By Vijay Prashad. this article was first published on Frontline.
The entire country has become a battlefield and the West has washed its hands of the disaster that it contributed to create.
TRIPOLI International Airport, south of the capital of Libya, had been the centre of a violent struggle between July 13 and August 24. Two factions fought indiscriminately to capture this major infrastructural asset. After the fall of the Muammar Qaddafi government in 2011, the al-Qa’qa and al-Sawai’q militias from the mountain city of Zintan had taken control of this airport. The coastal town of Misrata had fashioned itself as the heart of the 2011 uprising. Its Libyan Dawn militia, led by the mercurial Salah Badi, has tried over the course of the past three years to become the pre-eminent force in the country. It has failed. By late August, however, the coalition led by the Misrata militia expelled the Zintanis from the city and took power over large parts of the capital. The feud between Misrata and Zintan has devastated Tripoli.
The recent war in Tripoli demonstrated Libya’s fragility. Western embassies fled the city, with the United States chancellery turned over into a playground for fighters (they used the pool at the U.S. residency). The Libyan parliament also abandoned the capital for the provincial town of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. From there, on August 12, its members called upon the international community to intervene to save their country. Those Western leaders who had been most eager for the intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 2011 on humanitarian grounds did not respond publicly to this unusual plea. There was to be no assistance of any kind. Their humanitarianism had run its course.
Archipelago of militias
The political and military chaos in Libya did not begin in July, when Salah Badi moved his fighters towards Tripoli. Libya has been in this state since 2011, when the NATO attacks precipitated the collapse of the state and the new rulers of the country failed to create any central authority for the country. The new leadership of Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, both backed by the NATO powers, allowed the militias to “share the legacy” of the 2011 uprising. They handed over cities to their militias, and gave these militias key infrastructure to control. Tripoli International Airport—the site of the recent fracas—was given to the militias of Zintan and Misrata, who fought for its control almost from the start of their partnership. The military airport (Mitiga) was handed over to Abdelkarim Belhaj and his fighters (former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group). Belhaj, very close to the emirate of Qatar, remains an important political figure in Tripoli.
The fractured political landscape, awash with guns, meant that violence would be inevitable. All political disputes quickly took the form of gunfire. The parliament, since its first sitting, has been secondary to the gunmen. Several times over the past few years, angry militias have stormed into parliament—even kidnapping the former Prime Minister Ali Zeitan (who has now gone into exile in Germany). The current parliament—sitting in Tobruk—was voted in by only 10 per cent of the eligible voters. Fear of assassination was so great that the lawmakers hired a cruise ship for their residence during the parliamentary session.
In Tripoli, the previous parliament—backed by the Misrata coalition and by Belhaj’s fighters—reinstated itself and appointed Omar el-Hassi, a veteran Islamist, as the new Prime Minister. It has the support of the kind of political forces that line up with Qatar, a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now there are two parliaments, both with narrow spheres of influence. In early September, armed men—likely associated with Misrata’s Libyan Dawn—took control of all government buildings. They are the true source of power.
Not only did the Western embassies close shop, but also since mid-July, the United Nation’s Support Mission in Libya has vacated its Tripoli office. U.N. agencies have been hard-pressed to do any kind of humanitarian work, including the basic accumulation of data on the social costs of this crisis. A U.N. report from September 4 points out that a quarter of a million Libyans have been displaced since this summer, out of which 150,000 have fled the country. Fleeing is no easy business. Nearby Tunisia has been wary of the Libyan flood. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that at least 1,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since June. Displaced Libyans, such as the people of Tawergha, find themselves on the move again—this time from the neighbourhoods around the international airport in Tripoli. There are no refugee camps run by the UNHCR for them. All of Libya has become a battlefield.
Since 2011, assassinations of people in positions of authority, mediapersons and human rights activists have been steady. In the recent months, these have only intensified. The killing of the lawyer Salwa Bugaighis in late June was followed by the murder in mid-July of Derna parliamentarian Fariha Birkawi: two women who had fought for the integrity of democratic institutions. The mid-August assassination of Tripoli Chief of Police Col. Muhammed Sweiggi is merely a sign of the utter lawlessness in the country. The Ministry of Health, a beleaguered body in the best of times, has not released casualty figures for Tripoli since July 30. It has simply been overwhelmed. No one counts the number of dead. The figures are all estimates. The Ministry said in late August that 70 people had died in the Benghazi fighting, which seems very low.
General Khalifa Haftar, who had been a senior military officer in Qaddafi’s army before he defected to the U.S. in 1987, returned to Libya in the middle of the uprising of 2011. He had tried to take control of the ground war then but failed. The militias were too powerful, and the political leadership—beholden to NATO—could not deliver the fighters to his command. The assassination in July 2011 of General Abdul Fatah Younis al-Obeidi, who had defected to the rebels’ side, put to rest any hope of a united military command. Haftar’s several attempts at a coup or of seeking command over the Libyan fighters since the fall of Qaddafi have all come to naught.
In mid-May this year, General Haftar launched Operation Dignity (“Amaliat al-Karama”), drawing cleverly from the word dignity (karama) that had been so fundamental to the Arab uprisings of 2011. Haftar took the fight to Benghazi, which had been threatened by a key Islamist militia, Ansar al-Sharia. The U.S. accuses Ansar al-Sharia of the 2012 murder of its former Ambassador Christopher Stevens. But Haftar did not only target that group. He took on the entire Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), the group with links to the Muslim Brotherhood politicians from Misrata. Military officers hastily came to Haftar’s side, pledging air cover and tank command to him. Donning the mantle of Libyan nationalism and using the old army manuals for urban warfare, Haftar’s aircraft have been bombing SCBR positions and his tanks have been tearing up the asphalt around their bases. Everything in Benghazi resembles the kind of warfare conducted by the Syrian government in Hama, Homs and Aleppo. Heavy bombardment of civilian areas comes before the troops stream in to “cleanse” neighbourhoods. Residents from Benina, Bua’tni, al-Guarsha, al-Hawari and Sidi Fraj fled to the centre of Benghazi, where they have sought shelter.
On August 18, “unknown” aircraft launched strikes on Libyan Dawn targets in Tripoli. It was later suggested that these aircraft were from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and that they had used Egyptian bases for their mission. Both the UAE and Egypt refused to comment. The strikes came during the fourth meeting, in Cairo, of foreign ministers from North Africa. Libya has been high on their agenda. The UAE had played a quiet but important role in the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011 (its planes bombed Tripoli then as well).
Tensions in Arabia between Qatar and the Saudi bloc (including the UAE) inflame the conflicts in the region. Qatar’s side is on the losing end although it will be strengthened as the Libyan fighters who went to join the fight in Syria now return to their Libyan groups. They have been summoned to defend their organisations, which had sent them in large numbers over the course of 2012 to join the jehad in northern Syria.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia, along with its Egyptian client, and the U.S. have been backing General Haftar in his attempt to beat back the Muslim Brotherhood’s advance. This has been the Saudi game in North Africa since they backed General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi against President Mohammed Morsi last year. On Libya’s eastern border, Egyptian troops sit idly. They are there to seal the border although there is every indication that if the crisis escalates they will intervene. On Libya’s western and southwestern border, Algeria and Tunisia are equally concerned. France’s Operation Serval in January 2013 into northern Mali sent jehadi fighters into the borderlands of Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Taking refuge in Jabal Ash-Sha’nabi, these fighters have seriously troubled the three countries.
When affiliated groups under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar seized the Algerian gas plant in Tigantourine, they sent a direct message to the regional capitals. They were not a trivial threat. Senior Algerian officials admit in private that Algerian and Tunisian forces have jointly engaged the jehadis in the region of Jabal Ash-Sha’nabi over the past year, and have been massing on the Libyan border in case of trouble. Egyptian President El-Sisi’s visit to Algeria in June laid the groundwork for a potential intervention.
The NATO war destroyed Libyan institutions, and produced in a flash a failed state. The repercussions have been severe for the Libyan people. There is no silver lining here. The West has washed its hands of the disaster that it contributed to create—and has refused at all costs to allow a U.N. investigation into the war itself. Regional actors have no political path for stability. They have turned to their armies. The only outcome of an Algerian-Egyptian-Tunisian intervention is a divided Libya with an Algerian-Tunisian sphere of influence in the west and with an Egyptian sphere in the east. This is a bad outcome. It will result in greater war and suffering.