Is Libya a proxy war?

By Frederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.

Recent reports of Egyptian military aircraft bombing Islamist militant positions in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi have highlighted once more how the Mediterranean state has become a contested site of regional proxy wars. The projection of Middle Eastern rivalries onto Libya’s fractured landscape has a long pedigree, dating back to the 2011 revolution and perhaps even further, when Moammar Gaddafi’s propaganda apparatus portrayed the country as a plaything at the mercy of predatory imperialists. During the uprising, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar jostled for influence, with their respective special forces supporting disparate revolutionary factions with intelligence, training and arms. Initially, the choice of actors had less to do with ideological affinity and more with expediency, history and geography. Libyan expatriates residing in each country shaped the channeling of funds and weapons.

As the revolution wore on, these interventions had a profound effect on its trajectory and aftermath. The availability of outside patronage reduced incentives for factional cooperation and consensus-building on the ground. It sharpened preexisting fissures in the anti-Gaddafi opposition: Revolutionary factions competed for arms shipments, withheld foreign intelligence and targeting data from one another, and tried to outmaneuver one another in the revolution’s endgame – the liberation of Tripoli.

But the intra-regional tussling of the 2011 revolution pales in comparison to the intensity of today’s proxy war. Back then, the factions and their foreign backers were at least united in the common goal of toppling a universally despised tyrant. Today, the outside powers are engaged in a struggle far more divisive and consequential: a war of narratives.

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