A Somalia on the Mediterranean

In the cases of Muammar Qadhafi and Saddam Hussein, opportunities to allow them to surrender were squandered. It was as if the new dispensations in Iraq and Libya could be created from scratch. Rather than disappear, the older currents would reappear in ways unforeseen in western and Gulf Arab capitals

Updated - April 02, 2016 03:30 pm IST

Published - February 18, 2015 12:24 am IST

Libya’s “Islamic State” paraded 21 Egyptian workers along the Mediterranean. The IS fighters, dressed in black, then killed the Egyptians, dressed in orange jumpsuits. One of the IS men speaks, in English, of the beheadings in Syria before he says, “… we are on the south of Rome, on the land of Islam, Libya, sending another message.” It is a direct provocation to both the Egyptians and to the West. “The sea you’ve hidden Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.” The braggadocio is familiar, as are the acts.

Within 24 hours, Egypt and the West responded as IS hoped. Three Egyptian jet fighters bombed eight targets in the eastern Libyan city of Derna, the hub of the “Islamic State.” Italy and France are eager to join in the intervention. Sources in the city say that some civilians (including four children) died in the Egyptian bombing, which also hit sites associated with the entrenched Islamist movement. Derna has been in the ledger of political Islam since the 1990s. That it is now in the claw of the IS should not be a surprise. Fighters from Derna have long gone to fight in the battlefields of modern jihad — Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Foreign fighters, such as the speaker in the video, have also been known to take refuge there. A pipeline drew fighters from Derna to northern Syria via Turkey, and then back home. This pipeline was well known to western, Gulf Arab and Turkish intelligence. They had allowed it to flourish. It is precisely the social consequences of that pipeline that worries the Europeans.

Kuwait on the Mediterranean In 2008, Saif al-Islam Qadhafi told a friend that he wanted to turn Libya into “Kuwait on the Mediterranean.” Oil-rich Libya had not been able to convert its wealth into a paradise for its people. Over the course of the rule of his father, Muammar Qadhafi, Libya had turned the social wealth into social goods — high social indicators demonstrate this fact amply. By the 1980s, however, it had become clear that the Qadhafi regime had neither the imagination nor the will to diversify Libya out of its reliance upon oil exports and to draw these newly educated people into the political system. Qadhafi tasked Saif al-Islam to “modernize” Libya. They drew on expatriate Libyans to “reform” the system — which meant, all too often, steady plans for giving away national assets to private hands. Domestic unhappiness — even from among those who had no desire to remove the Qadhafi system — was crushed. The most powerful challenge to the state came from the Islamists — the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose members were thrown into prison, executed or exiled. Those in exile joined the international jihadi networks.

In 2011, discontent against the Qadhafi regime drew people onto the streets. The mélange of groups that desired something else was startling — there were the highly-educated liberals who had benefited from the oil revenue, the diasporic business elites who had been collaborating with Saif al-Islam, the old jihadis who saw an immense opportunity, ordinary Libyans who had stayed in the shadows but now saw a place for themselves. Rebellions are often produced out of such diversity, and Libya in 2011 did not disappoint. Sections of the military hastily defected to the rebellion, the city of Benghazi was lost to the Qadhafis and then the armed phase opened up. It would likely have taken a long time for the rebels to succeed, but in that interim they would have had to create some form of political agreement. As it turned out, geopolitical enmity against Qadhafi from the Gulf Arabs and the West resulted in a NATO bombardment that destroyed Libya’s infrastructure. It produced the conditions for a free-for-all.

Libyan politics fragmented, with the archipelago of cities being held by their various militias, with foreign backers finding their own friends here and there, and with conflict over Tripoli’s resources at the centre of the emerging civil war. Early signs of danger were callously ignored by the new leadership — worker unrest in the oilfields over wages and protests by former fighters who wanted more from their new country. Neither the workers nor the thuwar (revolutionaries) saw the new government as theirs. The cult of the thuwar was all that was permitted — the rebels could hold onto their guns and be treated as saviours, but they were not integrated into either a new military or into the new institutions.

Complex alliances Absent political agreement, chaos became the mode in Libya from 2012 onwards. The execution of Qadhafi in broad daylight had the same kind of effect as the execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq — in both cases, opportunities to allow these men and their supporters to surrender were squandered. It was as if the new dispensation in both Iraq and Libya could be created from scratch, with the older regimes consigned to the dust heap. But these older currents did not disappear. They would reappear in ways unforeseen in western and Gulf Arab capitals. In Iraq, many Ba’athists and cashiered army men created an alliance with the Islamic State. Much the same seems to have happened in Libya. It is the only explanation for the Islamic State’s ability to take and hold Sirte, the birthplace of Qadhafi and the epicentre of his influence.

The Islamic State in Libya is not merely a Libyan problem but a regional one. The chaos in the country has allowed radical Islamists from across North Africa to take refuge there.

After NATO’s intervention in 2011, radical Islamists in Benghazi who had fought on NATO’s side formed Ansar al-Sharia. It then turned on the West and was party to the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, during which the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. Recently, a rogue Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, has conducted Operation Karama (Dignity) against Ansar al-Sharia with mixed success. Many Ansar al-Sharia fighters have decamped to Sirte and to Derna to join IS.

The Islamic State in Libya is not merely a Libyan problem but a regional one. The chaos in the country has allowed radical Islamists from across North Africa to take refuge here. As well, older connections with radical Islamists across the Sahara desert, in Mali for instance, are part of their world. Al Qaeda of the Maghreb, centred in Mali, had made alliances with disgruntled Tuareg nationalists, kidnappers of tourists, and trans-Saharan smugglers (of people, drugs and weapons). It operated as much as a criminal gang as a franchise of al-Qaeda. IS has links to these networks, including the trafficking of goods and people. These are moneymaking enterprises that have supplanted older trades as northern Africa suffers from acute desiccation caused by climate change. Absent of alternatives, a growing Sahara grows criminality.

Regional solutions A source in the Pentagon suggests that Washington has no appetite for a serious engagement in Libya. He spoke of the need to rearm and refinance the Egyptian military. Washington, it appears, would like Egypt to take charge of this war against IS. But bombing runs by Egypt have reopened political fissures in Libya. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Tripoli considers the Egyptian bombings a violation of Libyan sovereignty. Khalifa Haftar has, so far, supported them as he did the August 2014 air strikes by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates around Tripoli. Egypt’s entry into the conflict is precisely what the Islamic State wants. Egypt’s harsh crackdown on all Islamists will likely afford the Islamic State recruits inside Egypt. Pressure needs to be brought on the Egyptian government to cease its harsh repression of its critics. Rather than maintain peace, this only creates the most dangerous extremism.

It is naive to believe that aerial bombardment here or there will sort out the problems with the Islamic State. We have entered a new period in the history of the region. Longer-term strategies need to be worked out. Last August, the foreign ministers of North Africa met in Cairo to discuss the security challenge posed by Libya. They zeroed in on two immediate steps that need to be taken. First, that a unified government be formed in Tripoli. The only way to allow for this to happen is for the “cold war” between regional parties to be ended. Tensions between the Qatar-Turkey backed Tripoli government and the Saudi-UAE-Egypt-West backed Tobruk government remain. The UN cannot facilitate a dialogue unless the regional enmity is lessened and unless pressure is brought to bear on all sides to join a political process. Second, that the countries “organize a common effort” to deal with the issue of porous borders and trafficking. Included in this should be the trafficking of jihadis from Libya to Syria, and from the world into Libya. Nothing has been done on this front. If a regional solution is not incubated, Libya is in danger of becoming a Somalia on the Mediterranean.

(Vijay Prashad, a columnist for Frontline , is the Chief Editor at LeftWord Books.)

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