Dispatch

Libya's New Power Brokers?

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."

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages

Dispatch

You Can't Go Home Again

Georgians from the would-be state of Abkhazia have spent decades trying to rebuild their lives after conflict forced them from their homes. But today, the wounds of war still feel fresh.

TBILISI, Georgia — In an apartment near the city of Zugdidi, in western Georgia, middle-aged Salome* sits with her grown children and relatives talking about the time when they were running for their lives. In 1992, Abkhazia, a region of Georgia, was making an armed bid for statehood, and as Mingrelians, linguistically distinct ethnic Georgians who lived there, Salome's family faced prison or even death if they stayed. With tears in her eyes, Salome recalls how her late husband, a civilian, was held by Abkhazian soldiers for nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp for trying to smuggle food across the new border to his family. On the mantel behind Salome is a photograph from before the bullets started to fly of her husband swinging their daughter in the air.

It's hard to be caught between two worlds, especially when those worlds are Abkhazia and Georgia.

Refugees like Salome and her family still consider the disputed state of Abkhazia their real home and part of Georgia. That position is shared by many other countries, including the United States and many NATO nations, and is offset by only four -- most seminally Russia, which recognized Abkhazia as an independent nation in 2008 after Moscow's war with Georgia.

The situation in the breakaway region is in many ways less tense for Georgians now than it was in the past. Yet the resignation of Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab in June amid popular protests in the disputed state's capital, Sukhumi, could foreshadow a strengthened position of Abkhazia's most powerful backer, Russia. That leaves internal relations between Abkhazia and its Georgian residents uncertain.

Marina, Salome's 17-year-old niece, says there is a lingering sense of not being wanted. "We have no problem with the Abkhazian people; our problem is the political situation," she adds -- though that might be exactly the point.

***

Simmering ethnic tensions and frustrated Abkhazian separatist aspirations in the wake of the Soviet Union's fall exploded into civil war in August 1992. The conflict lasted 16 months, during which Marina's parents fled Abkhazia's Gali region to seek a new life in Georgia. The memories of fleeing their homes are still very much alive: The two remember seeing friends and relatives shot down as they fled on foot in September 1993, killed and wounded by Abkhazian forces and Russian volunteers. "Many people died. Our neighbors. It was very bad. There was so much fear," recalls Salome. "Ra dro iqo [What a time it was]," she adds wryly.

War crimes committed by both sides during the war have been documented by Human Rights Watch, including the use of rape to terrorize people, hostage-taking, and the killing of civilians. Yet there were never prosecutions. According to the Red Cross, the fighting claimed between 10,000 and 15,000 lives and left 8,000 wounded, while other sources cite as many as 25,000 to 30,000 fatalities. Some 200,000 displaced Georgians fled the conflict zone, many never to return for fear of discrimination and violence. Nevertheless, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 ethnic Georgians have returned to Gali. (Fighting flared up there again in 1998, when Georgian fighters tried to retake the region.)

The war completely changed Abkhazia's demographic makeup. In 1989, ethnic Abkhazians accounted for only 17 percent of the population, Georgians for 45 percent. The remainder of the population was made up of ethnic Armenians, Greeks, and Russians. In a 2011 census, by contrast, Georgians made up only 19.3 percent of Abkhazia's population. Abkhazians are now in the majority.

The record of what happened during the war is still a matter of dispute, and one that carries clear political weight. In an interview at his office on Aug. 1, Abkhazian Minister of Foreign Affairs Viacheslav Chirikba disputed claims that there was ethnic cleansing of Georgians during the war, calling it a Georgian political fiction. "It's a very long period since Abkhazia won this war and Georgian people fled," he says. "The majority of them fled, and it's a great deception as to what has happened, that they were expelled."

What is indisputable is that Abkhazia remains one of the few places in the world that has not allowed refugees to return based on ethnicity. Although some Georgians have returned, the majority remain barred solely because their ethnicity and identity are Georgian, though Chirikba claims Georgia is the side that stalled a fledgling process by Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1990s. Furthermore, deplorable conditions and human rights violations, such as a general lack of voting rights for the Georgians who do return, are disturbing to many international observers and analysts. Even in the latest election, held this month, an estimated 22,000 ethnic Georgians were barred from voting after Abkhazia declared their passports to have been illegally obtained.

Salome, like so many of the war's refugees, has carved out a new life in Georgia bit by bit, with help from the government. When she and her young children crossed over the new border in September 1993, they moved into a subsidized apartment block without windows or proper facilities. With winter fast approaching, they bundled up and hunkered down. Her daughter cried for her doll left behind, her son for his abandoned red bicycle. Both cried for their father who had stayed behind in Abkhazia.

"We ate in the morning and then not in the afternoon. There were no lights," Salome says.

They scraped together the money to buy windows to install in the unfinished walls and seeds to grow food next to the apartment complex, and now they have a community in the apartment complex. There are a volleyball net and makeshift basketball court set up outside, a few pleasant seats under an arbor of grape vines, a soccer pitch, and fields of corn whose crops are used to make Mingrelian ghomi porridge.

It's no paradise, but it's a kind of home.

***

For those who have returned to Abkhazia, the tension of two dueling identities can be complicated. Marina's parents returned in 1995, but still keep their apartment in Georgia -- the family often travels back and forth between the two sides. Her father holds an Abkhazian passport, while her mother must cross the border secretly because Abkhazia's obscure administrative barriers have blocked her application.

When Marina graduated from her Georgian-language school in Gali in June, she and some classmates wanted to celebrate openly with Georgian music, toasting to Apkhazeti (the Georgian word for Abkhazia), and dancing traditional dances, but such open declarations of Georgian culture could have made them targets for persecution. Some of her classmates crossed the border into Georgia for a graduation party and to take Georgian exams that would make them eligible for Georgian universities.

"In Abkhazia, there is a university, but students there can't learn in Georgian," Marina, who doesn't speak Abkhazian or fluent Russian, explains. Many Georgian Abkhazians are wary of attending university in Sukhumi, even if they could meet the language requirements, because the degree would be worth little outside the region.

A lack of Georgian-language education in Abkhazia is a legitimate -- and long-running -- problem and a proxy for the cultural tensions that eventually led to the 1992-1993 war. In March 1989, protests in Sukhumi by Georgian students demanding that the Georgian sector of Abkhazian State University be made into a branch of Tbilisi State University (located in the Georgian capital) ended in clashes between the students and local ethnic Abkhazians. A decision was later made in favor of the students' demands, and that was seen by Abkhazians as an expansion of Georgian influence and nationalism. It resulted in even worse violence that left 17 dead and more than 440 wounded.

Since the war, Abkhazia has moved much further away not only from Georgia, but also from the Georgian language. Fear of linguistic and cultural assimilation were some of the roots of the 1992-1993 separatist actions of Abkhazians, and in 2007, Abkhazia passed a law that established Abkhazian as the only official language of the territory.

Somewhat ironically, however, there is a growing prevalence of Russian language and culture in Abkhazian society. Russia has grown closer to the region, in particular through a series of bilateral treaties signed after it backed Abkhazia's purported independence in 2008. Many Abkhazians now hold Russian passports, and some pensioners with these passports collect money from the Russian government.

The history of Abkhazia is complicated and diverse, with various ethnic groups having their own unique (and, especially in the case of Georgians, disputed) claims to it. Even Russia fought against Abkhazia in the Caucasian War of the 19th century. But now Abkhazia has Russia securing its borders and cooperating on military matters, something Chirikba, the minister of foreign affairs, insists is purely defensive. "We have maybe 5,000 Russians here, smaller than the American base in Kosovo, which is around 7,000 [troops]," he says. "We are very happy to have a Russian military presence here where they reduce any eventuality of war with Georgia."

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili wants Abkhazia to return to Georgia of its own accord. He hopes to make such an offer increasingly attractive by opening up Georgia to Europe. The June 27 signing of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement to open trade and relations is one carrot that Garibashvili hopes will prove tempting to Abkhazians: While Georgia is made a point of access to the West, Russian-backed Abkhazia becomes, by implication, increasingly isolated.

Abkhazia's government, however, remains deeply suspicious of Georgia. "Georgia wants to use NATO facilities as tools against Abkhazia, and probably against Russia, because Georgia independently is not able to keep Abkhazia," Chirikba says. "It can attack us, it can kill a lot of people, but it cannot keep it [without Western support]. They want the facilities to attack us, not to be protected from us."

***

Watching some of her young cousins play with dolls on the floor while another one taps out a song on his small electronic keyboard, Marina smiles. Perhaps young children who have grown up after the end of the war could bring a new perspective to a tense, at times violent political situation. "If the children will be friends in the future, I think it will be better," Marina says.

Yet her family does not believe a reunion between Georgia and Abkhazia is now on the horizon -- and Abkhazian sentiment is decidedly similar. Despite Marina's hopes, friendship or even just cooperation between Abkhazia and Georgia seems a long way off.

*The names of some individuals in this article have been changed to protect their identities. (Return to reading.)

VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images