Post-Conference Interview with Jalel Harchaoui: Why Italy & France disagree on the Libyan crisis

During our annual NCUSLR conference held on November 13th, 2018 in Washington DC, many participants raised questions to the speakers that we could not respond to due to time limits.

As such, we have initiated a series of follow up interviews with our conference speakers to answer these lingering questions. As you go through these questions and answers please keep in mind that neither the questions nor answers reflect the opinions of NCUSLR.

  • Dr. Hani Shennib

Presenter featured in the following interview:

Jalel Harchaoui, Lecturer in Geopolitics, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Paris

Jalel Harchaoui presented at the 2nd Annual NCUSLR Conference on Panel I, The Libyan Political Process: Quo Vadis. The topic of his presentation: “European & North African perspectives on Libya: What exactly do they have in mind?"

Harchaoui delivered verbal remarks only at the conference.

Post-Conference Interview with Jalel Harchaoui on regional dynamics affecting Libya:

Since the May 29th, 2018, Élysées Summit revealed a France aggressively and almost unilaterally promoting general elections by year-end, much ink has been spilled on the Italy-vs.-French rivalry in Libya. Although real, that rivalry is often exaggerated in the media. The following answers explain the perception and perspective of each capital regarding the embattled North African country.

  • Italy’s point of view

Owing to both history and geography, Italy has often dealt with almost all local elites and groups in the western half of Libya. Eastern-based field marshal Khalifa Haftar finds this Italian practice profoundly unacceptable because he aspires to become the principal center of military power across the whole of Libya. However, over recent years, Rome hasn’t struck bargains with anti-Haftar militias because it opposes Haftar politically. Rome has worked out arrangements with a wide array of western-Libya actors only because it carries great exposure to two major risks in that particular territory: the irregular migrant flow into Sicily and hydrocarbon imports.

In contrast, France has no comparable risk exposure to a possible disruption in Tripolitania. As a result, the Italians have gone to great lengths to try and help preserve a calm, quiet status quo in western Libya, even if that means working with unsavory actors. Eastern Libya’s anti-Islamist factions resent that attitude because they aim to uproot the Muslim Brotherhood and other revolutionary elements, regardless of whether that triggers upheaval against Italy’s interests. That difference was the crux of the disagreement between Haftar and Italy, up until a few months ago.

Two consequential things occurred in 2018, though. First, the statistics associated with irregular migration into Sicily have come down significantly, thanks to former Minister of the interior Marco Minniti’s strategy, which was implemented the prior year. Because the migrant statistics are now almost zero, Rome is more and more confident that—even if a big battle engulfs Tripolitania—the migrant flow affecting Italy will not jump back to its 2015 or 2016 highs.

The second development that took place in 2017 is the fact that nationalistic, anti-Liberal politicians such as Matteo Salvini swept into power in June. Inevitably the ideological orientation tempts the current Italian government to get closer to Egypt’s nationalistic, anti-Liberal regime. President Abdelfattah Sisi’s mode of governance is admired by all EU leaderships nowadays, and is seen as the proper bulwark against all the risks embedded in the northern half of the African continent over the next several decades. Enthusiasm for President Sisi is slightly more emphatic on the part of anti-Liberal leaders such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Italy’s Salvini. However, Liberal, ostensibly idealistic, human-rights-advocating leaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel do display a level of support for President Sisi almost identical to that of their anti-Liberal rivals.

As far as Libya is concerned, the current Italian government’s ideology naturally pushes it to embrace Khalifa Haftar’s military solution, since it is the closest thing to Sisi in Libya. Driven by hydrocarbon and other considerations, those efforts began under Prime Minister Gentiloni. They are all the more pressing now that Libyan migrant arrivals into Sicily have stopped. The only hesitation dominating Rome today has to do with the fact that Italy imports approximately 350,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day, the vast majority of which comes from western Libya. Haftar’s coalition knows how important the security of oil assets is to Italy (and to Libya itself). It believes that, with the potential help of foreign actors, it can attempt a move into Tripoli and protect those oil assets simultaneously, if need be. That “move” won’t necessarily be in the form of an all-out assault.

All the while, France’s exposure remains much smaller than Italy’s exposure. If a major disruption rocks western Libya owing to one reason or other, France believes it will be largely unaffected in all cases.

On Italy’s end, since the summer, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been trying to smooth out a careful transition. His strategy is to try and shift into a full, almost-unconditional embrace of Haftar without disrupting Tripoli’s status quo in too brusque a manner. That balancing act is fraught with risks, which explains why Conte travels so often amid his efforts to implement a narrow, uncertain strategy.

A possible scenario is one whereby Haftar attempts to visit GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj in Tripoli amid a peaceful event. Such a brief appearance, if smooth and without incident, would be immediately presented by Haftar’s principal backers—the UAE and France—as incontrovertible proof that the field marshal is the only true, legitimate national figure in Libya. That, in turn, would usher in a phase wherein the UAE, France, Italy and a few other states would help install Haftar in Tripoli, likely, as supreme commander of all of Libyan armed forces; in a way not unlike Sisi’s July 2013 putsch in Cairo, followed a few months later by an election. Other scenarios are possible too.

In the Autumn of 2018, several anti-Haftar or “revolutionary” figures belonging to the Tripoli Revolutionary Battalion, such as al-Hadi al-Awaynat and Khairi Hankora, were assassinated by other Tripoli militias while the U.N. and member states refrained from making comments about said events. That campaign of ruthless yet discreet murders makes Haftar’s potential presence in Tripoli incrementally more feasible. Moreover, some key Islamist figures in Zawiyah (a town located immediately to the west of Tripoli) have fled the country in recent weeks. Lastly, the acting Attorney General in Tripoli, Sadiq al-Sur, issued an arrest warrant against key Islamist figures currently in Istanbul. These developments point to a greater Tripoli area that is more accepting and more quiescent regarding Haftar’s potential appearance in the capital, whether peaceful or military. All that being said, a military march towards Tripoli remains a very difficult prospect. If Haftar’s coalition does attempt such a move, the latter could easily fail. After all, no peace deal has been genuinely pursued with Misrata, which boasts an army almost as impactful as Haftar’s own army. Moreover, neither Zintan (usually followed by Wershefana nowadays) nor Bani Walid are likely to accept a Tripoli adventure by the LNA. Haftar has been making substantial efforts to woo Bani Walid’s most steadfast Qaddafists, but it is still too early to speak of an alliance. Qaddafists have not forgotten that Haftar led an onslaught on Bani Walid in September 2011 and later, in October 2012, sent fighters and heavy weapons to support Misrata’s siege of the Green city.

Some observers argue that Haftar’s frequent allusions about a possible attempt to establish a presence in Tripoli is only a ruse to keep adversaries alert and create opportunities for smaller advances. Although largely correct, this reading omits the virulent attitude of the UAE this year. Abu Dhabi exerts a greater amount of sway on Tripoli’s militias now than a year ago. It is intent on leveraging off of that influence to see the LNA progress sooner rather than later in Tripolitania. Over time, such pressure may end up causing Haftar to launch incursions whose military realism is dubious. Said differently, Haftar’s foreign backers have been awaiting his “taking” of the capital for years. Pressure has been mounting; the field marshal cannot assume he can temporize for another year or two.

In all cases, Italy is too weak to stop or dampen this dynamic, which is driven primarily by the UAE (Paris only follows Abu Dhabi). For ideological and practical reasons, the government in Rome is interested in seeing Haftar succeed in Tripolitania, but it is unsure how it can help. As a result, a weak, distracted Italy confines itself to advocating for peaceful negotiations in lieu of force. Meanwhile, the UAE, whose firm determination enjoys a great sway over many key players including Paris, pays little heed to Italy. Egypt is skeptical: Cairo does not believe Haftar’s move into Tripoli is feasible.

  • France’s point of view

Throughout its entire history, France has never considered Tripolitania a vital strategic interest. Tripolitania is much less important to France than it is to Italy. However, since January 2015, France has supported Haftar and provided him with military advisers because it considers him a partner in the fight against Islamist extremists and political Islam alike. Perhaps more important still, Paris sees in Libya a not-too-costly opportunity for international prestige. A France-friendly, stable Libya would enhance Paris’s overall diplomatic stature in the Middle East and North Africa region. France also sees in Libya a missing piece of its wider, regional sphere of influence, which encompasses the entire Sahel and is also complemented by a Paris-friendly Morocco to the west, a Paris-friendly Côte d’Ivoire to the south, and a Paris-friendly Egypt to the east.

When France intervened in Libya in 2011, its prevailing demeanor there consisted of destroying an existing state. Back then, France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy was deeply influenced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s idealistic Liberalism, on the one hand, and its intimate friendship with Qatar and its local allies, on the other. By January 2013, while the Libya experiment was now recognized as a failure, France felt obliged to intervene in Mali --- a profoundly different crisis compared to Libya in 2011. By the time the French went to war in Mali, they were no longer in the business of destroying existing states. What the French were seeking to do there was to bolster the authority of a collapsed state, regardless of its standards in terms of idealistic Liberalism or human-rights concerns. One must also add that France’s involvement in Mali, and then, starting in August 2014, in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, had nothing to do with migration concerns. Despite its rhetorical insistence to the contrary, France is not affected by irregular migration traversing Libya or the Sahel.

Indeed, a very different kind of interventionism today prevails in Paris, generally speaking. That form of interventionism is not idealistic or Liberal. In fact, it is anti-Liberal in nature. Nowadays, France is driven by a desire to bolster state structures, security and to fight Islamist extremism, regardless of human-rights violations committed by local states. Motivated by a rationale of this sort, some influential policy-makers in Paris advocated for a new French intervention in Libya in September 2014, to no avail (several Western states opposed the thrust). If it had taken place, that military intervention would have considered Khalifa Haftar’s coalition a natural partner. The dominant thinking in Paris has remained largely unchanged ever since.

Southwestern Libya (the Fezzan) is an area wherein both Tripoli's Government of National Accord and Haftar's coalition have difficulty projecting power. As a result, multiple kinds of illicit activities take place in the Fezzan, such as, al-Qaeda-linked actors regrouping and raising funds while anti-Déby rebels are establishing a platform to attack Chad. Daesh has also been able to conduct attacks in the Fezzan in recent weeks. Ideally, Paris wishes to see Haftar become more assertive in the Fezzan, but the principal fault-line plaguing Libya today is perceived as playing out along the littoral, not in the south. As a result, Haftar's coalition makes progress in the Fezzan at a much slower pace than his rhetoric suggests, but Paris will carry on seeing in him the only reliable partner of the France-backed government of Idriss Déby. France will continue to display a strong preference for an assertive Haftar in the Fezzan almost regardless of his actual performance there, because France believes that it can contain any conflagration in the Sahel thanks to its existing presence in Niger, Chad, Mali, and other states.

  • Brief note on Algeria’s perception

In the mid-2000s, Algeria did see Libya as a competitor in the realm of hydrocarbons. That antagonism was attributable to the fact that from 2004 to 2010 Qaddafi was largely a pro-Western leader, unlike Algiers. As such, Libya received what Algiers saw as preferential treatment from European powers. Today, almost none of that rivalry exists between Algeria and Libya. Algiers simply wants peace and quiet in western Libya (and in Tunisia). Moreover, Libya's hydrocarbon strategy is concentrated in growing the amount of its oil exports, whereas Algeria remains more focused on natural gas for the time being. For now, Algeria sees no serious competitor in Libya, but that demeanor may change if Libyan hydrocarbon exports grow substantially from current levels. Additionally, Algiers fears any development that would see France become more influential in western Libya.


The fact that Islamist actors have become indisputably weaker in Libya over the last two or three years, has not managed to bring Libya much nearer to peace or some form of unified, nationwide governance. Such tenacious fragmentation is in part attributable to foreign states’ refusal to work together, a problem exacerbated by U.S. retrenchment. Another, related phenomenon is foreign states’ maximalist attitude. Total victory in Libya is being preferred over pragmatic compromises. This tendency has delayed peaceful resolution and, in the foreseeable future, may engender several unnecessary security crises in Libya this year.

The views shared in this published interview reflect those of the guest contributor and not necessarily the views of the National Council on U.S.-Libya Relations.