After long negotiations, the main powerbrokers in Libya have agreed to form a National Unity government and finally hold long-overdue elections in December of 2021. Both inside and outside the borders of the troubled North African state, optimism regarding its future is palpable for the first time in half a decade – even EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell joined in, saying “Libya is good news; the ceasefire is still lasting and I think that we can be optimistic about the situation.”
But Islamist groups and foreign militias could rain on the parade, and return Libya to the quagmire of civil war. Of particular concern are not only established groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the thousands of jihadis that were shipped into the country by Turkey, which is using Libya’s fragility to increase its own influence in North Africa. With the upcoming elections dependent on the delicate ceasefire between the rival authorities in Tripoli and Tobruk, fears mount that armed militias could cause the tentative agreements to crumble and throw Libya back into civil war.
By Vote or by Gun
Since the fall of the Gaddafi regime almost ten years ago, Libya has become a favoured playground for dozens of different, sometimes opposed, radical Islamist groups. Finding a niche in the fighting between the country’s two governments, armed militias flourished in the chaos. Estimates claimed that more than 10% of the country’s entire workforce had joined a militia during the Civil War. While not as powerful as a few years ago, when they occupied Benghazi and other cities in the country’s east, Libya’s ultra-religious factions are still one of the most feared players in the troubled state.
Some Islamist groups, like the International Muslim Brotherhood, are hedging their bets by being active both on the battlefield and at the polls. Just weeks ago, the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood renamed itself “Resurrection and Reform Society” in preparation for the upcoming elections. Experts see in this an attempt to whitewash the organization’s bloody history and to eschew the stigma of being designated a terrorist organization in several Arab states. Meanwhile, their armed militias continue to have strong control over some areas in the country’s west.
While the Brotherhood is unlikely to see a repeat of their 2012 success in Egypt, when Mohammed Morsi managed to get elected as the president of the country, it could still prove an important player in Libya’s post-election landscape. Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, a businessman-turned-politician who has been designated as the country’s interim prime minister in the run-up to the December election has been accused of allegedly financing the Muslim Brotherhood in the past and is likely to be sympathetic towards their place in the country’s future. Conversely, a defeat at the polls could convince the Brotherhood to once again change tack and resort to their armed wing in order to obtain more power.
Equally alarming is the presence of other armed Islamist groups in the country, including ISIS and Al Qaeda-affiliated militias who, rather than throwing their hat in the political process, seek to violently destabilize any civilian government Libya might muster. The ability of these groups to operate with impunity within Libya has caused concern and anger among its neighbors, who worry that it’s only a matter of time before they start operating across national borders.
Last year, Egyptian President al-Sisi considered sending troops inside Libya to fight against Islamists after several Egyptian border guards were ambushed and killed by armed groups. While cooler heads prevailed and a (fresh) foreign invasion of Libya was avoided, tensions remained high. Any perceived victory for Islamists in Libya will undoubtedly be seen in Cairo as a national security threat.
To make matters worse, extremist activity in the country has increased since Turkey, who supported the authorities in Tripoli during the civil war, has begun to ship into the country jihadis and mercenaries previously active in the Syrian war. President Recep Erdoğan’s repeated use of extremists militias as proxies in regional conflicts has infuriated the international community, with Turkish relations to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, being at an all-time low.
Now seen as part of a failed Turkish regional strategy, the thousands of battle-hardened jihadis imported from Syria might prove even more dangerous in times of peace. Increasingly isolated, Erdoğan is currently trying to mend damaged relations, shifting its method of influence in Libya from a military to an economic one, with the announcement of plans for a logistic naval base meant to revitalize the country. Nonetheless, a detente is unlikely to happen without the wholesale removal of Turkish-funded militias from Libya.
The path ahead
In an attempt to defeat General Haftar’s Libyan National Army in the civil war, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord has allied itself with more and more dangerous groups, both from within and from outside the country. With a government of national unity in place and hostilities between Tripoli and Tobruk simmering down, Libya’s next challenge will be protecting the electoral process and the country’s secular government from enemies that cannot be brought to the negotiating table.
The prospect of a secular and democratic Libya is obstructed by the highly divorced nature of the conflict. Many of the groups involved, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Turkish-backed jihadis, pledged their allegiance to the Tripoli faction, while General Haftar is hailed as a hero in Tobruk for defeating Islamist militias in the country’s east. More worryingly at all, no one can guarantee that militias that followed orders during the war will continue to do so in times of peace.
After a decade of war and division, any attack on the National Unity Government by the country’s radical groups is more likely to drive a wedge in the fragile peace between the two sides than unite them in defence of democracy.