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The Coup That Wasn't

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The last seven days have been eventful ones in Libya. A senior army officer with three decades of links to the CIA announced a military coup and the suspension of parliament. Two heavily armed militias from Zintan, gave parliament five hours to surrender its powers, but then extended the deadline to Friday night. The threat receded but not before a column of pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns was left as a calling card at a roundabout near the General National Congress. Nothing happened. You could be forgiven for thinking that it all amounted to business as usual in Tripoli.

But it was not. At least not for those who attempted to micromanage these events. To understand who needed a military takeover in Libya, you have to go back to July 23 last year. A few weeks after the coup in Egypt that toppled former president Mohamed Morsi, Tawfiq Okasha, a TV presenter regarded as the mouthpiece of the intelligence service forecast two urgent military requirements -- Gaza, and the East of Libya to eliminate "terrorists". Few at the time took him seriously.

A few weeks ago, the ground was prepared by interviews on Egyptian television with the senior army officer Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hifter, and Mahmoud Jibril, who served as interim prime minister for seven and a half months and who was once Colonel Gadafy's planning minister. He was bitterly critical of the parliament's political isolation law which ruled former regime insiders like him out of standing for further office.

Last week Hifter announced in a video post that the national command of the Libyan army was declaring a new movement for a road map. It proved to be wish fulfillment but discontent with the Libyan parliament which has announced elections in the spring is real enough. The coup plotters thought that they could turn the third anniversary of the overthrow of Colonel Gadafy to their advantage. It worked in Egypt, why not Libya?

But who are they? A statement put out on Facebook on behalf of "The Revolutionaries Operations Room," which represents a range of Islamist militias, pointed the finger at the United Arab Emirates. They claimed the UAE had established two "security cells," one to overthrow the Libyan parliament and the second, in Amman, to co-ordinate media coverage. A Libya which has become little more than a collection of city states is rife with conspiracy theories. The daily chaos is such that members of the armed unit charged with protecting Benghazi airport decided on Monday to block the runway, because they had not been paid for several months. But that does not mean that the conspiracies themselves don't exist.

Both Egypt and their bankers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia had every reason to establish a friendly regime in oil-rich Libya. Egypt is hemorrhaging the money that the Gulf states are pouring into it. It has a looming fuel problem, as consumption of natural gas is forecast by experts to outstrip supply in July. Economic aid from the Gulf included $4 billion of oil products, but their diesel is not compatible with Egypt's gas-powered factories. Libya's near-idle fields thus make a tempting alternative source of oil.

The big shock of the week was not that a military coup was attempted. It was that the coup plotters pulled all the right levers -- widespread popular discontent on the third anniversary of the Revolution, a dysfunctional and divided parliament, and militias refusing to disband -- and nothing happened.

The events in Libya this week are just the latest of a series of failures for the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, accused in the ROR statement, of masterminding the "security cell," and his righthand-man Mohammed Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in Gaza. Bin Zayed has made powerful enemies in the Gulf. The cracks between the UAE and Saudi Arabia started to appear over the deal which the U.S. made with the Iranians over the nuclear program. The Saudi kingdom campaigned vigorously against it, whereas the UAE welcomed it. A casual remark which Bin Zayed made to a U.S. diplomat over 11 years ago, has also come back to haunt him.

According to a Wikileaks cable, Bin Zayed alluded to the bumbling manner of the Saudi crown Prince Nayef bin abdulaziz. Bin Zayed told the U.S. diplomat Richard Haas that "Darwin was right" about the species starting with lower orders, suggesting that Prince Nayef was like a monkey.

His son, Mohamed bin Nayef, has not forgotten or forgiven that insult to his late father. Mohamed bin Nayef, the current interior minister, has taken over the security brief from Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, who was part of the Bin Zayed axis. When western and arab intelligence services gathered for a two-day strategy meeting in Washington recently, it was Prince Nayef who turned up to represent the kingdom, not Bandar. Increasingly Bandar's handling of the rebels in Syria was seen as shaky, and that file has now also been taken from him. Bandar's political briefs have now been handed to the foreign minister, and Bandar has become a prince without portfolio.

Bandar's falling star leaves Bin Zayed vulnerable to criticism from other emirs in the UAE, like Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai. Unlike Abu Dhabi, the biggest emirate, Dubai's wealth is built on commerce and its international image -- not on oil. Dubai stands to lose if Bin Zayed's foreign adventures in Egypt, Libya and also Yemen go sour. Bin Zayed's funding of the French intervention in Mali has also attracted criticism. The rivalries not only between Gulf states, but within them too, mean that the current status quo in the Middle East is destined to be short-lived.