LIBYA – The Interests of the Neighbouring States in Libya’s Civil War


Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya was a regional hub of power in North Africa. After the lifting of the international sanctions, Libya´s enormous oil wealth was increasingly used to pursue the political goals of the “Brother Leader”. He shaped in part the policy of the African Union. Libya’s booming economy attracted 100,000s of foreign workers, especially from the neighbouring countries, a fact of high importance for the weak labour markets in Egypt and Tunisia. Gaddafi’s fight against Islamists ensured that its territory could not be used by jihadists to stage attacks on other countries. After the fall of the regime all this changed. This has a significant impact on the strategic interests of Libya’s neighbours and on the stability of the whole region.


Tunisia has vital security interests in connection with Libya. It had felt threatened by its wealthy neighbour in the 20th century and was always concerned about an eventual instability in Libya after Gaddafi. Now it is suffering most.

The links of Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia and other domestic terrorist groups with the western branch of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and the Islamic state are of major concern. Tunisian terrorists are trained in camps close to the border near Sabratha and in the Cyrenaica. Jihadists who gained experience on the Middle East’s battlefields return via Libya to their home country to reinforce local terrorists groups. Weapons and ammunition are smuggled over the border in high numbers. The southern desert is used as a transit route for terrorists between Libya and Algeria.

Tunisia has also significant economic interests with regard to Libya. Before the revolution Libyan-Tunisian economic relations were at a historical high point and a further expansion with several common projects was on the way (cf. E. Santi et al., “Impact of Libya´s Conflict on the Tunisian Economy: A Preliminary Assessment”, African Development Bank – North Africa Quarterly Analytical, July 2011). Libya was Tunisia’s most important trade partner in Africa. In 2009 total trade reached €1.25 billion in value terms. Libya absorbed about 6.9% of Tunisia´s exports, in particular industrial products.

Before the revolution Tunisia had benefited from oil imports from Libya at a preferential price. Oil accounted for 92 % of Tunisia´s recorded imports from its neighbour, 25% of total crude oil needs.

An estimated 200,000 Tunisians had been working in Libya before the revolution. Many of them originate from the poorer regions of the country. Their wages are frequently of crucial importance for a whole family. In 2009 the total amount of remittances transferred back home amounted to at least €78 million. But due to the overall situation in Libya currently the number of Tunisian foreign workers is probably less than 60,000.

Smuggling is for several families in the economic weak border region the only source of income. However, the black markets inflict a heavy damage on Tunisia’s economy. Most of all fuel is trafficked, but also all kinds of consumer items, including in Libya heavily subsidized foodstuff, and cars.

According to the Tunisian Ministry of Commerce the country is now home to about one million Libyan refugees, many of them members of the middle class. That would be about 10% of the whole population. Even if this figure is probably a little bit too high, the number is huge anyway. As the relatively wealthy refugees require many villas and apartments, housing prices in their preferred regions have grown. Libyan children flock in to private schools making them unaffordable to many Tunisians. Tunisia has been the no.1 destination for medical care for many Libyans since years. Numbers have increased with the civil war, and this is now an overburden for Tunisia´s health care system. The high number of Libyans in Tunisia is a strain for the countries’ budget, as they consume services and subsidized items, including food and fuel imported from Libya. There are also complaints about the behaviour of young, wealthy Libyans in the public. Altogether this has a destabilizing effect on the society of Tunisia.

On more than one occasion Tunisia became victim of extortion when Islamist militias in Libya took several Tunisians hostage (including diplomats) to enforce the release of Libyans jailed for various reasons, including for support to terrorism. It always worked…

Unfortunately, the possibilities for Tunisia to influence the situation in its eastern neighbouring country are quite limited. Aware of its vulnerability it tries to keep the same distance to both of Libya’s government and stays out of the internal quarrels. But even if Tunisia, a country with about twice the population of Libya, would have the military power to intervene in Libya, this would more endanger Tunisia’s strategic interests than facilitate it. Therefore a Tunisian military intervention in Libya or even a contribution to an international operation can be ruled out.

The wall on the border, which is currently being constructed by the Tunisians, will probably have a more severe impact on the smuggling business than on the infiltration of terrorists.


Egypt has vital security, important economic and value related interests with regard to its western neighbour. There are strong historic ties between the two countries. Until the 20th century the Cyrenaica was always more leaning towards Egypt than Tripoli. Today Egypt’s domestic security is heavily affected by the chaos in Libya, while it has to fight its own domestic counter-terrorism campaign. Jihadist groups like Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis use eastern Libya as a training site, as a staging area for attacks in Egypt and for weapons supply.

In an attempt to counter the threat Egypt has significantly reinforced its troops on the western border. The Egyptian government supports General Khalifa Heftar’s fight against all Islamists in Libya, including more moderates like the Muslim Brotherhood. This support embraces training and the delivery of all kinds of ammunition, weapons and military equipment, including attack helicopters and fighter jets.

However, for the time being it was neither possible to defeat the Islamists in Libya nor to stop the intrusions over the border.

Before the revolution up to 2 million Egyptians, many of them Coptic Christians and Muslims from Upper Egypt were working in Libya. The transfer of money back home to their families was crucial, as the unemployment rate in Egypt is very high. Remittances are among the three most important sources of foreign currency income for the country. Nowadays the number of Egyptian workers in Libya is down to about 750,000, which has a significant negative impact as many families have lost their main source of income.

Egyptian infrastructure and electricity companies were the first to enter the Libyan market after the revolution, whereas Libya is a major investor in Egypt. In 2013Libya provided Egypt with aid and loan packages worth US$ 2 bn (cf. Egypt Economic Quarterly Review 4, June 2013, 9, “African Development Bank Group”).

The Egyptian economy is in dire need of energy and would like to benefit from cheap Libyan oil. This could be very well the case in return for the much needed military support to Libya´s internationally recognized government.

The Awlâd‘Alî are a major Libyan Sa‘adi (noble) tribe related to the ‘Ibîdât, the most powerful tribe in the northeast of the Cyrenaica. At the beginning of the 19th century the Awlâd‘Alî lost a war against other Libyan tribes and were forced to flee to Egypt. Today about 750,000 of them settle mostly from Sollum to Marsa Matruh, but also in Alexandria and in the Nile Valley. Less than 80,000 are left in Libya near the border.

This situation facilitates the smuggling business. The smuggled goods are about the same like on the Tunisian border, but human trafficking and drugs play a more important role.

Egypt tries to influence the situation in Libya with all available means, in line with its own strategic interests. A radical Islamist state on its eastern border would be a nightmare for Egypt. Therefore it will continue to support anybody who is in charge of the fight against the Libya Dawn coalition and the jihadists to prevent at least the takeover of the Cyrenaica by the Islamist.

If the number and intensity of terrorist attacks in Egypt grows further on, it can be expected that Egypt will sooner or later directly intervene in Libya. For such a – probably limited – intervention Egypt´s leadership is already trying to gain international support, at first from the Arab League and some selected western countries like Italy, France and the United States, but also from Russia. It is unlikely that Egypt would intervene without contributions from some other nations, intelligence support from western countries and – at least – the tacit approval of the United States.

The first choice would be surgical air strikes on terrorist targets as far in the west as Sirte and Special Forces raids up to Benghazi. Although the Egyptian Air Force is one of the largest and most powerful in the Arab World it has only limited stocks of precision  guided munitions, a small number of targeting pods and neither air-to-air refuelling capabilities nor real-time intelligence gathering assets.

Ultimately the Egyptian Army could intervene on the ground to establish a security zone on the Libyan side of the border and maybe to isolate Derna, too.

In contrary to what is claimed by some analysts, Egypt cannot have an interest in a long-term instability in Libya, as its own security is of its primary concern.


The relations between Algeria and Libya under Gaddafi were most of the time amicable. During the revolution Algiers stayed neutral, although there was some indication that weapons were delivered to Libya through Algeria. In August 2011 several members of the Gaddafi family fled to Algeria and found protection there. This in turn annoyed Libya´s new government.

Algeria´s relations with Libya are dominated by vital security interests, as it is heavily affected by the current chaos in Libya.

Fezzan is used as a safe haven by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other jihadists operating in Algeria. Certain areas of this region close to the borders with Algeria and Niger serve as logistics zones to the terrorists and for resting, while combat operations are being conducted in the neighbouring countries. The availability of Fezzan as a safe haven is so important to AQIM that its emir Abdelmalek Droukdel rejected in fall 2011 categorically the request of several of his Libyan followers to establish a “combat zone” in this region. For the time being there have been no major AQIM attacks in Libya. But this would certainly change, if AQIM gets under pressure in Libya.

The Ansar al-Sharia branches in both Benghazi and Derna have links with AQIM and with its offshoot Al Mourabitoun, which is led by the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He is responsible for the bloody In Amenas attack in Algeria in January 2013. Libyan territory was used by the terrorists for the approach to the gas facility, which is located only about 80 km from the border. According to some media reports, Belmokhtar was killed in June 2015 near the eastern Libyan city of Ajdabiya by an American airstrike. The United States confirmed that Al Mourabitoun’s leader was targeted and that the strike was “successful”, but did not confirm that Belmokhtar himself was killed.

Algeria uses diplomacy and the military to safeguard its interests from the fallout of insecurity in Libya. On the diplomatic side it tries to facilitate the negotiations process between Libya’s warring factions by activities within and complementary to the UNSMIL mediation process. To this end it cooperates mainly with Tunisia, Egypt, France, Italy and the United States (which praised the Algerian initiatives).

The Algerian constitution forbids its armed forces to undertake operations abroad. A major intervention in Libya, even an air force offensive, can be therefore ruled out. Nevertheless there are some indications that a few limited covert operations are going on in Libya. Probably those are related to intelligence gathering only, although some minor direct action activities cannot be excluded.

With the exception of the southernmost part the terrain in the border zone consists mainly of open desert. Therefore the infiltration of terrorists and weapons can be to a large extent prevented by the well-equipped Algerian Armed Forces through a dense border security system. To this end a military zone was established along the border with Libya (as well as with Niger and Mali).

Algeria has close intelligence cooperation to combat terrorism with the United States, France, Tunisia and Egypt.


After the conflict about the Aouzou strip was over in 1987, the relations between Chad and Libya developed in a positive way. Chad benefited from Gaddafi’s largess, from business relations with Libyan companies and from mediation efforts between Chad and its domestic rebels as well as in the reconciliation with Sudan. During the revolution many Chadian mercenaries fought for Gaddafi. The new Libyan government was only recognized in August 2011.

The vast border between Libya and Chad is easy to cross. The rough Tibesti Mountains are impossible to control. The Toubou, the original population of the Sahara, settle on both sides of the border, with smaller groups in Niger and Sudan. They number between 100,000 and 250,000, with the vast majority living in Chad. It can be expected that the Toubou would support their northern brothers in a full-fledged civil war. There is credible information that some assistance is already going on right now. For many young Toubou without a bright perspective at home it is very attractive to join the smuggling business in the north or their Libyan relatives in their fight against some Arab tribes and the Tuareg.

The military of Chad itself is engaged in a domestic counter-insurgency operation and various international peace support operations. It doesn’t have the capabilities for a major intervention in Libya.


Although Libya´s Gaddafi supported in the 1980s and 1990s the Tuareg insurgency in Niger and Mali, the relations between Niger and Libya improved significantly after 2000. During the revolution many Nigerien migrant workers and Tuareg fought for the regime. Niger was one of the last African countries to recognize the new government. Saadi Gaddafi and other prominent figures of the former regime took refuge in Niger until he was extradited to Libya in March 2014.

Niger has important security interests with regard to its northern neighbor. Cross-border terrorist activity and the proliferation of arms undermine the fragile stability. The country serves as a transit route between Libya and Mali for AQIM and various other jihadists as well as for Tuareg groups. Since recently it is also used by Boko Haram to get to and from Libya. This dangerous group is increasingly active in southern Niger. Furthermore, Niger is struggling with the spillover from the conflict in Mali and there is a direct threat to Niger´s strategically important uranium mines by AQIM and its splinter groups.

The border with Libya is frequently used for all kind of trans-Saharan smuggling activities, including ever more for human and drug trafficking. Agadez in the centre of the country is a hub for migrants from all over Africa on their way to Europe.

Niger as one of the poorest countries in the world (on the UN Human Development Index it ranks on the last place) does not have the capabilities to counter the threats originating from Libya or to control its borders effectively. Consequently it has offered its terrain to France and the United States to conduct counterterrorism operations. French troops have bases in the capital Niamey and in the far north in Madama, only 100 km from the border with Libya, to intercept smuggling convoys and infiltrating terrorists. An American drone base was established in Agadez to increase intelligence-gathering across North Africa. All the foreign bases are in turn attractive targets for the jihadists.


Sudan shares only a small part of its border with Libya. During the revolution in Libya, it supported the rebels and provided weapons, as Gaddafi had interfered in Sudan’s internal affairs for years.

The Islamist regime in Khartoum has now a better basis of discussions with the Islamist dominated General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli than with the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) and General Heftar. The establishment of an Islamist government in Libya controlling the whole country would be in the interest of Sudan.

There is evidence that Sudan, a country with quite a history in supporting radical Islamic groups and international terrorism, is supplying weapons, ammunition and military equipment to various Islamist groups in Libya. The situation escalated in September 2014 when the HoR expelled Sudan’s defence attaché over allegations about Khartoum supplying weapons to the Islamists in Libya. Subsequently the president of Sudan invited Libya’s prime minister to Khartoum to calm done the situation. He tried to present himself – not very successful – as a mediator between HoR and GNC. Sudan’s government has been concerned about an eventual HoR support to the rebels in Darfur (as Gaddafi has done) in return for the weapon supplies to the Islamists.

There is no proof that weapon deliveries from Sudan to Libya are still ongoing.

As a consequence of all this it can be said that if the security situation in Libya cannot be brought under control any time soon or even deteriorates further on, it is very likely that the conflict will fully spread to several neighbouring countries. Libya itself will become subject to foreign interventions. This will not make it easier for Europe to bring peace and stability to its southern neighborhood and to stop the wave of illegal immigration over the Mediterranean.


About Author

Wolfgang Pusztai

Security and Policy Analyst - Former Austrian Defense Attaché to Tunisia and Libya (2007-2012) Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on U.S. - Libya Relations


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