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The Libyan crisis could not be considered as a perfect example of proxy war

- Original Article available here

- By Alessia Melcangi and Karim Mezran


Popular demonstrations occurred in many Libyan cities in early July 2022 and, in particular, in the city of Tobruk ‒ where an angry mob burned the headquarters of the HOR (the Libyan parliament elected in 2014) ‒, but also in the capital Tripoli, where permanent sit-ins have been established by a population progressively exacerbated and deluded by the incompetence and corruption of the leading political elite.

This situation has reached its peak after the deluded expectations that were raised by the appointment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) led by Hamid Dbeibah which came after two years of heavy conflict among the various components of the Libyan political and military’s landscape. The failure of the GNU to organize the much-expected general elections has been the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, the decision to postpone the election exhausted the people’s patience and provoked the demonstrations. Actually, this abysmal situation was further aggravated by the creation, by the Eastern power brokers, of a new Government of National Salvation (GNS) at whose head was nominated the Misurati leader Fathi Bashaga. It was supposed to take the places of the GNU. This brought the situation back to the tragic period following the 2014 civil war. To add insult to injury, the economic crisis has hit the Libyan population through a steep increase in prices, continuous interruption of electricity, lack of fuel and various other inconveniences that excised a heavy toll on an already exacerbated population.

So far, the Libyan conflict has been considered mostly a kind of a proxy war between powerful regional and global actors that tried to settle their contrasting interests by supporting various Libyan factions. Indeed, foreign actors like Egypt, the UAE and France were pivotal to creating and maintaining the so called LAAF of General Haftar, while Turkey, Qatar and others played a key role in arming and training the various militias especially in the Western part of the country. Nevertheless, as we discuss in our article, the Libyan factions in large part retain a quite high degree of autonomy from their patrons.

In fact, despite extreme political, security and social fragmentation of Libya, some actors were able to gain access to resources and local power through the manipulation of the country’s few remaining institutions and, in some cases, exploitation of criminal networks. They continued to rely on the ‘rentier nature’ of the Libyan state in order to extract what they wanted from central economic institutions, granting them the autonomy necessary to pursue their own objectives. Primarily through oil revenues and a predatory economy, but also thanks to the role played as intermediaries, Libyan actors were able to manipulate outside patronage in order to bolster their own power. At the same time, the need to maintain control of the oil revenues distribution system produced competition among them, with continuous switching of sides. These dynamics inevitably complicated the patron-proxy relationship typical of a proxy war and weakened foreign control over local allies.

The recent events further confirm that more attention should be paid to the actions and power exercised by local actors rather than focusing on the international players. The fact that the Eastern power brokers decided to take directly in their hand the decision to appoint a new government to contrast the one decided by the UN is a clear example of this.

Probably this is just another case in which Libya once again defeats the general theory and provides an exception. But still, it is an interesting case that may show the evolution of the concept of proxy war in this new multipolar international system.

Alessia Melcangi, Associate Professor, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy; Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council, Washington DC, USA.

Karim Mezran, Director of the North Africa Initiative and Resident Senior Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs, Atlantic Council, Washington DC, USA


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