Last Thursday, General Khalifa Haftar launched an ambitious campaign to conquer the Libyan capital Tripoli. Haftar, 75, was a former ally of President Muammar Gaddafi and took part in the coup that brought him to power in 1969. He has been regarded as a strong man on whom the West could rely to build ties and alliances in the fragmented country.
While Haftar was shelling the outskirts of Tripoli, in Sudan the army commander announced that following widespread public protests, he had ousted the dictator President Omar al-Bashir, and that a military council would run the state for at least two years.
A little earlier the West faced another unexpected challenge when Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, ended his 20-year grip on power after stormy demonstrations demanded his resignation.
In Morocco protest demonstrations erupted again in the Rif region following heavy prison sentences that were imposed on demonstrators who were arrested in 2017.
Western media outlets hastened to call the wave of protests and confrontations another round of the Arab spring, in which the public was again taking to the streets to forcibly kick out failed leaders. But the differences between the events in Libya and Algeria and between Morocco and Sudan are profound, even if they all suffer economic distress and deep public frustration over the absence of a political horizon in common.
A war of interests
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Unlike Algeria and Morocco, which managed to avoid the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 by buying peace with subsidies, grants, raising wages and infrastructure investments, Libya, the richest of all the states to be taken by the Arab Spring storm, failed to stabilize itself since Gaddafi fled his palace and was brutally murdered by the mob. The 2014 election tore the tribally divided state into several political and military shreds, each setting up a power hub and an army in its respective region. Three governments were set up after the election, one recognized by the international community based in Tobruk, another is still entrenched in Tripoli and a third in the city of Bayda in the country’s east. Accordingly, two parliaments and two central banks arose, each setting its own economic policy and enacting its own laws.
In 2015, a national accord agreement was signed in the city of Skhirat in Morocco with the intention of establishing an agreed regime that would act to extract the state from its paralysis and the armed struggles that ruined it. Under the agreement, a presidential nine-strong council was set up, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, which won the international community’s recognition. However, this recognition has no real effect. The presidential council is not supported by the parliament; the administration’s army, which consists of various militias, doesn’t control most of the country; and the important oil fields are controlled in the east by Haftar’s forces. Meanwhile, local militias control the south and cooperate with ISIS. The international community’s members – France, Britain, Italy and the United States – cannot unite their ranks to assist the Accord Government and block Haftar’s advance.
Libya isn’t the only government blaming France for continuing to support Haftar and thereby threatening the legal government. Italy, ruled by the extreme right, also blames France for the Libyan turmoil.
“There are countries stealing a fortune from African states, and France is undoubtedly one of them,” Italian Interior Minister and radical right-winger Matteo Salvini said. “France has no interest in turning Libya into a better place. France wants to take over the oil resources and its interests are opposed to Italy’s.”
Deputy Italian Prime Minister Luigi di Maio suggested the European Union impose sanctions on France, whose “colonial policy is causing people to leave Africa.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called Italy’s policy “cynical and irresponsible” after it turned back a boat with some 600 asylum seekers on board. Haftar is indeed supported by France, which is reportedly still supplying him with weapons and equipment. In contrast, Italy, heavily invested in the Libyan oil industry, is backing the government.
Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are providing Haftar with both political and military assistance, thus sabotaging the Libyan government’s ability to set up some kind of national agreement. Egypt sees Haftar as a strategic ally to block Islamic terror and oppress radical Islamic groups that were responsible for some of the large terror attacks in Egypt. Russia sees Haftar as a bridgehead for building up its influence in the state and a base from which to expand its holds in Africa.
They all state that their goal is to establish a stable regime, representing all the factions in Libya and they’re all doing the opposite. Next week a national convention sponsored by the United Nations was supposed to take place to draft an outline for an agreed regime.
This is probably the reason that Haftar, who controls the Benghazi region east of the state, hurried to set out to capture Tripoli in the west – to establish facts on the ground and thwart any reconciliation agreement that could infringe on his aspirations.
Indeed, Haftar’s move succeeded and the convention was postponed indefinitely. Haftar’s forces, which were stopped in south Tripoli, are still bombarding and shelling targets around the city and managed to paralyze the international airport. Haftar apparently has a short time within which he can take the capital, before international sanctions are imposed on him.
According the Arab media, Egypt and UAE have “granted” him 72 hours to finish his mission before he is forced to stop. This time period ended on Wednesday or Thursday, but Haftar is showing no signs of stopping. Now a civil war may erupt among Haftar’s supporters and the administration’s militias and the tribes and city states, which will do everything they can to prevent Haftar from becoming head of state.
The violent conflicts in Libya are a far cry from the Arab Spring’s image. A war is being waged between a war baron and a shaky government, between “government” militias and militias called Haftar’s “National Libyan Army.”
These are not rebel militias like in Syria, where the rebellion’s goal, at least to begin with, was to get rid of Assad’s rule. In Libya it’s a war of interests both inside and out, against a paralyzed government that cannot block the enemy’s army.
The armies' 'self-defense'
Here lies the fundamental difference between the developments in Libya and those in Algeria or Sudan. Algeria is an institutionalized, multi-party state, run by a military and economic elite. This elite knew how to oppress the public, suppress criticism, lock up rivals and sometimes kill them, but is aware of the public’s power. Now, when the time came to force the president to resign, it was the army that pressured him to avoid confrontations with the public and keep the elite in power.
The change of faces in the regime doesn’t satisfy the protest movements, who are demanding to change the constitution and divide the state’s wealth in a more egalitarian way. As the developments appear now, the temporary administration is expected to take steps toward democracy, to hold elections and carry out economic reforms.
Every change will be carried out under the watchful eye of the army and the traditional power centers. But unlike Libya, it is doubtful whether Algeria, which has had its share of a brutal civil war in which more than 200,000 people were killed, will deteriorate to another one.
Sudan is a different story whose ending is still foggy. Omar al-Bashir, who has been ruling for three decades, was ousted by the army, which stood beside the demonstrators and prevented al-Bashir’s security forces from slaughtering them.
It was clear to al-Bashir’s allies and to the Sudanese army that as long as he stays in power the state would not be able to overcome its economic crisis and set up a stable regime, which could be a legitimate ally of the Arab states and the West. Sudan is now run by a military regime and judging by past experience, the army won’t rush to carry out democratic moves to hand over control to civilian hands.
According to reports on the Middle East Eye news site, Israel has a part in al-Bashir’s removal. The site says Mossad chief Yossi Cohen met Sudan’s intelligent chief in Munich to discuss options of transferring power in the state. Meanwhile, it is doubtful if some 6,500 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel can return to their homeland, despite the fact that all the political prisoners have been set free. It is still not clear how the military regime will treat the previous regime’s opponents.
If anyone insists on calling the moves in Algeria and Sudan the second chapter of the Arab Spring, they will have to make do with seeing it as the Arab Spring of the army and elites wishing to defend themselves. The public’s awareness of its power was forged in the “original” Arab Spring, and this may be the most significant achievement of these revolutions. But this awareness alone has not generated the real revolutions that will probably have to wait for another round.