Very little has gone right for Libya since Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, for 42 years its dictator, was found in a drainage pipe on the outskirts of the city of Sirte on 20 October 2011, dragged out and unceremoniously shot. His killers were a group of militiamen – or thuwar – from the port city of Misrata, which had seen some of the fiercest fighting in the six-month war to topple his regime. Since then, the “strong and democratic future” that David Cameron prophesied for Libya has spectacularly failed to arrive. Four years after the UN authorised Western military intervention, Libya is economically and politically broken, and may well end up splitting in two along the old Roman border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. It has two governments and two parliaments; extremist Islamist militias are causing mayhem on the shores of the Mediterranean; some 3,000 people have been killed since last summer.
Not really. Even the leaders of Libya’s fragile official government, which had to flee the capital, Tripoli, last year and meet for a time on an Italian ferry moored offshore, are sceptical about receiving foreign help. Libya comes far behind Ukraine and Syria on the world’s list of emergencies. And the violence directed against Western interests since Gaddafi’s fall – in 2012, Islamists burnt down the US consulate in Benghazi, killing US ambassador Christopher Stevens – has merely hastened the withdrawal of international diplomats. But then leaving Libya to its own devices was, in a sense, always part of the plan. The original “light-footprint” Nato mission, led by the US, the UK and France, was supposed to put Libyans in charge of rebuilding their country. “We’re under no illusions,” said President Obama in 2011. “Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy.”
“The extent of Libya’s descent into the abyss has been shocking,” one expert admitted to The Guardian recently. Yet it was to some extent predictable. One reason Gaddafi was able to hold power so long was his skill, and brutality, in dealing with Libya’s numerous clans and tribal factions. Now these militias – heavily armed and with their own local and religious agendas – have taken over. Thousands of thuwar have been added to the state payroll, giving them authority across the country. A disastrous law of 2013, banning virtually all who served in Gaddafi’s government from holding office (and so driving out thousands of skilled civil servants) has made things worse. Libya has also become a proxy for a much wider conflict: its Islamist groups are backed by Qatar and Turkey; while its more secular forces get weapons and funding from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Two main factions are slugging it out. In the west, Libya Dawn, a coalition of Islamist groups and former rebels against Gaddafi, controls Tripoli and the main airport. The east is more or less under the control of Dignity, an alliance between Libya’s House of Representatives – recognised abroad as the legitimate parliament and currently sitting in Tobruk – and General Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi-era military commander who has vowed to “purify” the country of terrorists and Islamists (see box). Neither side is stable. Local militias join forces one month and turn against each other the next. Recently, extremists from the eastern city of Derna, swearing allegiance to Isis, captured international attention after releasing a video of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on the Mediterranean coast.
Neither seems able to land a knockout blow. General Haftar has the remnants of Libya’s air force; Libya Dawn has hundreds of Russian tanks looted from Gaddafi’s army. What may prove decisive is not military strength, but money. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves – the bedrock of its economy – but the oil is ceasing to flow. Recent raids by Isis fighters have closed 11 oil fields; exports are running at 200,000 barrels a day, a fraction of capacity. Mashala Zwai, one of the country’s two oil ministers, says Libya will run out of money in 18 months if normal supplies aren’t soon resumed. “By next year,” he told The Daily Telegraph, “the state won’t be able to pay Libyans’ salaries.”
In theory. Bernardino León, a Spanish diplomat, appointed by the UN to bring peace to Libya, has been shuttling back and forth between the sides – they refuse to meet for direct talks – trying to broker a deal. A parallel process is also under way in the town of Bayda, where a constitutional assembly, led by an economics professor named Ali Tarhouni, is seeking to write a new constitution, with members of both Dignity and Libya Dawn involved in the negotiations. But both factions seem more keen to settle the conflict on the battlefield. Even the constitutionalist Tarhouni admits that “the only moderates in this country are the ones who are forced to be. The military situation,” he says, “has to mature more before the conditions are ripe for a dialogue.”
Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, warns that if Libya deteriorates further, it could become “Somalia on the Mediterranean” – a humanitarian disaster and terrorist haven at the same time. The effects of the conflict are already being felt across the region. Arms from Libya are turning up in Syria and in Sub-Saharan Africa; its long, porous borders and unpoliced coast have made it the main conduit for illegal immigration to Europe. More than 170,000 people from Africa and the Middle East boarded unsafe boats to cross from Libya to Italy last year; this winter has already seen record numbers attempt the voyage. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the chaos will be to deter the UN and Nato from embarking on any further interventions designed to protect civilian populations or topple dictators.
“General Khalifa Haftar’s enemies accuse him of being a CIA plant, a traitor, and a vicious killer, and of seeking to install himself as a latter-day Gaddafi,” says Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker. He is certainly the figure most likely to decisively influence the country’s current drama. A former army cadet, Haftar joined Gaddafi’s coup to seize power in Libya in 1969, and led a war against Chad in 1987, in which he was captured, and subsequently disavowed by the Gaddafi regime.
For 20 years – like many of the senior politicians and militia leaders now battling for supremacy in Libya – Haftar lived abroad, in northern Virginia, from where he led the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a CIA-backed group that plotted the overthrow of Gaddafi. Then in 2011, Haftar returned to Libya to join the rebellion, only to leave again when he was unable to find a senior position in the government. Then he watched the country fall into anarchy. “Everyone told me the same thing,” he said. “‘We are looking for a saviour. Where are you?’... I knew I was being pushed towards death, but I willingly accepted.” When asked about his own ambitions, and if he would become the new president of Libya, Haftar – now in his 70s – replied: “I would have no problem with that.”
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