Posted in: Middle East

Looking at Libya

By | November 19, 2013

On Wednesday, September 11, the twelfth anniversary of the Twin Tower attacks, a jihadist group known as the Islamic Emirate of Libya posted four pictures: Libya’s general congress, unnamed “embassies” and the Thunderbolt Special Forces brigade, along with a picture of a missile with the caption, “Where would you like us to put this missile?”

“With the approach of the global day of horror for the infidels and the Apostates, 11 September, there will be a bombing,” the post ominously continued.

That same day, a Benghazi building once used as the United States consulate fifty years ago was bombed, leaving no casualties but a pile of blazing ruins and equally burning questions:

What happened to Libya? Was this the result, as the media and President Obama have so praised, of true diplomatic success?

It has been two years since the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, and general perception maintains that the successful overthrow of the Libyan dictator was a positive step for both the country and democracy. But as jihadist groups and fragmented militia groups continue to threaten the stability and safety of civilians, it has become strikingly clear that the Libya we envision is largely a fictional one.

A “Model Intervention”

Following Moammar Gaddafi’s coup d’état in 1969, Libya underwent a Cultural Revolution that paralyzed the country’s ability to capitalize on its newfound independence. A majority of central institutions that posed a threat to the regime, including the military, were completely dissolved.

Uprisings throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s were met with severe punishment, climaxing during the month of Ramadan in 1984 when children were hanged in streets across the country, broadcast live on television. But with the turn of the 21st century and advent of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, the dissatisfied Libyans looked to ride the wave of pro-democratic sentiment. The Libyan Civil War was born in 2011, with rebellion virulent across the entire country.

In turn, Libya became the perfect interventionist project for the West.

With the conflict escalating, NATO continually bombed Tripoli under the pretense that military bases littered the nation’s capital, a claim that was later shown to be false. The U.S.-led overthrow, however, was largely successful: by mid-October, much of Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte had been taken over by the National Transitional Council (the official arm of the opposition) and Gaddafi had been killed, ending a 42-year long dictatorship. With the turn of the century, the developing humanitarian principle known as the responsibility to protect (R2P) had seemingly succeeded, and top U.S. – NATO officials praised the operation as a “model intervention.”

However, in this case, the desire to topple a political dictatorship and concern for civilian safety were mutually exclusive, with the United States-led NATO efforts ignoring the latter in favor of the former.

Human Rights Watch reports that of the 900 people wounded in the rebellion’s initial seven weeks—a conflict involving only Gaddafi and opposition forces—only 30 were women or children. Meanwhile, across airwaves in the West, press accounts and officials exaggerated the death toll of the rebellion by an order of magnitude, spiking up the HRW’s factual report of 233 casualties at the beginning of the uprisings to “more than 2,000 deaths,” construing public perception of Gaddafi as a ruthless war criminal.

“On every metric I’ve looked at, Libya is worse off. If you look at the death toll, it’s about ten times higher than it would’ve been without intervention,” Alan Kuperman, associate professor at the University of Texas Austin and Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told the HPR. “If you look at ethnic and racial animosity it’s worse than before the intervention, and if you look at the prospects for economic and social development, I’d again say it’s much worse than before the intervention.”

The success gained from the ousting of Gaddafi, as Kuperman explained, was not focused on creating long-term solutions for the Libyan country, but on shortsighted political victory.

“We broke an authoritarian state that, for all of its many faults, maintained public order and security. Now, we have dozens of relatively small armed factions which span the political and religious gamut.”

In a country devoid of the simplest central institutions, the totalitarian regime was necessary cement to the core of Libyan nationality. Balancing the removal of the regime’s anti-democratic ideals with the retention of a stable central power, then, was the task at hand. The key was—and still could be–Gaddafi’s London-educated son, Saif al-Islam.

For years, al-Islam had been looking to reform Gaddafi’s regime as he saw the broiling unpopularity of his father’s policies. As reported in The Guardian in April of 2011, Dr. Muhammad Al-Houni, a close academic advisor to Gaddafi’s son, had explained that al-Islam was “earnest about his desire to reform [Gaddafi’s] regime”, but, like the rest of Libya’s people, was struck down by his father’s hard line ideals.

Many critics of American intervention efforts, including Kuperman, strongly believe that development of a constitution and of a parliament could very possibly have begun under reforms with al-Islam, without the casualties brought on by NATO airstrikes.

United States piggybacked on a recklessly organized revolt, breaking the Libyan state in the process. By politicizing the affair and demonizing the regime in question, it looked to gain leverage in the international community given its recent failures in Iraq and Afghanistan—public opinion, then, followed suit in praising the efforts as largely successful.

When asked if America has an obligation to finish the job it so haphazardly started, Kuperman responded, “It was Colin Powell who invoked the ‘pottery barn’ ethos. It’s very simple—if you break it, you buy it. If you intervene somewhere, and you screw the country up, it’s your responsibility to fix it.”

But it may already be too late. Armed jihadist groups, such as the Islamic Emirate of Libya, have taken matters in their own hands.

As we pass the one-year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, we are reminded of the tensions in Libya and the situation the United States has essentially created for itself. The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens on September 11th of last year is tragic evidence of the powder keg NATO has filled in the region.

The United States might not even have a second chance for redemption. “At this point, European intervention is necessary to restore the proper central government. Countries like Italy who have had longstanding relationships with Libya should put the stabilization of the southern Mediterranean on their agenda,” former director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies Roger Owen said in an interview with the HPR.

“To think you could place Ambassador Stevens in Libya in hopes of defeating anti-American sentiment was naïve. I don’t think that America, due to the unpopularity it carries in the region, will be the solution to Libya’s problem.”

Libya Today

A once blossoming Arab Spring has turned into a dry Arab winter. The National Transitional Council, tasked with providing a temporary infrastructure around which a more solid government could coalesce, has stagnated, halting all political development.

Tensions run high in the streets as well—this past summer, citizens in various major cities were cut off from access to water and electricity by militias seeking to force their own agendas. These groups have taken control of oil ports as well, cutting off Libya’s main export and reducing output to a tenth of pre-Arab Spring levels. As of now, Libya is teetering on economic collapse.

Former foreign service officer Mieczyslaw Boduzsyński, who was in Tripoli at the time of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, commented on the disillusionment of the Libyan people.

“There’s a lot of frustration from the Libyan people. There’s a clear sense that the revolution has gone badly or has gone wrong, and there’s certainly longing for security and order.”

This, however, has not deterred Chuck Dittrich, Executive Director of the U.S.-Libya Business Association. In fact, Dittrich claims, the revolution opened doors for further economic development within Libya, a development still to be seen.

“We do not see this as a beginning of a failed state. A nation approaching $100 billion in reserves is economically envious, and the removal of the Gaddafi regime has opened business relations with Libya.”

But the militias aren’t listening to anybody. Self-trained and self-serving, the brigades that two years ago had come together for the uniting cause of ousting Gaddafi now remained split across regional pockets in the east and west. Each group, feeling a sense of duty towards continuing the once-feverish political momentum, is responsible to only its own moral compass. Even worse, rampant unemployment has forced young men to seek unsupervised contracts as militia members, tying economic problems and the lack of security together in a self-destructive loop.

“For many third-world countries, the only institution they have to build on is the military. But in Libya, even that doesn’t exist anymore,” said New America Foundation research fellow Barak Barfi.

“Gaddafi brought unity to Libya in 1951 between the split provinces, and that state has receded significantly with the disintegration of his regime. For a while in the 1970’s, [Gaddafi] had a very popular regime, and people actually believed in the state of Libya and its ideology. Now, the government can’t even project power beyond its coast.”

The lack of the Gaddafi regime and the newly-developed stigma against any sort of central power—for fear of escalation into a dictatorship—has left Libya in shambles. Among other things, Libya under Gaddafi had a central identity, an identity, Barfi claimed, that held society together.

Looking Forward

The longevity of Libya, first as a sovereignty and then as a democracy, remains at large. The all-too-sudden removal of a 42-year regime has caused a severe power vacuum that threatens Libya’s perpetuity.

But some still have hope. With regards to the future of the Libyan state, former Libyan ambassador to the United States Ali Aujali is optimistic.

“The current situation is to be expected. We have young people with access to weapons and the weapons were not collected from them at the right time. It is up to the government to deal with this in the proper way,” Aujali stated.

Aujali, who was appointed by the National Transitional Council in 2011, told the HPR of his unending belief in the wishes of the Libyan people.

“I know the people are committed to a free and democratic Libya, and for that, they must do two things: they have to be patient, and they have to be willing to work.”

Whether this patience will come to fruition remains to be seen. But, at the very least, we must take away that the situation in Libya is an ominous reminder of reckless foreign policy. The United States’ intervention efforts have been plagued with starkly negative effects of “good intentions”.

Which calls into question whether these intentions were even good to begin with.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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