This article was first published on First Things, September 18, 2018.
Libya was in the spotlight recently when heavy infighting between militias in Tripoli caused more than fifty deaths. On September 5 the U.N. reached a ceasefire, but the country remains deeply divided, and the conflict will not end anytime soon.
The Libyan crisis has also damaged relations between France and Italy. The two European powers have taken opposing sides in Libya’s now seven-year-long conflict and blame each other for the violence, which has been ongoing since the murder of former leader Muammar al-Gadhafi in 2011. Italy signed a historic treaty with Gadhafi in 2008, according to which Italy would compensate Libya for Italian colonialism and Libya would stop its flow of migrants—an imminent concern for Italy due to its proximity to the North African country. France backed NATO’s toppling of Gadhafi, a move Italy staunchly criticized. Since the fall of Gadhafi, Libya has descended into sectarian and tribal chaos. Its ensuing civil wars have enabled human traffickers of all kinds to operate freely, transporting hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe and effectively creating a slave trade in Libya. In 2010, Gadhafi infamously warned that “Europe will turn black” unless he was paid to control Libya’s human trafficking problem—a problem that became a full-blown crisis when he was deposed.
Today, France and Italy continue to support rival sides in Libya’s civil war. Libya is divided into two main governments: Italy and the U.S. back the internationally recognized Tripoli government, while France backs the eastern government led by general Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of the country. Italy recently reached a new agreement with the Tripoli government and provided it with funds to quell migration, which mainly occurs in the country’s western areas. The problem with the agreement is that the Tripoli government in the West can barely govern its own city, often bribing militias to maintain control. The eastern government has instead adopted military-style rule over the areas under its control and has almost entirely stopped human trafficking networks.
Over recent weeks, militias aligned with Haftar have attacked the Tripoli government and caused security threats to the Italian embassy, triggering top ministers from the new Italian populist government (from both the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigration League) to staunchly accuse France of being behind the attack. The criticism comes after months of increasing tensions between French President Emmanuel Macron and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini over the migrant crisis. These tensions culminated in a “populist meeting” between Hungarian President Viktor Orbán and Salvini, at which Macron proudly declared himself their “main rival.”
The relationship between France and Italy continues to fray. “My fear is that someone, for economic motives and selfish national interest, is putting at risk the security of North Africa and, as a result, of Europe as a whole,” said Salvini, head of the anti-immigration League party. He added: “I’m thinking of someone who waged a war that shouldn’t have been waged; someone who set election dates without discussing this with allies, with the United Nations or indeed with the Libyan people.”
Italy’s Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta, of the Five-Star Movement, reiterated Salvini’s words on social media: “It is clearly now undeniable that Libya finds itself in this situation because someone, in 2011, put their own interests ahead of those of the Libyan people and of Europe itself.”
Despite European powers projecting their rivalries on Libya’s war, the country is mostly under the influence of Arab Gulf powers, which use it as a battleground for their own conflicts. Libya is one of many countries that descended into anarchy after the “Arab Spring” uprisings started, when Western powers backed armed rebels in overthrowing Ba’athist regimes across the Middle East and North Africa. But Libya’s conflict differs from that of other Middle Eastern countries affected by the Arab Spring. The religious vs. secular narrative isn’t a factor in North Africa, as it is in the Middle East. Syria’s conflict is the most prominent example of a proxy war between countries that back President Assad’s secular government (Iran and Russia), with those that back rebel factions, and in many cases jihadists (the United States, Israel, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia).
Instead, the proxy war in Libya is between two competing Arab Gulf powers: Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both these countries have Wahhabist and Salafist extremist regimes, but they are longstanding rivals. Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned militias in Libya known as the “Islamists,” while the eastern government under Khalifa Haftar professes to be “anti-Islamist.” While Haftar is clearly fighting the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned factions in the war, his army is heavily backed by Saudi Arabia and has many Salafist leaders in its ranks, including Mahmoud Mustafa al-Werfalli, wanted for war crimes at The Hague. The supposedly anti-Islamist government of the east also issued a travel ban on women last year, which was sanctioned by a Wahhabist-Saudi cleric. In North Africa, Islamist is merely a term used to describe Qatar and its Muslim Brotherhood military wing in the region.
Libya has become a battleground for European rivals who have long supported opposing factions in the war. But as Europe’s power in North Africa diminishes, the vacuum has been filled by oil-rich Arab Gulf monarchies. Europe hasn’t woken up to this fact, but if the Libyan crisis worsens and the country falls further into the hands of Arab Gulf theocracies, another spillover effect will reach European shores.