Libya, a nation without a state

The intervention was morally corrupt because the Western moral rage against dictatorships in the Global South is shamelessly selective.

September 16, 2015 01:16 pm | Updated April 03, 2016 02:40 am IST

The four Indian nationals abducted in Libya by suspected Islamists last month were working in a university in Sirte, the hometown of the country’s slain dictator, >Muammar Qaddafi . They were among the few thousand Indians who continued to work in the war-devastated country, which, under Qaddafi, used to be an attractive destination for Indian professionals because of its relative prosperity. But today’s Libya is a ghost of what it was five years ago. Sirte is now under the control of the Islamic State terror group, which is steadily expanding its influence in central Libya, exploiting the chaos that has prevailed in the country after the fall of Qaddafi. The country is effectively divided into the East and West, with two different governments in charge of each region.

The government in Tripoli, which is backed by Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of various militia groups including Islamists, is in charge of the West. The Libyan Supreme Court supports this government, but it lacks international legitimacy. An alternative government is being run from the eastern city of Tobruk, which claims to be anti-Islamist and is recognised by most Western nations. Libyan National Army, a non-government force commanded by General Khalifa Hiftar, a Qaddafi-era renegade who later became a CIA operative, is supporting the Tobruk government, and has launched a “war against Islamists” known as Operation Dignity. Misratans, a militia group from the Western city of Misrata which is a major contingent of the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn, is opposed to Hiftar’s campaign, leading to a low-lever civil war between these two forces. Benghazi, the cradle of the anti-Qaddafi protests of 2011, is now a battleground between jihadists such as Ansar Al-Sharia and their opponents like Dignity. It’s a complete mess. How did Libya, one of the most stable countries in Africa till a few years ago, slide into such an abyss?

Hijacked revolution

There are several actors responsible, including the >Qaddafi regime itself whose failure to reform the political system might have contributed to the rise of the anti-government rebellion in the East which snowballed into the civil war; the militia groups which refused to disarm themselves after the regime fell; dreaded Islamists who want to turn Libya into a religious state; and power hungry politicians who, in alliance with militias, continue to fracture the country. But what proved to be a catalyst for the destruction of the >Libyan state was none of these. Qaddafi was trying to defend the state he built; the anti-regime rebellion had never gathered enough political capital to effect any systemic change; and the militias on their own were not a potent challenge to the Qaddafi troops. What changed the balance of power in Libya was the months-long bombing campaign carried out by a multinational coalition under the NATO.

If the history of external interventions has taught the international community any definite lesson it is that wars sponsored by foreign actors do not solve domestic political crises. Iraq is a burning example. Nation states are shaped by a historical process and strengthened by years, if not decades, of socio-political mobilisation. A great power can bomb and destroy a weak state in a few weeks, but rebuilding one is not an easy process. Despite several examples in history, the Atlantic capitals never took this lesson seriously. They bombed Yugoslavia in the late 1990s which led to the fragmentation of the country. They bombed Iraq in 2003, which has effectively destabilised larger parts of West Asia. And they did the same mistake in Libya in 2011. Even if one overlooks this historical argument against invasions, the bombing campaign in Libya was particularly problematic. The case built against Qaddafi in the wake of anti-regime protests, which was used as a pretext for the war, was factually incorrect and morally corrupt, and the war was strategically disastrous.

The West’s argument was that they intervened to stop Qaddafi from massacring his own people in Benghazi. This argument was untenable. Firstly, as Hugh Roberts of Tufts University pointed out in his London Review of Books essay, they were holding Qaddafi “guilty in advance”. They punished his regime not for its mistakes, but for the mistakes it might commit in the future. Secondly, there’s no credible evidence to suggest that Qaddafi was on course to massacre his people. Within weeks of the rebellion breaking out, the government forces had recaptured all cities but Benghazi. And in those cities, the government troops had narrowly targeted the combatants, not the civilians. The battle for Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, was an example. When government troops took the city back after seven weeks of fighting, the casualty was 257, according to a report by the Human Rights Watch. While the loss of 257 lives is certainly a tragedy, it’s a tiny fraction of the city’s 300,000 population, which suggests that the claim that Qaddafi’s troops were indiscriminately killing civilians was baseless. Also, the HRW report says it can’t confirm how many of this 257 were killed by the government troops and how many by rebel forces.

Selective morality

The intervention was morally corrupt because the Western moral rage against dictatorships in the Global South is shamelessly selective. They had supported (they still do) several dictators in Africa and West Asia during the Cold War, many of them much worse than Qaddafi. The support for Mobutu Sese Seko during his three-decade long rein of terror in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was particularly repulsive. Even in the case of Arab protests, this selective morality was at play. The West didn’t have any problem when the Saudis sent troops to Bahrain to brutally remove anti-regime protestors from Manama’s Peal Square in March 2011. But in Libya, they were appalled by the crimes Qaddafi was likely to commit. It shows despite Qaddafi’ earnest efforts to patch up with the West after the Iraq war, he remained, in the views of the Atlantic capitals, a “mad dog of the Middle East” (as Ronald Reagan once called him).

But this narrative is fundamentally flawed. Qaddafi was not a fool. He ruled Libya for 42 years not just with an iron fist. Libya was hardly a united nation when Qaddafi took power through a coup against King Idris in 1969. Idris, a British protégé, was more interested to keep the country away from the radical currents of pan-Arabism than integrating Libya which consisted of multiple ethnic and religious groups such as Arabs, Berbers Tuaregs and Toubous. While the Arabs were historically closer to the Maghreb and West Asia, ethnic groups such as Tuaregs and Toubous had strong cultural ties with people in African countries such as Niger, Mali and Chad. Qaddafi’s primary task was to unify these groups under Libyan nationalism and build a legitimate state. His model was a mix of the Sanussiyya religious order existed in the East with the pan-Islamist currents of the West. The new state was absolutist in terms of political power, but adopted a “distributive” economic philosophy aimed at addressing the inequalities of the society; “anti-imperialist” foreign policy, which aligned it ideologically with the Third World, and was tolerant of the cultural diversities of the country, which became the foundation of the State. That the State Qaddafi built survived 42 years, and was toppled only by an external intervention, itself shows that there was something right about the model for the country. But those who bombed Libya lacked any understanding of these complexities, nor did they have any viable replacement for Qaddafi’s state. They just wanted him out, and were least prepared for the crisis that followed his ouster.

Strategic disaster

The collapse of the state naturally undermined the social contract Qaddafi built over the years, leading to an implosion of the Libyan society. Its implications, both domestic and regional, were far-reaching. The crisis in Mali was a case in point. Qaddafi had ethnic Tuaregs from Mali in his forces. When the leader fell, they fled to Mali with whatever weapons they could carry. Mali has a historical Tuareg problem, and the well-trained Tuareg men came from Libya joined the local rebels and jihadists in Northern Mali and launched a full-blown rebellion against the government. This rebellion morphed into a powerful Islamist insurgency as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb outflanked the Tuareg nationalists and captured the entire northern Mali. In early 2013, France sent troops to Mali to fight the jihadists, a war which is still going on. The crisis in Libya had also strengthened the operations of the Islamic State (IS) in the region. Hundreds of Libyans have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the IS. Several of them, after acquiring military training, returned to Libya to set up IS affiliates. IS has also reportedly set up training camps in Libya’s lawless parts from where trained militants are travelling to Egypt and Tunisia to carry out “jihad”. The sudden rise in Islamist violence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula should be seen against this background. The gunmen who killed at least 58 people in two different attacks in Tunisia this year were also trained in Libya.

This is the Libya the Western intervention has achieved: A country without a state; a fertile ground for jihadists and perpetual miseries for millions of its people. It’s too late to ask whether the Libyan political crisis of 2011 could have been solved through a negotiated settlement instead of a catastrophic war. But those who pushed Libya into today’s crisis have a historical responsibility to help Libyans rebuild their state. It can’t be done if outside powers take sides in the ongoing civil war between the two competing, legitimacy-hungry governments. Instead, the West and their Gulf allies should use their influence over their allies in Libya to facilitate real meaningful talks among the warring factions to form a unity government and disarm private militias. If not, it will only be a matter of time before Libya becomes a “Somalia on the Mediterranean”.

The dividing lines
Libya is effectively divided into East and West with both region controlled by each government. The General National Congress government, situated in Tripoli is ruling the West, while the House of Representatives of Libya, based in Tobruk, is controlling the East.
Tripoli governmentTobruk government
Backed by Libya Dawn, a loose coalition of several militia groups such as Misratans, ethnic Amazigh (Berber), Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Supported by the Libya National Army of General Khalifa Hiftar.
Qatar and Turkey, which support Muslim Brotherhood in other Arab countries as well, are regional backers of the Libya Dawn.Hiftar, a former Gaddafi-era general turned CIA operative, came to Libya from the US in the wake of anti-regime protests in Libya. He set up an army last year and launched the Operation Dignity from the east against Islamists.
Divisions emerged from within the Dawn recently after Islamic State started poaching from its ranks. There are also criticisms that the Dawn doesn’t do enough to counter IS in Central Libya.Hiftar gets support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE, while the HOR government in Tobruk is recognised by most Western nations.

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