June 4, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Revolution Redux: Egypt And Libya’s History With Strongmen
Yesterday, Egypt witnessed the official confirmation of former Field Marshall and Minister of Defense Abdul Fattah al-Sisi as President, an ascendancy brought about in part by a push for stability over chaos, even at the cost of sacrificing democratic reform. Also yesterday, Libya witnessed the worst fighting in Benghazi since the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi in 2011. It erupted, in part, in response to former Major General Khalifa Bilqasim Haftar’s push for stability over chaos even at the cost of democratic reform. The recent violence included a suicide bombing today targeted against Haftar, who was reported to have escaped unharmed.
This synchronicity actually continues a trend: For two neighboring countries with as many significant differences as Egypt and Libya, they do share a similar pattern of history when it comes to strongman rule. In light of this history, it raises the question of whether Haftar will in turn become Libya’s al-Sisi. A look at historic and recent events—in which first Egypt and then Libya experienced a cycle of turmoil, strongman, and repeat—helps frame the question:
In 1952, Gamal Abdul Nasser overthrew a ruling royal family and installed a form of Arab nationalism.
In 1969, Muammar Qadhafi overthrew a ruling royal family and installed a form of Arab nationalism Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for almost 29 years, was deposed in February 2011, as part of the wave of Arab Spring revolutions.
Former Libyan leader Qadhafi, who ruled for 42 years, was deposed in October 2011, as part of the wave of Arab Spring revolutions.
After several years of post-revolution instability and periodic violence—and the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force—Egypt has turned again to a military strongman promising a return to dignity and stability.
After several years of post-revolution instability and chronic violence—and the rise of competing militias as a political force—Libya, or at least a sizable and noisy segment in the eastern region, is again looking towards a military strongman promising a return to dignity and stability.
To be sure, there are a multitude of differences between the two countries; Libya lacks Egypt’s relative cohesion and long history as a unified state—Libya was divided into three administered regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan as recently as 1951. Libyan internal politics make Egypt’s look positively placid in comparison. Indeed, it is the militia-centric politics of post-Qadhafi Libya that, in his own words, has forced Haftar to act. By politically attacking—disbanding, even—parliament for supporting or allowing violent extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia to thrive, and then militarily attacking those groups, Haftar is gathering support from military loyalists and those dismayed by the empty politics and seemingly abject violence. He is cleverly conflating political deadlock and inefficiencies with militia violence, which is not entirely inaccurate given the competing tribal and gang loyalties. Al-Sisi used a similar tactic, conflating political deadlock not with militias but with the Islamists, which, again, is not entirely inaccurate given how poorly the Muslim Brotherhood handled its brief time in power.
Al-Sisi has returned the mantle of power to where it has resided for 62 years: the military, which, even after the revolution and ongoing endemic corruption, maintained meaningful public support, partly by not engaging in open war against civilians. Haftar, if he does come to power, will not have anything resembling public support for a state army, since Libya’s armed forces not only are disjointed and have never had broad support but also engaged the opposition in brutal war. Since he lacks a trusted institution—the national military—Haftar will lean more on his persona as the only strong leader who can cut through the chaos and return stability by crushing violent extremist groups and the political blocs that allow them to operate. To broaden the sweep and depth of his figure of strength, he will continue to engage these groups—and ignore the current parliament such as it is—to, in effect, build the same national institution that al-Sisi rode into power.
As both Egyptian and Libyan histories suggest, the understandable move towards imposed stability in the face of post-revolutionary instability becomes a Faustian and repeating choice if not accompanied by the establishment of empowered legislative and judicial institutions. Without these functioning branches, Nasser becomes Mubarak who becomes al-Sisi, and Qadhafi becomes chaos who becomes Haftar.
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