The conditions in Algeria and Sudan are similar at least in what is related to internal factors; and in Libya, effective mechanisms from outside the borders play a more efficient role in transformation of the situation towards the future; therefore the situation in Libya must be considered before anything a development in the path of “post-Qaddafi transition of power”.
In order to understand the conditions of social and political unrest and frustration in Arab countries, they may be divided into two categories: countries with “hereditary” and “neo-hereditary” governments. Hereditary governments, for their part, are divided into two categories: a group like the Persian Gulf monarchies where a family governs the country and the other category includes countries like Saddam’s Iraq and Qaddafi’s Libya where the ruler is also the monarch and the people and the republican system, despite their apparent function, have practically no power.
In this category of states where power is transferred formally due to inheritance or practically through semi-democratic mechanisms one cannot expect the ruling power to be toppled by the military; and if part of the establishment gets insubordinate like the situation in Libya, the outbreak of civil war is almost inevitable. In the other category of Arab states in which the establishment is neo-hereditary, the institutions of the country have a degree of independence relative to the leaders and rulers.
For example, Egypt falls into this category. In these countries, the army is the main institution in control and brings presidents to power or topples them. Sudan is in the middle of these two categories. In Sudan, when Umar al-Bashir came to power through a military coup, he tried to rearrange the army so that he could directly hold power; this is what Muammar Qaddafi in Libya tried to do but could not accomplish fully.
From another perspective, what is happening in North Africa is the continuation of the 2011 uprisings, and if we consider Libya more in the transition phase, the situation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika and al-Bashir in Algeria and Sudan, at the Arabian scale, are the tip of the iceberg. Both systems are trying to reconstruct the Egyptian model in their countries and assign the army as the saviour of the nation. These conditions may apply to Sudan, given the difficulties of livelihood and the gloomy economic outlook, and of course the role-playing of godfathers like Riyadh to fund the country’s budget, but in Algeria, people with a different kind of education do not hold a special outlook about the military.
We must not forget that the explosion that took place in 2011 is a historic and long-standing revolutionary process that can last for decades and face a variety of cultural, social and political barriers along this path. In order for this route to ultimately come to the fore, it is necessary, especially in the economic sphere, to undergo fundamental changes that we are not witnessing now. For example, in Tunisia, which was the origin of the uprisings, the same economic policy of the Ben Ali regime with IMF inscriptions and austerity policies are continuing.
The idea that private investment can flourish as the main source of economic growth is just an illusion in this part of the world where willfulness, instability, and autocracy are still norms. Another problem is that, in order to realize fundamental changes, political forces representing the people are needed to be at the forefront of the democratic and progressive demands of the people, especially the youth. This important issue faces a serious weakness in the region. Beyond these internal barriers, the role-playing of foreign powers also contributes to the problem. In North Africa, Egypt is worried about developments in Sudan, Algeria, and Libya more than any other Arab state.
The protests in Sudan and Algeria and the battles in Libya have rightly worried Cairo over the flow of unrest into the borders of Egypt. Three crises occurring in the neighbourhood and simultaneously have created three different challenges for the Egyptian government. Bouteflika’s resignation is very similar to the situation in Egypt in 2011, and Cairo hopes that the army will take over and there will not be any real political transition in Algiers.
The fact is that eight years after the wave of the popular uprising and the Tahrir Square repression, the Sisi government terrified by the thirst for democracy and transparency of the Algerians, is concerned that this thirst which is currently suppressed, will penetrate Egypt by the iron fist of the military in Egypt. Obviously, General Sisi, who has paved the way for constitutional reforms to follow the policy of Hosni Mubarak in ruling the country, is not interested in democratic governments coming to power in these three crisis-prone countries in North Africa today, because this will question his rule and he would be deprived of regional allies in the mid-term.
Egypt’s concern over Sudan is more obvious. Despite the complicated relations between Egypt and Sudan over the past decades, Sisi has not hesitated in supporting al-Bashir. Al-Bashir’s official visit to Cairo in January, the second after visiting Qatar and after an international prosecution warrant was issued against him, has been outside the borders of Sudan, points to this important issue. Sudan’s stability is crucial for Egypt which shares 1300-kilometer of joint borders. Khartoum is also an important ally for Cairo in the Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. The dam, which leaves a deadly impact on the White Nile in Egypt and is scheduled to be inaugurated next year, may even lead to a military confrontation between Ethiopia and Egypt.
The three countries, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia reached agreement in 2018 to cooperate in curbing the regional consequences of the dam. But obviously, the ongoing unrest in Sudan or the coming to power of a government in Khartoum not close to Cairo would face Egypt with serious problems. In managing the effects of social and political developments in Sudan and to some extent in Algeria, Cairo enjoys the assistance and coordination of foreign role players including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and in a wider perspective the US intelligence and military services which have a strategic relationship with Egyptian counterparts. But Libya is where Egypt is most concerned about and which has caused the greatest support and convergence of regional and trans-regional allies of Egypt.
Libya is a basic equation for the stability and legitimacy of Egypt and President Sisi. Perhaps Sisi can ignore Tunisia which is a small country, but the probable democratic experience in Sudan and Algeria, and particularly in Libya, is a big challenge for him. For this reason, Egypt, along with its regional allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, tries to use its full economic and military weight to bring a powerful officer like General Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
To this end, Cairo has not hesitated to dispatch troops and fighters in support of General Haftar, albeit alongside the UAE and Russia. Khalifa Haftar, also known as “Libya’s Sisi”, in the eyes of Cairo is a stronghold against terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood. The eastern border of Libya is a safe haven for extremist militants who can easily penetrate the Sinai. Henceforth, Haftar’s military gambling in recent days by attacking Tripoli assumes double importance.
Haftar’s foreign supporters thought he would conquer Tripoli in a blink of an eye and under the cover of diplomatic rhetoric on “restraint” they would impose Haftar as the ruler of Libya. This goal has not been realized yet and as we proceed the dust of diplomatic games goes away to make field reality more visible.
Regional and trans-regional godfathers in Libya play a major role in the current developments and the future of the country. General Haftar met with the Egyptian president in April to make final coordination with Cairo and chief of the intelligence services in the country. On the eve of launching an attack on Tripoli he also met the Saudi king in Riyadh and according to Wall Street Journal was assured about receiving millions of dollars from Riyadh to accomplish the mission and take over Tripoli.
Also in late March, Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi met with Sisi in Cairo, where final coordination was made to pave the way for Haftar. All the three countries, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are concerned about the domination of the approaches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya that could inspire political dissidents in their own countries; Furthermore, on the other side of the dispute we have Turkey and Qatar who support the national reconciliation government whose opposition with the Cairo-Abu Dhabi-Riyadh faction is crystal clear.
Beyond the action and reaction of the regional powers in the Libyan equation, the encounter of trans-regional powers, on the top of which France and Italy must be taken into account. Although the official statements of the European Union call for restraint in Libya, in the sessions behind closed doors, the tension between France and Italy is at its height. Rome has never digested France’s military intervention in its former colony at the time of Nicolas Sarkozy. In particular, the intervention took place without post-Qaddafi preparation one of the consequences of which was the access of extremists to Qaddafi’s vast arms and ammunition depots.
On the other hand, the Italian oil company ENI, which extracts and exports Libyan oil, sees Total of France as its rival in this “vast island” in the words of the US Department of State; With regard to the direct involvement of France in the overthrow of Qaddafi and the continued support of Paris for Haftar, naturally if this is achieved, new oil contracts will be made available to Total. The confrontation between Paris and Rome in the Libyan case is well exposed by the coming to power of a right-wing government in Italy. In late January, Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matthew Salvini accused France of “not having an interest in Libya’s stability because of conflicting oil interests with Italy.”
Apart from the fact that the fate of power and government in the three countries mentioned in this note, is an outcome of internal and external elements, it is not possible to ignore two main points in the Arab and even West Asian countries: first, the process of transformation in these countries is uninterrupted and wherever the iron fist of autocratic governments opens, the fire under the ashes emerge. Second, the wall of fear has collapsed in all of these countries, and we have to wait for new developments, even in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, which have already gone through waves of popular uprisings. In the meantime, only countries like the UAE may be safe due to the dominance of foreign populations over the indigenous population and, of course, their oil-related conditions.