The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s Gulf allies rush to defend strongman rule

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At the end of last week, it appeared President Trump had authorized a stunning reversal of U.S. policy. According to a White House statement, Trump had placed a phone call to renegade Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is leading a military offensive against the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli. In their conversation, the president praised Hifter for fighting “terrorism” and protecting Libyan oil assets.

The problem with this conversation? It flew in the face of existing State Department and Pentagon messaging, which has urged Hifter to stand down and engage in U.N.-brokered negotiations with the government in Tripoli. Hundreds of civilians and combatants have died in recent days as Hifter’s forces pushed toward the Libyan capital, while tens of thousands have been displaced. Both sides have used artillery and airstrikes in the fighting.

Trump’s call “pretty much undermines seven or eight years of U.S. policy,” including during the first two years of his presidency, Ben Fishman, a former Obama administration official who focused on Libya, told my colleagues. “Our policy was to support a U.N.-backed peace process.” By styling Hifter as a counterterrorism partner and avoiding any comment on his unilateral move to attack Tripoli, Fishman said, “it sure sounds to me that [Trump] is playing favorites.”

Trump is hardly alone in this endeavor — Hifter counts other powers, including France and Russia, as tacit allies. Various European governments have voiced their concerns with the corrupt, weak Government of National Accord that’s based in Tripoli and in Hifter’s crosshairs. But the current state of play dooms the prospect of a mediated settlement in a country riven by competing militias.

“The best efforts of some Libyans to write a new constitution and settle internal conflicts through dialogue, though laudable, have often seemed separate and parallel to the competition among violent groups,” wrote Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Hifter’s move shattered any remaining hope that dialogue could put Libya on a better path.”

For Trump, the decision to side with Hifter likely had other influences. Trump’s chat with Hifter reportedly followed a separate conversation with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE, alongside the Saudis and Egyptians, has long propped up Hifter, a warlord who spent the past few years consolidating power in Libya’s east and is aligned with a rival government that’s based in the port city of Tobruk. The Emiratis are locked in a geopolitical tussle with Qatar and see in Hifter a figure who can quash the Libyan militias linked to Doha, while stabilizing control over Libya’s oil. They also see in him a would-be strongman who would suppress political Islam, even if that means putting Libyan aspirations for democracy on ice.

As readers of Today’s WorldView know, the UAE and Saudi Arabia and a handful of regional allies consider strongman rule across the Arab world as an antidote to the chaos posed by the region’s pro-democracy upheavals. Trump was an early adopter of this view — he cast the protest movements of the 2011 Arab Spring as breeding grounds for Islamist extremism, rather than, say, a reflection of long-repressed societies desperate for greater freedoms and rights. Seemingly taking his cues from figures like bin Zayed, as well as Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump eschews any talk of democratic reform in the Middle East.

James Dorsey, a Middle East scholar, noted how, at least in the Libyan context, Trump’s position is no different than that of the Kremlin. “Trump and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s preference for a man with a questionable human rights record who, if successful, would likely rule Libya as an autocrat, reflects the two leaders’ belief that stability in the Middle East and North Africa is best guaranteed by autocratic rule or some democratic façade behind which men with military backgrounds control the levers of power,” wrote Dorsey.

To that end, Trump has also firmly backed Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who came to power in a 2013 coup that unseated a democratically elected Islamist government, then launched a ruthless crackdown on dissent, and is on the verge of prolonging his rule potentially till 2030 through a referendum widely viewed as a farce. The Emiratis and Saudis helped bankroll Sissi’s putsch, extending billions of dollars in aid to Egypt following his takeover that helped stabilize the Egyptian economy and allowed Sissi to consolidate his position.

Now, it seems Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are attempting to execute the same game plan elsewhere in North Africa. Beyond their overt support for Hifter in Libya, the Saudis and Emiratis have swooped in to offer $3 billion in aid to the caretaker military government in Sudan, which came to power earlier this month after weeks of anti-government protests against long-ruling President Omar al-Bashir led to his stunning removal and imprisonment by senior officers in the army.

In official statements, the two countries predictably framed the relief as a bid to “bring stability” to the weakening Sudanese pound and deliver needed food aid to the country. The protests, first flared in December over rising bread prices. But analysts warned the moves were a first salvo in a new regional bidding war for influence in Khartoum.

“That would be a nightmare scenario for Sudan,” Payton Knopf, a former U.S. diplomat and Horn of Africa expert, said to PBS. “If you have the rivalries of the Middle East exported into this very fragile moment in Sudan, it certainly risks further fragmentation, further splintering, both of the various political elements in the country, but also the military and security elements.”

In conversations with reporters, some Sudanese protesters reckon the funds are part of the monarchies’ broader geopolitical agenda to secure a pliant government in power and nip the push for democratic, civilian rule in the bud. Protesters have held up signs denouncing the Arab governments that appeared to side with the country’s military establishment. No doubt many are aware of the example already set by Egypt.

“As the Egyptians learnt to their great cost, the fall of the symbolic ruler does not automatically lead to the transformation of the autocratic system,” wrote Mohammed Ayoob, senior fellow for the Center for Global Policy. “The real power holders in the system, the military top brass, are far more difficult to dislodge than figurative rulers.”

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