Why is the Arab world becoming more involved in Libya? Because the Libyan conflict is increasingly becoming a showcase for the two competing visions of governance in the Arab world, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Libyans and the Arab world are caught between a vision of illiberal democracy, in which Islamists use democratic tools to reach power and gradually overtake various institutions of governance, or autocracies led by military strongmen. One model resembles Turkey, the other Egypt.
According to Libyan analyst Mohamed Eljarh, the Libyan conflict was initially an internal Libyan conflict. But as “regional powers (are) sending foreign fighters to settle scores on Libyan soil using Libyan money and Libyan factions”, the conflict has become internationalised. Moreover, the west, which helped remove Gaddafi and defeat ISIS, seems content with stopping the flow of migrants into Europe and little else.
This vacuum has led regional powers to flood in, competing on Libyan soil for their vision of the region to dominate. Qatar and Turkey back political Islam while the Gulf States back a strongman intent on cracking down on militant and political Islam. Libya expert Frederic Wehrey adds that “unresolved fissures and continuing proxy struggle for influence that started from the Arab Spring…(the) vacuum left behind by the west, the paralysis of the Europeans, and the ambivalence of the Americans has allowed the space for Arab states and Russia to step in and reopen them”.
Indeed, Turkey is seeking to expand its foothold in the Arab world, seizing an opportunity to back an Islamist government. The Saudis and UAE seek to prevent another Islamist government from taking hold and seek to protect their growing influence in Africa. Egypt similarly fears an Islamist government on its border, as well as any country beholden to regional rival Turkey. Jordan too, quietly one of Haftar’s biggest supports, is concerned Libya will turn into another ISIS hotbed like in Syria.
Other powers, like Russia, France and Italy, are also involved, each with their own interests in mind and backing opposing sides.
In the meantime, it seems that Libyans have to make an unenviable choice – democracy with weak institutions dominated by Islamists or an authoritarian one-state party dominated by the military. One seeks democracy first, the other stability over democracy. Eljarh explains that the GNA claims that security and stability are just code words for dictatorship, while Haftar is quite open in his claim that the country is simply not ready for democracy so long as the government does not have a monopoly on the use of force, and that this can only be established by armed force.
And yet, no actor can guarantee that Haftar would cede power to a democratically elected government were he to have full control. If anything, the signs point to moves he is making already to bring more aspects of the economy under his control. On the other side, the Monitor notes that the Islamist rhetoric on the radio in Tripoli sounds increasingly like Erdogan’s talking points. In the meantime, analyst Claudia Gazzini reports there is no progress on elections, no parliamentary oversight and rampant cronyism and embezzlement plaguing the country.
To be sure, Haftar’s model is not as anti-Islamist as he makes himself out to be. Rather, the article suggests, taking a page out of the Saudi playbook, Haftar could make a deal with extremist Salafists who eschew political involvement. Like in Saudi Arabia, the Salafists get fully dominance over the religious sphere while they remain entirely loyal to the political leadership.
Libyans must decide their own fate. However, it increasingly seems this is not being left up to them.