As Egypt and the UAE launch airstrikes on Tripoli, a cadre of politicians, militia leaders, and businessmen with links to both countries hopes to take advantage of a popular swell against Libya's Islamists.
TRIPOLI — Libya has moved to center stage in a regional power struggle between the patrons of political Islam and their opponents. This week, U.S. officials briefed several media outlets that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had secretly conducted airstrikes in the capital, Tripoli, against Islamist-allied militias. This may not have been the first time that the Egyptians and Emiratis teamed up to target Libyan Islamists: The New York Times also quoted U.S. officials saying a special forces unit operating out of Egypt, but likely primarily comprised of Emiratis, had recently wiped out a militant camp in eastern Libya.
The regional struggle for influence in Libya has raged since the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi, during which Qatar backed several Islamist factions and the UAE supported more tribal-oriented and regional militias, particularly those from the conservative western mountain town of Zintan. The competition took on greater momentum after last's year overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) -- a move cheered by the UAE. Morsi's ousting and the fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood that followed emboldened Libya's anti-Islamist militia leaders, politicians, and activists, who have made no secret of their wish to see a similar scenario unfold at home.
The country's Islamists, meanwhile, have started seeing Egyptian or Emirati plots around every corner. In April, many were taken aback when the UAE denied entry to Awad al-Barassi, a former deputy prime minister and member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP). Barassi had lived in Dubai for years, serving as vice president of its Electricity and Water Authority before returning to Libya during the revolution. The Islamists' paranoia increased after renegade former Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has connections in Cairo, declared war against all Islamists earlier this year, and has only been further reinforced by the air raids on Tripoli last week. It feeds the Islamists' perception that they are facing an Egyptian-style counterrevolution, aided by anti-Islamist regional forces.
The airstrikes may mark a new phase of Egyptian and Emirati intervention in Libyan politics, but they failed to achieve Cairo and Abu Dhabi's short-term goals. The warplanes targeted locations controlled by an alliance of militias that includes Islamists, fighters from the powerful port city of Misrata (who bristle over the "Islamist" label), and those from other western towns. These militias launched an attack on Tripoli's international airport during Ramadan in an attempt to seize it from Zintani fighters -- who are aligned with anti-Islamist political and armed forces, including Haftar -- a feat they managed to pull off on Saturday, despite the airstrikes on their positions.
Key to the newly aggressive Egyptian-Emirati strategy is a network of prominent Libyans, several of whom are based in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, and who are vehemently opposed to any Islamist role in their country.
One is Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the rebels' de facto prime minister during the 2011 revolution. He was eventually cast into the political wilderness following the introduction of a controversial lustration law barring those who had worked with the former regime from office. He has never hidden his dislike for Islamists and has locked horns with several -- including the Doha-based Libyan scholar Ali Sallabi, a crucial interlocutor for Qatar in Libya -- during the uprising. Jibril, who now spends much of his time in the UAE, regularly argues that Libya has been taken over by what he describes as extremists.
Abdel Majid Mlegta, one of the most senior figures in Jibril's National Forces Alliance (NFA) -- a political entity that won more seats than the JCP in Libya's first post-Qaddafi election in 2012 -- is the brother of Othman Mlegta, leader of the Qaaqaa Brigade, a Zintan-linked militia involved in the recent fighting in Tripoli. Qaaqaa has provided security for Jibril and his NFA colleagues, and has paraded hardware, including armored personnel carriers manufactured in the UAE, on the streets of Tripoli. It has previously attacked and occupied a number of state institutions, including the interior ministry and the army chief of staff's headquarters in Tripoli. In February, Othman Mlegta and a fellow militiaman issued a televised statement threatening to target members of Libya's elected congress if the body did not dissolve itself within hours. This warning prompted the intervention of the U.N. envoy to Libya, who met with Jibril to defuse the standoff.
Just after Haftar's offensive began in Benghazi in May, Qaaqaa declared its support for his operation and attacked the headquarters of the legislature using anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and rockets.
Two days later, I met Jamal Habeel, the militiaman who led the assault on congress. He and his colleague bragged of their exploits and railed against Islamists they said had infiltrated government ministries. They responded testily, however, to questions about Emirati backing. "What if we do get help from the UAE?" Habeel asked. "The other side gets help from Qatar."
Close to Mahmoud Jibril is Aref Nayed, a Sufi-influenced scholar who is currently Libya's ambassador to the UAE. Like Jibril, Nayed clashed with Islamists in 2011 and also harbors presidential ambitions. In conversations with foreign diplomats, Nayed has described the Muslim Brotherhood as "fascists." Earlier this year, he publicly criticized a proposed dialogue initiative for Libya that was to include Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi, saying it would only benefit one "party" -- meaning the Brotherhood.
Along with political and military figures, the Egyptians and the Emiratis also have powerful friends in the business community. Hassan Tatanaki -- a well-connected Libyan-born tycoon with oil and construction interests who worked with Qaddafi's son, Saif, before 2011 -- is perhaps the most influential individual in this network, due to his substantial wealth. He owns a TV channel, Libya Awalan (Libya First), which is known for its strongly anti-Islamist slant, and describes himself as being "partners" with Haftar. He boasts about being a hated figure for Islamists, many of whom see his hand everywhere.
"Obviously, I would like to see [Islamists] outlawed, like in Egypt; there is no question of that," he says, from his offices in the UAE. "I don't like to see people using religion in political games. The answer is to ban anything that uses religion."
Libya's Islamists fared poorly in June elections for a new parliament but, in Tatanaki's view, they are still a powerful force in the country. "They still have their hold on Libya, they still have the money, they still have the arms, and they are all over the place in terms of technocrats and bureaucrats, so they are well established," he argues. "The only thing they don't have is the people's support."
Tatanaki says he suggested transferring the newly elected Council of Deputies to the eastern city of Tobruk, deep in Haftar territory. He also says he helped cover the costs of the move in early August. Islamist MPs have boycotted the Tobruk sittings, and also accuse the assembly of taking sides in an escalating crisis that Libya's ambassador to the United Nations warned this week could tip into a full-fledged civil war.
Tatanaki has no patience for arguments that Libya's crisis stems from regional rivalries and competition between the old elites (of which he is part) and the new elites that emerged after 2011. For him, the conflict is about something much more basic. "This is a war against extremists who are trying to take control of Libya and use it as a springboard for their expansion elsewhere," he said.
This is a line constantly repeated by his TV channel. Tatanaki has come to recognize the immense power of media messaging. "It plays a very big part for us, just as much as the military side," he said. "I was quite surprised how influential media is -- it's scary. You can swing people's opinions left to right at a whim."
It helps, he says, that decades of Qaddafi's propaganda resulted in many Libyans conflating Islamists of all stripes. "Libyans perceive the MB and any Islamist group as being [al Qaeda] or ISIS or whatever; that is what Qaddafi's brainwashing did," he said. "They don't see the Islamic movement as a social or political movement; they see it as a terrorist movement already. That helps our cause. That is what we are relying on."
Tatanaki was clearly happy with the recent airstrikes, though he dismissed reports that Egypt and the UAE carried them out as far-fetched, without offering much of an alternative explanation. "It's all guessing games," he said.
As Egypt and the UAE increase their roles in Libya, figures like Tatanaki could find themselves ascendant against their rivals. First, however, they need to win the war against the Islamists.
The airstrikes in Tripoli, after all, did not bring about the outcome Tatanaki wanted. His side lost -- but he and his allies appear to be preparing for a long struggle. Shortly after the Zintanis withdrew from Tripoli's airport, Tatanaki spoke with a prominent Zintani militia leader. "He told me we will not stop. We have not lost the war, we have just lost a battle."