mean, there’s a lot more. I know this sounds strange saying this as a political analyst, but in a philosophical sense, there’s a lot of soul-searching that needs to be done when it comes to not only the policy-making on Libya but also the rhetoric. The rhetoric is deeply dehumanizing when it comes to places like Libya and places like Syria. If they’re called a human, that’s the best possible outcome. More often than not, they’re either, as it is, like a wink and nod or whatever, the idea that they’re either terrorists, terrorist sympathizers, or parts of criminal networks. It’s the most deeply dehumanizing thing to say about those that are fleeing from conflict and fleeing from terror, fleeing from criminal networks and fleeing from violence. Violence [inaudible 00:27:21] perpetuate.
It reminds me of Josep Borrell, the High Representative of Europe. He gave a speech; I think this was eight months ago or so, in which he characterized Europe as a garden which needed to be protected from the jungle. Just that metaphor; it’s so colonial. When he was called out as opposed to apologizing, he double downed on it and said that he didn’t mean it in a racist way but that Europe represents these lofty values that need to be protected from places like Libya, alluding to the warfare and the deaths and the horrible bloodshed that’s going on there. He missed out on the important part, and that’s how Europe has contributed to the perpetuation of these crimes in the region.
I think the Arab regional actors also play a role. The Emirates, the United Arab Emirates have played a huge role. I think initially they did not support Haftar, and now they do support Haftar. If you look at–
Anas El Gomati
No, they were the first.
Oh, they were the first.
Anas El Gomati
Okay. They’re also involved in a neighboring conflict in Sudan. So in Sudan, there’s a war between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which are led by General Hemedti. Haftar and Hemedti are also buddy-buddy.
Anas El Gomati
They are fellows.
So how is the conflict in Sudan playing into the conflict in Libya?
Anas El Gomati
So this is fascinating for me because I think what it tells you about the brittle states, states where elements like the RSF [Rapid Support Forces] in Sudan or the LNA in Eastern Libya are on the rise is because of these interdependencies that they’ve created with their patrons. It used to be the case that you would think of patron and proxy as being big and small. One giving the orders and the other one following the orders. It’s not quite like that anymore. What happens is that it’s much more flat, it’s much more heterarchical, and it’s based on these interdependencies that are hand-in-hand. Each one requires the other. It’s much more equal, and there’s much more equity and dependability on both.
I can go through what I think about how these things that are taking place and what the effect on Libya is. Hemedti’s history in Libya is longer than history, arguably, politically in Sudan. He came to Sudan to be involved in Sudan after the events that led to the second revolution or the uprising in Sudan and the establishment of the Transitional National Council there. That brought together the military, the RSF and civilian bodies from the street and street protests.
The RSF, its paramilitary history, goes back to the days of the Janjaweed in South Sudan, but also its days in Libya. It has been a longer presence in Libya, arguably, than it’s had in Sudan. It’s fought more wars in Libya critically than it has fought in Sudan. Hemedti’s forces were fighting in Libya in 2019. They were brought in as mercenaries. This isn’t just some two-bit relationship between two people that have some alliance; you’re an authoritarian, and I’m an authoritarian. These guys work together.
The second element that is really critical and is important is Khalifa Haftar’s son, Siddiq Haftar, was pictured in Khartoum two weeks before the events that led to the recent civil war. Siddiq Haftar, according to a lot of journalists that had been reporting about this recently, was in Khartoum to give Hemedti a whisper in the ear and give him vital intelligence. He told him, “Your friends, the military, are moving against you.” So he gave him the vital intelligence at the time when he needed it and then moved to supply weapons, intelligence, and fuel supplies from Libya’s Southeast border in the town of Kufra, over the border of northern Sudan to the RSF. In so many different factions and so many different facets, Khalifa Haftar has been critical to helping Hemedti stay alert and stay alive, but also to thrive and sustain this latest conflict.
The rise of someone like Hemedti is because you have a rise in these new burgeoning strongmen who have created these interdependencies. You need my fuel from Libya, but I need your money. As we said, Khalifa Haftar is not part of this internationally recognized government. He doesn’t have any money. He gets his money from the Sudanese military that is paying for the fuel that he’s smuggling over the border.
On the other hand, he also gives him intelligence when he needs it. He’s also getting forces, the RSF. When the fighting finishes in Sudan, if there’s another civil war in Libya, who do you think is going to go and fight it? It’s going to be the RSF fighting on behalf of Libya’s National Army. It is such an unusual sense of dependability and interdependencies. These are the new burgeoning alliances in the region that are going to be so difficult to get rid of.
Sudan’s own crisis, which could have been mitigated, could have been stopped a long time ago. It is most likely now going to spark a migration crisis into Southern Europe. That migration crisis is going to put us right back to square one. Europeans are going to pick up the phone and say, “Who do we speak to? Let’s speak to Haftar.” Why? This is the individual that helped spur that war on in Sudan. He’s fueled that war. He’s also making money out of the migrants and refugees that are crossing the sea. So instead of being the cure, so many of these actors are like the cancer.
Yeah, they have too much power, and they’re exacerbating the situation on the ground. They’re controlling everything on the ground, and they’re building up their power so that when it’s time for the E.U. to step in and try to find a solution, they’ll keep going to the people who are feeding into the bloodshed.
Anas El Gomati
Well, there is a way around it. I think there’s no way around political will. There’s no way around that. I mean, I think the political will that should have been there a decade ago, right now, this is the asset test. There are so many different frontiers and geopolitical strategic lenses that you can adopt when looking at a place like Libya. As I said earlier on, the reason why the world’s attention is faced on Ukraine is that it is this frontier line. It is considered to be NATO’s eastern flank. No matter which way you look at it, that is a critical border between two major superpowers. On the other hand, Libya is NATO’s southern flank. It’s also the European Union’s soft underbelly, the Mediterranean region. So much of Libya’s history has been impacted by European colonial powers but also by foreign states meddling in their affairs.
You could also argue in the same breath how much of European populism, how much of Europe’s recent history with Brexit and its own recent history of far-right movements rising up, how much of that has been impacted by Libya. They’re kind of like two glasses filling one another at different times.
These regions are interconnected. What happens in Libya really matters for Europeans, and what happens in Europe really matters for Libyans. They’re going to have to change that political will. I look at a situation like today, I can’t think of any more urgency than the fact that you have conflicts that are no longer easy conflicts to solve.
These interdependencies are not just ways of looking at how friendships matter and why these bonds are so deep. What it means is that in a place like Sudan, when you get into the nitty gritty of conflict mediation and resolution, how do you solve a civil war? You bring the two local players together, and you say, “Figure it out.” What they always have to bring in are the civilian parties that are from the street that had no role in that conflict. They should have their finger on the pulse. They should be saying this is a measure that is acceptable to the broader community, the broader public, and the broader society.
You can’t do that today when you have these interdependent networks. What is the difference between what Hemedti is doing, what Haftar is doing, and what their patrons in the United Arab Emirates are doing? They are shipping in so many more weapons, ammunition, and fuel, as we said. Russia’s Wagner Group is also playing a massive and critical role in playing the logistics of not only bringing in weapons and training fires in the RSF but also helping take out to the tune of around $17 billion a year in illegally exported and mined gold from Sudan and bringing it to the market in the UAE where there are shell companies waiting there and where there is the second or third, I think, after Hong Kong, the second or third biggest global market for gold in the world.
What you see is this really vicious cycle and interdependencies that when it comes to resolving their conflict, do you speak to Hemedti of the RSF, do you speak to Burhan of the Sudanese military, or do you have to also bring in Russian mercenaries, Libyan mercenaries, if you want to consider them, to be that, UAE patrons, the Egyptians that are supporting the other side? It just complicates, and it crowds the space for conflict mediation. It’s almost like the old saying of ‘all for one and one for all,’ because if I, the weakest node in that link or in that chain, as Hemedti say, “I don’t want to keep fighting anymore,” then the UAE or Haftar will turn around and say, “Well, no more fuel for you in peacetime. No more gold for you on the international markets.” So there is so much more leverage. They can’t just defect, or they can’t just walk away and be [inaudible 00:35:40]. This is really going to make conflict mediation in the coming years more difficult. This form of warfare, this alliance building, these new alliances, it’s going to make civil war mediation and conflict resolution so much more difficult that we could see long wars on the horizon, or what they call forever wars. You can just start seeing forever wars there because no one knows who to negotiate with to end these civil wars. The interdependence is so strong that you can’t just get one signature on a paper, you need three or four, and they might end up not being signed locally. They might end up being signed somewhere else.
Europe needs to wake up because these are the kind of conflicts that they could have managed a long time ago. They still have leverage in many ways over it, but the political will and savviness are sorely, sorely lacking in my eyes.
Well, the framing needs to shift from these elites who have the resources and control of the military to the civilians as well. I mean, it seems like there’s no representative of the civilian populations or civilian structures within any of these negotiations or lack of negotiations. Whether it be in Sudan or in Libya, they’re just not part of the political process because they, unfortunately, they don’t have any control of the resources of the country. So the outside actors don’t even go to them. They just go to the ones who wield power and will have military power.
Anas El Gomati
Well, what’s interesting to me is that the last individual that had that appeal in Sudan was [Abdalla] Hamdok. He just lost credibility because, again, that lack of power meant that he just was a nice civilian face to a military skeleton behind him in the institutions. When it comes to the lack of a role for these civilian forces, I would go back to the phenomena of Libya. I mentioned this earlier on, and I wanted to say with a caveat, there are no angels in a place like Libya. When you have a brutal civil war like this, you have crimes being committed across the board. One has to ask why someone is fighting so you can understand what it will take for them to put their weapons down.
It comes back to this point that we were talking about with Fathi Bashagha and who he came to represent as this strong man of the West versus the strong man of the East. In the east of the country, the project has been the revival of Gaddafi Jamahiriya. The Jamahiriya was not the [inaudible 00:37:59]. It wasn’t the green [inaudible 00:38:00]. It wasn’t the outlandish outfits of Gaddafi. It was his socio-political engineering of a patronist structure that led to Libya’s state being very brittle. It was all personalized underneath him. There were certain tribes that held military power. They probably accounted for around 12% of the population in the east of the country. There were certain tribes, 88% of the population, that don’t consider themselves to be tribal.
If we really delve into what that word means, a tribe is a structure above you. So if there is a war or an incident revolving around blood, then your tribe gets involved, if you have one. If you don’t, then the courts get involved. Eighty-eight percent of the Libyan people don’t subscribe to that model. So calling Libya a tribal society is really not accurate in any academic or any meaningful sense. The reality is that those systems are established around this.
What happened in 2011 is that the other 88% that never had weapons, they developed the capabilities. As we said earlier on, there was this problem of controlling the arms supplies and the arms controlling Libya. They were dispersed, and this rise of militia and revolutionary armed groups took place. Those individuals, they wouldn’t consider themselves to be militias. We can sit and talk about them that way and academically scrutinize their role and put them into nice boxes, but if you ask one of these militiamen yourself and say, “What are you?” “I’m a civilian that’s got a gun.” That might look like Texas to me. That might be a place where there’s a high proliferation of weapons. Each socio-cultural lens has to be adopted.
In a place like Libya, where you have a lot of people who have weapons, choose not to use them, but choose to use them at moments, these big political lightning rod moments, like in 2011 when there was a revolution, and there was a choice to be with or against. In 2014 when there was a civil war, where Haftar rose up in the east of the country, it was with or against. In 2019, when he came to the West and attacked the Libyan capital, it was with or against. You saw that the small number of militias or mercenaries, or, “military forces,” they’re around 10% of the number of forces that turn up when there’s a civil war. Who are the other 90%? They’re civilians that are taking up weapons. What matters and the relevance of all of this is that if you don’t include the civilian forces in your political debates, they will take up weapons themselves. If you don’t include them when they’re taking up weapons, then you’ll never get the military and the institutional stability and security that Europe and the West have been craving from Libya.
Again, it goes back to the basic question when it comes down to these wars, it’s planning. It’s also understanding that if you don’t do something now, things will always get worse before they get better. I just fear that we’re so far away from the right diagnosis of the situation that we’re nowhere near the cure. That’s really what keeps me up at night when it comes to a place like Libya.
Well, thank you so much for your time, Anas. It was great speaking to you. I’m sure there’s so much more that we can speak about next time. I hope to have you on again soon.
Anas El Gomati
For sure, thank you.
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“Anas El Gomati is the founder and current Director General of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, the first public policy think tank in Libya’s history, established in August 2011. The Sadeq Institute conducts qualitative and quantitative field research across East, west and South Libya. He has held several positions in the region and Europe, as a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, Lebanon and visiting lecturer at the NATO defense college in Rome, Italy.”