Libya

Sinking state

Print edition : March 20, 2015

An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants wait at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily on February 20. Italy is the worst affected by the surge of asylum-seekers heading from Libya in the aftermath of the Western intervention. Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP

A view of the damage caused by a bomb blast at the gate of the Iranian Ambassador’s residence in Tripoli on February 22. Photo: ISMAIL ZITOUNY/REUTERS

General Khalifa Haftar. A former army officer who served under Qaddafi, he now leads an army with the avowed aim of reuniting Libya. Photo: REUTERS

The aftermath of the regime change that the West instigated in Libya four years ago has turned into a threat to the global order.

WITH their country spiralling into violent disintegration, Libyans obviously did not have anything much to cheer about or celebrate on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the country’s so-called “liberation”. In fact, many Libyans are now openly nostalgic about the Muammar Qaddafi years, when peace and tranquillity prevailed and their country enjoyed the highest standards of living on the African continent. Libya had the highest life expectancy and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in the continent. The Netherlands had more people living below the poverty line than Libya four years ago.

During the four-decade-long Qaddafi rule, no Libyan citizen was allowed to own weapons. Today, four years after his brutal assassination, the country is awash with weapons. The United Nations estimates that 800,000 Libyans have been forced to flee their homes. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed in 2011 after the military intervention of outside powers in Libya. The aftermath of Western intervention in Libya has worsened the refugee crisis. During Qaddafi’s time, the Libyan government kept a check on migrants heading for Europe. In 2014, more than 165,000 asylum-seekers reached European shores, most of them through Libyan territory. Thousands more perished while undertaking the perilous journey on rickety boats through rough seas.

Last year alone, more than 4,000 Libyans lost their lives as a result of the unrest. In the contested city of Benghazi, 600 people have been killed in the past three months.

The Libyan economy is totally dependent on revenues from oil exports. Today, oil exports have plunged dramatically. Various militias have captured Libya’s oilfields and export terminals. Fighting has also adversely impacted the export of oil. During Qaddafi’s last years, Libya was producing more than two million barrels a day. Today, production has fallen to 160,000 barrels a day. The country now has to import 75 per cent of its fuel for domestic use. Salaries for government staff have been inordinately delayed. Along with lawlessness, unemployment has risen dramatically. Power cuts have become a daily occurrence. Inflation has been going out of control. The country’s finances are kept afloat mainly because of Qaddafi’s far-sightedness. Libya had more than $120 billion invested in sovereign funds in 2011. Those funds are getting rapidly depleted.

United States President Barack Obama has conceded that he has learned his lessons from the Libyan fiasco. In 2011, he was lauded for “leading from behind” the military intervention in the country. The hawkish John McCain, Obama’s Republican challenger in 2008, wrote an article that was full of praise for America’s role. “For President Obama, the image of a bloodied Col. Gaddafi offers vindication, however harrowing, of his intervention in Libya,” wrote McCain in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. The Americans were at the time gloating over the low cost at which they got rid of their long-time bete noire, Qaddafi. There were no American casualties during the military drive to oust the colonel.

The U.S. spent only slightly more than a billion dollars in its operations to overthrow the Libyan government. The true costs became clear later, when the U.S. Ambassador to the country was assassinated and Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (I.S.) and other jehadist organisations established a foothold. The former U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, had warned Obama about the dangers inherent in enforcing a regime change in Libya at the time. He had drawn parallels with the invasion of Iraq and its disastrous consequences.

The regime change that the West had instigated and underwritten, presenting it as a revolution, has now emerged as a threat to the global order. Like in Iraq and Syria, the freedom fighters the West had armed and financed are now showing their true colours. Militias, many of them having a definitive jehadist bent and formed on the basis of tribal affiliations, have been running riot. There are now two governments in the country, one based in the capital, Tripoli, and the other in Tobruk, near the border with Egypt. The government in Tripoli depends on tribal militias and parties like the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party to control the capital and most of the country’s territory. They have formed a coalition named “Golden Dawn”. Some of the militias are on the payrolls of the government or their foreign backers.

The three main cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata are controlled by militias loyal to the government in Tripoli. The government in Tobruk, which has the support of the U.S., the European Union, Egypt and some of the Gulf monarchies, is allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar and anti-Tripoli militias, including the notorious Zintan militia. Haftar is an army officer who served under Qaddafi and later defected to the U.S., where he became a long-time Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset. He now leads an army of his own with the avowed aim of once again reuniting Libya and defeating the militias that prop up the government in Tripoli. The Libyan Supreme Court has declared the government in Tobruk “illegal”. The air forces of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been helping him in his campaign, code-named “Operation Dignity”. Since last year, the General has been trying to free the key city of Benghazi from the militia.

Islamic State in Libya

Even more alarming is the growing presence of the I.S. in Libya. The I.S. is openly flaunting its presence in cities like Derna and Sirte, the home town of Qaddafi. Under the black insignia of the I.S., suicide bombings and beheadings have been carried out in recent months. The I.S. had earlier claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on a luxury hotel and the Iranian Ambassador’s residence in Tripoli. Iran had removed its diplomats from the country last year. The attack was only symbolic.

The gruesome beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in the second week of February has come in for widespread criticism. The Egyptian government has called on the U.N. Security Council to introduce a resolution to mandate a peacekeeping force to be deployed in the country. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has said that the international community has no option other than to create a global coalition to confront the militias in Libya. Italy is the only European country that was in favour of another military intervention. It is the worst affected by the surge of asylum-seekers heading from Libya.

Call for a ‘political solution’

All the other major Western countries have rejected the Egyptian proposal for a military intervention and have instead once again called for a “political solution” in Libya. Despite earlier statements from senior Italian officials, including the Defence Minister, on the need for an international peacekeeping force in Libya, Rome too is now calling for a political solution. Washington views the government in Tripoli as one run by “moderate Islamists”.

In President El-Sisi’s book, there is no distinction between good and bad Islamists. The government-run Al Ahram newspaper, in a commentary, blamed the U.S. and allies for the mess in Libya. Egyptian warplanes had launched an air raid on the Islamist-dominated city of Derna in retaliation for the killing of the Egyptian hostages. Suicide bombers affiliated to the I.S. struck in the town of Qubbah a few days later, killing more than 40 people and seriously injuring 70 more. The I.S. has claimed that the attacks were in retaliation for the Egyptian air raids on Derna which also claimed many civilian lives. The Egyptian President has now called for the creation of a pan-Arab force to deal with terrorist threats in the region. Egypt wants to once again flex its muscles as the leading regional power.

The Egyptian raid on Derna has infuriated the government in Tripoli and led to a display of disunity among the Arab powers supporting the Tobruk government. Omar al-Hassi, the Prime Minister of the Tripoli-based government, condemned the “treacherous aggression and terrorism” carried out by the Egyptian Air Force. He said that the Egyptian attack on Derna was conducted “without any solid proof” that those responsible for the killing of the Copts resided there. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initially took the side of Qatar, which had objected to the targeting of Derna by the Egyptian Air Force without prior consultations.

The GCC, which Saudi Arabia dominates, quickly retracted from its earlier position and justified the Egyptian response. Qatar and Turkey tilt towards the government in Tripoli and are supportive of the Islamist groups supporting it, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which has successfully fought elections in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood is on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Haftar, whose military campaign has the strong backing of El-Sisi, has said that his goal is to purge Libyan politics of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a big player in Libya unlike in neighbouring Egypt, where the party had handily won a general election as well as the presidency.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×