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26 August 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:57pm

Libya’s storms of history

The turmoil in the nation is reawakening memories of conflicts between the Ottoman empire and Arab nationalists.

By Christopher Clark

On Monday 20 July, a closed meeting of the Egyptian parliament discussed a request from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for a mandate to intervene militarily in Libya. Since the president’s grip on the Egyptian parliament is notoriously tight and the proposed intervention was presented as a matter of Egyptian national security, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The parliament unanimously agreed the authorisation requested.

An Egyptian intervention in eastern Libya is an invitation to reflect on the historical importance of Libya as a geopolitical inflection point for the eastern Mediterranean region.

In 1911, the Italians, encouraged by the British and French, attacked the three Ottoman provinces known today as Libya in a bid to acquire a colony in North Africa. The Italian-Libyan War, now almost completely forgotten, even in Italy, was the first in world history where aerial bombardments took place. Hand-primed bombs were thrown from biplanes and dirigibles on to Ottoman troops below, sowing terror and confusion.

Lacking an effective navy and prevented from transferring troops through British-controlled Egypt, the Ottomans couldn’t replenish or supply the forces in the country. But the Libyan resistance was unexpectedly fierce. Unable to advance into the hinterland, the Italian troops found themselves trapped near the coast.

The impact of this unprovoked attack on three integral provinces of the Ottoman empire in Africa was profound. The Italian pursuit of Ottoman naval forces led to repeated closures of the Turkish Straits, blocking the passage of transport ships carrying Russian grain for export and seriously disrupting the Russian economy. A series of knock-on crises broke out in south-eastern Europe, triggering two major wars in 1912 and 1913 and sweeping away security arrangements that had previously prevented Balkan conflicts from escalating into continental wars. In short, the war for Libya proved a milestone on the road to the conflict that broke out in 1914.

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In 2011, exactly 100 years later, bombs were once again falling on Libya and the headlines were full of the same place names that had caught international attention in 1911: Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte, Derna, Tobruk, Zawiya, Misrata. This time it wasn’t the Italians doing the bombing, but Nato. The Ottoman empire was of the distant past and Libya was now an independent and relatively isolated state. The aim of the bombing was not to establish a new north African colony but to impose a ceasefire, prevent humanitarian catastrophe and limit the operations of the crumbling dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi.

There was no third world war in 2014, of course. But the airstrikes of 2011 did exacerbate tensions among the major powers, partly because Nato’s humanitarian intervention quickly morphed into an assault on the Gaddafi regime. Vladimir Putin, then prime minister of Russia, compared the action to a “medieval call to crusade”. It was an unsettling feature of the world order, he remarked, that armed interventions could so easily be unleashed against sovereign states. Russia, Putin declared, would respond by strengthening its own defensive capacity. Commentators who know Putin well have suggested that the Libyan crisis of 2011, and especially the lynching of Gaddafi, were decisive in placing the Russian leader on the path to a more aggressively anti-Western foreign policy.

Since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya has been torn by a civil war between troops of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the west of the country and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar in the east. The UN and the EU have recognised the GNA as Libya’s legitimate government; General Khalifa Haftar has been supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2019, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan entertained a formal plea from the GNA for Turkish assistance against the forces led by Haftar. Erdogan asked the Turkish parliament for a resolution mandating an intervention with a view to securing Turkish interests in North Africa and the Mediterranean and achieving stability in Libya. In January this year, Turkish forces began deploying to the west of the country. “They will be managing the situation over there,” Erdogan said in an interview with CNN Turk.

The action is widely understood to reflect the priorities established in Turkey’s “Blue Homeland Doctrine”, which aims to secure improved Turkish access to resources in the eastern Mediterranean.


In responding to Turkey’s growing presence in western Libya, Egypt’s al-Sisi has followed the same playbook. On 13 July this year, the “Eastern Libyan Parliament”, sometimes called the “Eastern-based Libyan House of Representatives”, requested Egyptian assistance in safeguarding national security against the threat posed by the Turkish “occupation” in the west. Three days later, delegates of several eastern Libyan tribes were received in Cairo, where they met the president and requested assistance “to protect the national security of Libya and Egypt”. Al-Sisi expressed his support in principle and assured his interlocutors that the Egyptian army was the strongest in the region. The next step was to ask the Egyptian parliament for an intervention mandate. The parliament resolved unanimously, according to a statement issued on 20 July, to approve “the deployment of members of the Egyptian armed forces on combat missions outside Egypt’s borders to defend Egyptian national security… against criminal armed militias and foreign terrorist elements”.

It is still unlikely that a direct clash between Egyptian and Turkish troops will result from these steps. Egypt has for the moment promised only training, equipment and logistical support for its eastern Libyan proxies. But whereas the events of 2011 recalled the history of Western colonial and imperial violence, the prospect of an Egyptian-Turkish stand-off in northern Africa has switched on memories that extend far beyond the war of 1911 to the 1830s, when an ambitious Egyptian leader challenged Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean.

Ali Pasha, later known as Mehmet Ali or Muhammad Ali, was the first great state-builder of modern Egyptian history. He was a naval and military reformer who built a central bureaucracy, a moderately meritocratic educational system and the beginnings of a modern economy. He was not an Egyptian by birth, or even an Arab, but an Albanian governor in Ottoman service.

In the 1810s and 1820s, Muhammad Ali was the Ottoman Sultan’s energetic supporter. In 1811 and 1812, he helped Istanbul regain control over the Arabian Peninsula, whose holy places had fallen into the hands of the House of Saud, champions of a literalist Hanbali interpretation of Islam. In 1825, Muhammad Ali sent a large navy under the command of his son Ibrahim to suppress the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman empire. This venture was at first successful, in the sense that Egyptian forces wrested control of much of mainland Greece from the insurgents.

But the Egyptian expedition also triggered the intervention of the Great Powers on behalf of Greece. The Egyptians were pushed back out of the peninsula and British, Russian and French ships destroyed the Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827.

In 1831, Muhammad Ali, having conquered most of Sudan, turned on the Sultan and invaded Syria, initiating the First Turko-Egyptian War (1831-33). When the Ottomans moved to reoccupy lands lost to the Egyptians, Muhammad Ali fought them again in the Second Turko-Egyptian War of 1839-1841, inflicting a calamitous defeat on the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Nezib on 24 June 1839. With the Ottomans close to collapse, the European Great Powers rushed once again to intervene, brokering a peace that saved the empire and secured de facto independence for Egypt under Muhammad Ali and his descendants.

Today, it is as if the tensions over Libya have shone a light on a part of Egypt’s historical diorama that has usually lain in shadow. State-supporting newspapers in Egypt attack Ankara’s intervention in the west of the country as “Turkish aggression on Arab soil with an Ottoman background”. Egypt’s intervention is depicted as a striking blow against the “imperialism” of Istanbul. On 7 June, the Speaker of the Egyptian parliament, Ali Abdel-Aal, declared that “those [meaning the Turks] who have dreams of colonising the Arab world again will go to the dustbin of history”.

In a statement made on the same day, Ahmed Raslan, head of the parliamentary committee on Arab affairs, denounced “the new Turkish colonists who seek to impose their control on parts of the Arab world and seek to steal its wealth and riches”.


The focus is not specifically on Muhammad Ali, who is remembered principally as a foundational Egyptian patriot and state-builder, but on something more emotional and diffuse, namely the memory of the Arab nationalist movements that chafed under Ottoman rule and eventually threw off the yoke of the Ottoman empire. Of course, these historical resonances are not “memories” rising unbidden to the surface of consciousness; they are rhetorical tools designed to endow present-day policies with depth and legitimacy, to make them feel less like newfangled inventions and more like the fulfilment of a time-honoured national task.

There is a religious dimension to the crisis. The al-Sisi government claims that the fighters loyal to the Turkish-supported GNA include partisans of Islamic State. More specifically, Turkey is accused of sending Isis fighters from Syria to support the GNA. But it should be noted that a US Pentagon investigation found this accusation to be false. As many as 3,000 Syrians had been transferred by Turkey to Libya and paid to fight there, but these were mercenaries and not Islamist militiamen, according to the Pentagon’s report. On the other hand, Erdogan’s sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, ruthlessly suppressed by al-Sisi in Egypt and still active in Libya, is well known. Erdogan is often seen making the rabaa sign to his supporters. This gesture, in which the four fingers are raised and the thumb tucked into the palm of the hand, recalls the massacre in Cairo’s Rabaa Square on 14 August 2013, when Egyptian security forces fired on a sit-in of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing more than 800 civilians (the Arabic word rabaa means “four”, hence the raised fingers).


How will the Libyan crisis resolve itself? Partition, though it has been proposed by some, would be difficult, because both the western and the eastern political entities lay claim to the whole country. The ultimate prize is the hotly fought-over oil-bearing areas around the central regions of Sirte and Jufra – key sources of national revenue that neither side is willing to renounce. They are currently held by the LNA.

Libya today is an exceptionally inclement environment for negotiating political settlements. Ghassan Salamé, the former Lebanese culture minister who was UN envoy for Libya, resigned from his post in March this year, citing “stress”: “For two years, I tried to reunite Libyans and restrain foreign interference,” Salamé wrote, “but for health reasons I can no longer continue with this level of stress.” He has not yet been replaced. At the Libya summit in Berlin on 19 January this year, the GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar, though they both agreed to come to the German chancellery building, refused to meet face to face.

The complexity of the Libyan conflict is a further barrier to progress. In addition to rival armies and tribal militias divided along ethnic and ideological lines, many foreign players are engaged. While the EU continued to acknowledge the Tripoli-based GNA, France has covertly helped to arm and train the forces led by Haftar, a move that recalls the “Oriental Crisis” of 1840, when France was for a time the only European power prepared to support Muhammad Ali against the Ottoman Sultan.

Russia and the UAE are also reportedly supplying Haftar with weaponry. The Turks have sent drones, military advisers and foreign mercenaries to the GNA and have deployed naval craft along the Libyan coast in support of GNA forces. With so many uncoordinated stakeholders in play, it is virtually impossible for anyone to control the evolution of the conflict or to forestall local and regional escalations. As long as the mayhem persists, it is difficult to see how the question of uncontrolled mass migration from the Libyan littoral across the Mediterranean to Europe will be resolved.

One of the odd things about the history of international relations is that even as the world system and the political cultures that compose it change, certain regions remain volatile. Libya has repeatedly been a cat’s paw for bad geopolitical weather. It gives the lie to the notion that there are heartlands where conflicts have world-historical consequences and peripheries where they do not. Libya matters and we ignore it at our peril. 

Christopher Clark is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge

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This article appears in the 26 Aug 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid