Libya veers towards Somalia on the Mediterranean

Polarisation of Libya comes with complicated tribal cross-currents, thus weaving an ever-changing tapestry of alliances and feuds.


2016/09/18 Issue: 73 Page: 18


The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès



Beaming with delight in the sunshine, Nico­las Sarkozy and David Cameron were mobbed by Libyan rebels grateful for NATO air strikes that had helped them secure victory over Muammar Qaddafi. The two leaders assured the crowd that “your friends in France and Britain will stand by you as you build your democracy for the future”. That was the surrealistic scene in Tripoli on September 15th, 2011.

Five years later, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of Britain’s House of Commons, which boasts a Conservative majority and chairman, Crispin Blunt, criticised the intervention in Libya, which members said was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis and drifted into a goal of regime change, later shirking its responsibility to help reconstruct the country.

What the committee’s report said of Cameron, it could have said of Sarkozy who did not bother to listen to the advice of France’s ambassador in Tripoli, François Gouyette.

The British chief of the defence staff, Lord Roberts, made clear that he opposed the decision to switch the strategic goal of the intervention from the protection of the people of Benghazi, threatened by Qaddafi, to regime change for which Cameron and the then-minister of Defence Liam Fox bear responsibility. The latter, who is currently International Trade secretary, told the com­mittee that the strategic goals never changed. As a leading Brexiter, he knows only too well how to be economic with the truth — to put it more bluntly, lie.

The report makes clear US President Barack Obama’s disappointment that neither Sarkozy nor Cameron exercised leadership on stabilisation and reconstruction. Obama said in an interview with the Atlantic in March that Cameron stopped paying attention and became “distracted by a range of other things”, which was also true of Sarkozy.

It is difficult to disagree with Obama’s assessment that the war was “a shit-show”. Nor is it easy to disagree with Sir Alan Duncan, a serving Foreign Office minister who described the plans for post-war as fanciful rot and an unrealistic desktop exercise. He was not alone in thinking that post-war planners did not know what was happening on the ground.

Back-of-the-envelope calcula­tions suggested that Libya could look forward to a bright future in the context of what most observers agreed was an “Arab spring”. With Africa’s largest oil reserves and only 6 million people, democracy beckoned. Events turned out otherwise.

Today, Libya only produces 12% of the oil and gas it did in 2011. The seizure by forces under General Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya of key oil facilities have dealt a crushing blow to the UN-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli.

Haftar’s forces took control of the port of Sidra and the termi­nals of Ras Lanuf and Brega but were facing resistance at the port of Zueitina and around the nearby town of Ajdabiya.

UN hopes that the Tripoli government headed by Fayez al-Sarraj could unify the country have been rebuffed by a govern­ment and a parliament based in the east where Haftar’s oppo­nents are convinced he is a dictator in the making.

Be that as it may, what seems probable, after the defeats suffered recently by the Islamic State (ISIS) is a confrontation between the two halves of a country, which, over centuries has, unlike neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, hardly been a “real” country but rather the juxtaposi­tion of three very different regions: Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

The polarisation of Libya comes with complicated tribal cross-currents, thus weaving an ever-changing tapestry of alliances and feuds. Add to that the ever-growing number of migrants and the competitive market among smugglers to get them to Europe and it is clear that the European Union faces a perfect storm.

Libya could be described as lying between two seas — the Sahara and the Mediterranean. Be they Syrian, Eritreans or West Africans, migrants face being kidnapped for ransom or slave labour, abandoned in the desert, dying of thirst or drowning in the mare nostrum.

The United Nations and the European Union have proved incapable of coming up with a solution to what appears an increasingly intractable problem. Italy is on the front line but those migrants from Libya who reach its shores quickly vanish into larger Europe. The Libyans, meanwhile, remain suspicious of any outside interference in their country’s affairs.

Cameron refused to give evidence to the parliamentary subcommittee in London. In Paris, it would cross nobody’s mind to inquire into a policy that was spearheaded by the former president. Should anyone be surprised that defiance towards European elites — notably in France and Britain — is growing apace?

Leaders in both countries do not deign to come clean on a policy that was conducted with no regard for the advice of senior army and intelligence officers. To add insult to injury, they refuse point blank to testify about “a shit-show”. Fox, however, is still a senior member of the British government and Sarkozy wants to stand in next year’s presidential election. Qui dit mieux?


Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


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