U.S. officials say the U.A.E. and Egypt were behind air strikes in the Libyan capital in the past week. Egypt has denied its forces were involved, while the U.A.E. said claims of its intervention were an attempt to divert attention from political reversals suffered by Libya’s Islamists.
The Arab revolts that broke out three years ago have morphed into armed conflicts that mostly pit Islamists against more secular-minded forces. The involvement by a Gulf Cooperation Council member in the Libya strikes, if confirmed, would signal a transition from financier to active participant. For Egypt, preoccupied by internal turmoil since 2011, engagement in Libya would be a revival of the country’s regional role at a time when it helped broker a Gaza truce.
“There’s a powder keg in Libya which has only partially ignited,” said Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at the U.K.-based consultancy Maplecroft. “Libya may witness a proxy war between an elected government, which is backed by Egypt and the Emirates, and the Islamists who are currently backed by Qatar.” Qatar has denied supporting any extremist groups.
The airstrikes in Libya targeted Islamists who were fighting an eventually successful battle to gain control of Tripoli’s international airport. At the same time, clashes were erupting in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, with the forces of renegade General Khalifa Haftar confronting Islamist groups including Ansar al-Shariah, blamed for the 2012 killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The fighting was the fiercest in Libya since Muammar Qaddafi’s 2011 ouster and killing, and the latest illustration of the deepening chaos engulfing the country that holds Africa’s largest crude reserves. The government has been able to exert little influence over the feuding militias, which have also served as police and military forces.