By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The hope inspired by the 2010-2011 Arab Spring uprisings and protests captured the imaginations of many people in the Middle East. In the West, the Arab Spring made people think that a new generation of Arab politics was to come.
The New York Times (NYT) echoed that hope, even after the first year of the Arab Spring and the beginning of the bloodshed in Syria and Libya. Anthony Shadid, the head of the NYT bureau in Beirut, kept the hope going by saying there is room for a new political culture ushered by the new generation. But in reviewing what has occurred over the last decade, it seems that that permanent change within Libya did not develop, as many had hoped.
The Civil War in Libya
Before the Arab Spring, Libya was controlled by an eccentric dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. He was an extravagant character who promoted a blend of Islam and socialism. Gaddafi outlined his philosophies in “The Green Book,” which has been translated into dozens of languages.
Gaddafi also maintained a lavish lifestyle. He traveled all over the world in jets, stayed at the most expensive hotels and wore designer clothes.
When the Arab Spring demonstrations started, they quickly spread all over Libya. Gaddafi swore to crush the uprisings, leading the United Nations to create a no-fly zone over Libya.
Without the aerial coverage, the regime crumbled. Ultimately, the destruction of the regime led to the killing of Gaddafi. His opponents attacked his convoy, and Gaddafi was killed by a mob.
However, Gaddafi’s assassination did not bring about democracy to Libya – far from it. In the past decade, Libya has been involved in a bloody civil war that has cost the lives of many people. Some were killed at the hands of rival militias, based on tribal lines, and others were killed by groups that were offshoots of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
International Intervention in Libya
The civil war in Libya quickly became a battlefield involving regional and international powers that were using their proxy powers to advance their goals. Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, among other countries, found allies on the ground to further their agenda.
Turkey, for example, found an ally in the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli. Ankara is interested in controlling more territory in the Eastern Mediterranean area.
For example, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, wants control of more territorial waters, creating tensions with Greece, Egypt and Israel. Erdoğan also hoped that with the assistance of a sympathetic government in Tripoli, he could solidify his claim concerning these territorial waters.
While the Government of National Accord has the support of the United Nations and Turkey, the civil war gave rise to many other local forces. The most prominent force is led by a former General in the army and a CIA asset turned U.S. citizen: General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.
Haftar was a general under Gaddafi. But after Haftar lost a battle in the war with Chad and was taken captive, he lost his clout with the dictator.
Haftar quickly became a CIA operative and moved to the U.S. at one point. After the civil war began, Haftar returned to Libya and commanded a militia called the Libyan National Army that operated from eastern Libya.
Haftar is aided by Egypt, UAE, Russia and other countries that oppose the Turkish attempts to increase Turkey’s control of the Middle East. Recently, it was discovered that Israel also has ties with Haftar.
Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who writes about intelligence for the Israeli daily Haaretz, reported that a plane owned by Haftar landed in Tel-Aviv Airport.
Melman noted that “a private jet – a French-manufactured Dassault Falcon, registration P4-RMA – took off from Dubai and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. The plane was on the ground for about 90 minutes and then continued to its final destination in Libya. The jet belongs to the Libyan warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar and is used to fly his family and aides.”
According to the report, Haftar’s son was aboard the jet and had a meeting with unnamed Israeli officials. There is room to speculate that in exchange to whatever help Israel can give Haftar, he might reciprocate if he wins a peace deal. Libya would join other Arab countries that established ties with Israel in 2020.
New Elections in Libya Taking Place Soon
Elections for a new Libyan government are scheduled to take place later this month on December 24. Seventy-four candidates have signed up to appear on the ballot.
The elections seem like a last-ditch effort to stop the civil war that has been bleeding Libya dry and to reestablish a common denominator for a Libyan national identity. If this effort fails, then militant Islamists, foreign mercenaries and tribal leaders might resume the bloodbath within Libya.
If anyone thought we are dealing with a new Middle East, then the resurfacing of one political candidate proved them wrong: Saif al-Islam Muammar Gaddafi. This candidate is the son of Muammar Gaddafi and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for killing civilians.
Saif Gaddafi was facing charges in Libya, but he was pardoned by the Haftar government. He is now running for president with the political backing of tribes who were loyal to his father.
Saif Gaddafi, a former playboy who dated models with the money his father took from Libyan citizens, is now going around in Islamic garb. He has called for unity in returning Libya to its former glory.
Unfortunately, things do not change in the Middle East. This lesson is an important one for international powers to learn.