Libya has been in a tail-spin sparked by the fall of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The war for the coastal cities and oil between two governments, jihādists, militias and foreign soldiers has significantly contributed to the state's collapse. Human trafficking is flourishing in parallel to a serious migrant and refugee crisis in the Mediterranean which has made international headlines as men, women and children from West Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East desperately try to find a way into Europe. Similar to other countries at war in North Africa and the Middle East including Syria and Iraq, the Arab Revolutions have been a catalyst for disorder and chaos. Countries such as Egypt and Israel have entrenched military rule and occupation while violence in Libya has spilled over into a fragile Tunisia as Syria's war spilled into a Lebanon weakened by civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.
It is difficult to speak of Libya in terms of revolutionaries and rebels today. Gangs and militias crawl the streets and hold true power. Kidnapping and ransom is rife, as is corruption and criminality. Electricity is a luxury and telephone lines are down frequently and according to UNICEF, 2.6 million children are in need. It is impossible to live in Libya. Different cities and tribal groups - particularly in eastern Libya - fight for control of Libya’s fractured political and economic landscape and old historical wounds - frozen by Qaddafi’s authoritarian state rule and doctrine - have reopened.
Some are accused of supporting colonialists during the height of Italian rule and tribal feuds, sometimes a century old, have reemerged. Sectarian violence has cloven countries like Iraq, Yemen and Syria into pieces, however those in Libya who thought that their population would not experience the same internal divisions were wrong. Despite being almost entirely comprised of Sunni Arabs, the gun rules. Roadblocks dominate the urban areas, much like Lebanon at the height of the civil war in Beirut. Seven years of democracy has utterly destroyed Libya and stability under the eccentric Colonel Qaddafi has evaporated, catalysed by the ill-fated decision of NATO to intervene in the civil war. Sitting down with 27 year old Ahmed Al-Hani who comes from Tripoli and is a member of one of the Libyan governments, I discussed the turmoil with him in a country he no longer recognises.
WHAT DO YOU THINK MADE THE LIBYAN REVOLUTION UNIQUE FROM ITS OTHER COUNTERPARTS?
The revolution was the third to happen in the Arab Spring. First you had Tunisia and then Egypt with two rulers (President Ben-Ali and President Mubarek) who left office in two to three weeks. Libya’s revolution quickly turned into a civil war. Muammar Qaddafi ruled from 1969 and had been ruler of the country for over forty years, longer than he had been an actual citizen. There was no way he was going to abdicate and there was no way he was going to give up his empire when people protested. The beginning of the protest in the east started in one of the major cities in the east, Baydah and spread to Tobrouk, Derna and Benghazi, the capital in the eastern part of the country. Benghazi was the epicentre of the revolution.
Security forces either joined the revolutionaries or sided with the government and very quickly the country descended into chaos. The difference was that in Egypt, the army was a very powerful force, a state within a state. In Tunisia when orders were given to police to fire on protestors they refused. In Libya, violence begets violence and it escalated swiftly. Weapons spread fast adding to the chaos and the misunderstanding that became a civil war.
The most unique aspect of the Libyan Revolution was the international community’s response. In Egypt and Tunisia, no foreign power said that Ben Ali and Mubarek had to leave. No one did anything. In Libya within a few weeks, the United Nations Resolution 970 was put in place, a few months later United Nations Resolution 973 was initiated and created the no-fly zone. The response was very different and very swift, and the United Nations never works that quickly especially on a military conflict. Qaddafi had been a thorn in the West’s side for decades and did not have a cosy relationship with the Western states until 2004 when Libya gave up weapons of mass destruction when Tony Blair came to the country. New deals were made and Qaddafi was invited to France to the UN. He became an international player favoured by the West. The Libyan model for giving up weapons of mass destruction was heralded but when the Western powers had the chance to get rid of him, they took it.
IN SYRIA, WAR HAS RAGED FOR OVER SEVEN YEARS, WHY DID THE REGIME OF COLONEL QADDAFI FALL SO QUICKLY?
The war went on for eight months which was much longer than anyone predicted. Most people thought Qaddafi would be gone in two to three weeks but he had other ideas. Without NATO, Qaddafi would have retaken the country, without a shadow of a doubt. At the beginning everyone was a rebel, there were no brigades. It was normal people fighting a regular army until NATO starting bombing Qaddafi’s forces. Factions started to come about in Misrata, Benghazi and Derna. No one made their intentions clear, the only objective was to get rid of Qaddafi and NATO overlooked these things. Funding came from Western governments, Arab states and Turkey who did not know who the groups fighting Qaddafi were. The only two countries which supported Qaddafi were Cuba and Venezuela. Russia, China and India abstained from the vote.
Key defections were critical to the fall of the regime. Abdel Fatah Younis, the Interior Minister, Qaddafi’s right-hand man. He was sent to Benghazi in February to calm down the protestors but he joined them. He took his brigade with him which was the Saiqa, Libya’s special forces. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the Minister of Justice defected and he became head of the Transitional National Council which was the new government formed in the east. Fast forward six months to the fall of Tripoli and Baranee Shkal, who had control of security forces in Tripoli simply gave up when the rebels arrived. That’s why the city fell so rapidly. Moussa Kousa, the Head of Intelligence for many years defected as well and came to the United Kingdom where he lives in retirement. Desertion and defections in the army greatly impacted Qaddafi’s ability to survive and the inner circle, his closest people, left him when the ship was sinking. Without support from abroad and the loss of the inner circle and the combined pressure of NATO bombing, he couldn’t survive. The decisive factor was NATO’s intervention.
THE INTERVENTION OF NATO WAS A KEY FACTOR IN THE FALL OF THE REGIME, DO YOU THINK 'RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT (R2P)' WAS A THE CORE MOTIVE FOR LAUNCHING AIRSTRIKES?
The intervention was based on R2P, but the reality was different. For example, anytime the army took over a city, NATO would bomb the city claiming civilian lives were in danger. That doesn’t make sense because you can’t just attack them because they’ve retaken the city from rebels. There was not enough evidence and not enough proof that they were killing civilians during the war. Human rights violations did occur but not to the point where R2P could be initiated (ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity). The primary reason for being there was to get rid of Qaddafi. He died on 20th October and the operation ended on the 31st October.
If R2P was the reason, why was the city of Tawergha, which is predominantly comprised of black Libyans, allowed to be ethnically cleansed in September 2011, because they sided with Qaddafi? The rebels kicked out 35,000 people. Where was NATO? Why were these people allowed to be kicked out if this was a humanitarian campaign? R2P has been discredited. Nobody wants to enforce it because it has been misused. North Korea does not want to give up its WMDs because of what happened to Qaddafi and President Al-Asad regards Libya and Iraq as models for regime change. In theory, it is good to help people when they are helpless but this is now less likely to happen practically because of the intervention in Libya.
WAS THE INTERVENTION IN LIBYA A SUCCESS OR FAILURE? ‘
It depends on what the motives were. If it was to remove Qaddafi, it was a clear success. To create a democratic state it was an utter failure. The intervention was based on a lack of information and poor intelligence and as a result Libya is now a collapsed state. There are two governments - one in Tripoli (GNA) and one in Tobrouk (HOR) who should have been the government in 2015 - and they both wield very little power. Protests in Tripoli and Benghazi forced HOR to Tobrouk. The eastern government have been doing little since then and will not let the government in Tripoli do things who are paralysed. There is a split. We have two bank authorities, two armies, two national oil companies. We have two of everything and neither government can do anything. The only people that rule are the militias. In Tripoli, we have three militias. Abdelraouf Kara is a Salafi who holds the Mitiga airport (Tripoli International Airport was destroyed) is a key player in the conflict who runs the military airport and Haitam Al Tajouri of the Tripoli Brigade holds the Ghnewa Abusleem Area. Everyone controls a certain area and the internationally recognised government (JNA) cannot do anything without the militias. The jihadists control small towns since the fall of Sirte and defeat of ISIS in 2016. The jihadists went to the south where they now conduct hit and run attacks. Some have occurred in Benghazi and Tripoli. No one has the authority to capture them. The intervention in Libya is a complete failure. There is no state, there is no government, there is nothing.
WHAT WERE THE CONSEQUENCES OF NATO'S INTERVENTION?
Widespread arms distribution has occurred and major international players have come in to support various groups. Jihadists took over many cities, particularly in the south and centre where government has little control. Derna is a city which is a hotbed of Islamists. The city sent more foreign fighters than any other during the Iraq War. Many also fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Libyan infrastructure, which was bad before the war, has become even worse. There is no electricity, no consistent availability of water and oil output has been repeatedly slashed, courtesy of militias. Bread is the most important thing in Libya. Without it, you cannot eat anything. Libya is having a bread crisis because it used to cost quarter of a dinar for ten loaves and now it costs one dinar for three loaves. Billions have been stolen from government coffers and state funds. The dinar has lost value, it used to be $1 for 1.3 dinars. On the black market, it has gone gone as high as 13 dinars for $1. The currency has now officially been devalued.
Society as a whole has disintegrated. Without a gun, you’re nothing. Young men who were nothing before the revolution are given a gun and they get cocky (even though they are in flip flops and undershirts) and they do not want to let go of power. The migrant crisis, you can’t even explain what’s happening. Thousands of people die every year and the smugglers do not care. Refugees and migrants from the Sahara, Eritrea and beyond are captured and smuggled. Families are forced to pay for those who are kidnapped to secure their release. People are left in the deserts sometimes. If you’re caught by militias, you face ill-treatment, torture and starvation. People regard migrants as human beings. It’s very painful to see that’s how we’ve become.
DESCRIBE THE CURRENT POLITICAL SITUATION IN POST-QADDAFI LIBYA?
The country has been divided into three which is what historic Libya resembled during Ottoman times. There is the government in Tripoli, the government in Tobrouk and Fezzan in the south. These are not official federal lines anymore, but there is a growing federalist movement in the country, particularly in the east where the majority of the oil is located.
The MPs in both governments are divided by tribal allegiances and political loyalties to various groups (for example the Muslim Brotherhood) and militias, especially after the Libyan Political Agreement signed in Morocco. The agreement stipulated that officially you have three bodies which are the presidential council, the General National Accord (West), the State of Council and the House of Representatives (East) for the legislative authority. The GNA are the official government. We have so much democracy, we needed two governments!
In reality, the militias hold actual power as Tripoli demonstrates and in Benghazi, Khalifa Haftar holds the east, the most tribal area of the country where they’ve thrown their weight behind them. The HOR does not do anything without Haftar. The Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, Missiri (Head of the State Council and a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood) and Khalifa Haftar fight for influence and control.
Major cities are in competition with one another. Misrata, for example, is one of the strongest cities in the countries. They killed Qaddafi, they took Sirte and they fought against ISIS in second battle of Sirte. Everything is overlapping and there are multiple civil wars happening in the country at the same time. When Tripoli fell, militias from different towns took different parts of the city, Misrata took certain parts of the city, and Zintan took other pieces. Zintan control the airport and in summer 2014, the war for Tripoli took place between Zintan and Misrata destroying oil storage containers and the airport.
More people have died in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall then in the war itself, perhaps 10,000 - 20,000. It is very difficult to estimate the death toll if you factor in migrant deaths on top of this. We have a very small population, officially six million, but people have left for Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and beyond. The humanitarian crisis is severe. Everyone thought that we would not end up like Iraq, everyone thought that because we are the same religion (Sunni) and have very small minority groups that Libya would survive. Libya has broken down into tribes like Iraq. Wounds suppressed by Qaddafi were reopened. My home town, for example, and Misrata were at war a century ago. These problems resurfaced in 2012. Pictures of the anti-colonial fighters reappeared in each city and demonstrate how old these wounds are. Cities now despise each other. Once Qaddafi was gone, frozen conflicts became hot again. Under Qaddafi, these problems did not exist, it was only about him, his revolution and history (as far as he was concerned) began in 1969. Libya went back to the pre-Qaddafi era: “You worked for the Italians!", “You were a colonial!”, “You were this!”, “You were that!”
GENERAL KHALIFA HAFTAR HAS RECIEVED WIDESPREAD COVERAGE IN INTERNATIONAL NEWS OUTLETS. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HIS POLITICAL INFLUENCE IN POST-QADDAFI LIBYA?
He is de-facto head of the east of Libya. Haftar has been invited to Rome and Paris and is the main political player who retook Benghazi from Islamist groups (destroying it at the same time). He repeatedly claims that his forces are going to seize Tripoli. The reality is Haftar does not have the ability or manpower to do this or save the country. He is not a charismatic figure, he is a military man. Haftar used to be a colonel in the army before he was captured in Chad in the 1980s. He defected and moved to the United States to Virginia, near Langley (CIA headquarters) where he lived for twenty years before the revolution and war started.
No one gave him a thought until then. You have to understand what brought him to the spotlight. During the war, military figures were being assassinated in Benghazi by Islamists. Anyone that could form a future army for Libya were being murdered, officers, generals, colonels, captains by car bombs and other methods. Qaddafi loyalists denied knowing this at the time. Hundreds and hundreds were killed, sometimes entire families were slaughtered.
We did not have bombings in Libya before the revolution. Foreign fighters brought this from abroad. What brought Haftar to power was this opportunity, he saw that the government (who knew about the killings in Benghazi) was not doing anything and stood against this. He formed a movement and created an army which joined up with the Saiqa, the special forces, and received external support from the UAE and Egypt who are staunchly against the Muslim Brotherhood who are very influential in eastern Libya. General Haftar took his opportunity and the east of the countr. If he took the country though he wouldn’t know how to rule. Militias are the true rulers.
HOW LONG DO YOU THINK IT WILL TAKE FOR CONFLICT IN LIBYA TO END AND FOR THE COUNTRY TO STABILISE?
It will take more than a decade. The country cannot stay like this. There is no government. If you need something done, you have to do it yourself. The current war in Tripoli is happening because of letters of credit, millions and millions of dollars ceded to the militias by government authorities. Militias were getting these in Tripoli and other paramilitary groups in Misrata and Zintan were not. They attacked Tripoli under the pretext of cleansing militias from the city. One militia was effectively replacing another militia. Libya needs a government. In the best case scenario, Libya will end up like Lebanon. Militias will form political parties and the government will be weak and ‘Lebanonisation’ might occur. Politically speaking, the issue is that people vote with their city and tribal allegiances at the moment. That or they do not want to vote. In elections in 2012, only sixty percent came out to vote and in 2013 even less. People do not want to vote because it does not change anything. For the time being a strongman is needed to reunify the country. General Haftar is not strong enough to do this. There is no chance of the Qaddafis coming back as three of his sons are dead.
what are your thoughts on THE TERRORIST ATTACK IN MANCHESTER and the ties to the libyan islamic fighting group?
Abdel Hakim Belhaj sued the UK and US governments for extradition. He is a major terrorist and is currently in Libya and works with the Tripoli Brigade. For a time, he ruled over Tripoli and formed a political party briefly (he did not get any votes) and went underground after they failed. He has stolen money and is still a major player. The LIFG was a terrorist group who wanted to kill Qaddafi and thus they were of interest to UK intelligence groups. They ignored the fact that they were extremists and many received asylum in the United Kingdom. MI6 were so focused on ridding Libya of Qaddafi, they got into bed with the enemy who wanted to kill Western civilians. This has returned to haunt British policymakers.
IN 2002, THE GUARDIAN REVEALED THE SHALYER AFFAIR WHICH DETAILED THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LIBYAN ISLAMIC FIGHTING GROUP, MI5 AND MI6. RAMADAN ABEDI, THE FATHER OF SALEM (WHO CARRIED OUT THE MANCHESTER ARENA ATTACK) WAS PART OF THIS GROUP. DO YOU THINK PAST POLICIES ON LIBYA HAVE RETURNED TO HAUNT BRITISH POLICYMAKERS?
Relations between the UK and Libya have been difficult to say the least under Qaddafi. He had strong anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist stances. The United Kingdom was the main player in Libya before Qaddafi since 1951. The United Kingdom of Libya, then the Kingdom of Libya were good, but from 1969 onwards relations soured. With the Americans, relations went down the drain more quickly in 1974. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the killing of police officer Yvonne Fletcher and relations deteriorated under Prime Minister Thatcher with Libya’s support for the Irish Republican Army, the Lockerbie Bombing and military bombings by the Americans and British.
The 1980s was the worst period and Qaddafi became paranoid as assassination attempts increased. French and American operatives worked with Chadians during the Libyan-Chadian War to contain the threat of Qaddafi who feared that he would establish client states across North Africa. As Qaddafi consolidated his power, things worsened. In the 1990s, after Lockerbie and Fletcher’s killings, sanctions were imposed on the United Kingdom until under Tony Blair when relations thawed. The biggest issue of policymaking in the Middle East in the UK is the obsession with getting rid of someone while overlooking the groups who wanted Qaddafi gone. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
Libya is one example of multiple wars in the Middle East which have polarised the UK. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s disastrous adventurism in Iraq tars his legacy. However, under Prime Minister David Cameron and Theresa May, interventions, direct or through proxies, have occurred in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria under the Conservative Party. Unlike Kosovo and Bosnia, these military operations have had very mixed results. Airstrikes in the case of Syria and Iraq were ineffective and brought terrible destruction to Raqqa and Mosul while in Yemen, support for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States has pushed the country into famine. Britain’s bombing campaign in Libya succeeded in removing Qaddafi, but little was done to stop the country collapsing after the war to remove the old regime was completed. Small wars in four countries, not including Afghanistan, have been failures. Foreign policy, not just Brexit and domestic politics, should determine whether a party should remain in power and under the policies of the Conservatives, the Middle East and North Africa has been pushed into further turmoil. These small wars do nothing to enhance security and democracy at home and abroad, they have had the opposite effect and have nurtured populism, toxic nationalism and xenophobia within the UK.
Nigerl Farage called Angela Merkel’s decision to allow Syrian refugees into Germany as "one of the biggest political failures of modern times". Ignoring the fact that Syria is in the midst of the worst war of the 21st century, Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled during the Brexit campaign was the tip of the iceberg in demonstrations of bigotry and hatred which have seeped into British politics because of the Middle Eastern conflicts and the 9/11 Wars.
Inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has stoked both anti-semitism and Islamophobia at home. The wars raging from North Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia have been frequently compared to the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict England was involved in. 50,000 - 60,000 British soldiers fought in the Thirty Years’ War, a war subsidised by Charles I in support of Scandinavian monarch Christian IV. These soldiers, ‘who fought for the ‘Protestant cause’ within the armies of countries such as the Dutch Republic, Denmark and Sweden’ Furthermore as Mark Adams analyses, ‘the breakdown of Stuart government in the late 1630s and 1640s illustrates the considerable influence this body of men had on their homeland. Equally, as conventional historians have argued, the Thirty Years’ War also contributed to ‘the demise of English military power throughout the period and (demonstrated) the failure of the Stuart monarchs to engage within continental warfare.’ Militarily and politically, the involvement in the terrible multigenerational conflict in Europe changed Britain forever, and by 1642 the British Civil War had begun and political turmoil and war consumed the British Isles for decades.
45,000 British soldiers were involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and according to BBC News roughly 10,000 soldiers were deployed in Afghanistan in 2009 during the height of the Fourth Afghan War. All three military operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq (excluding support by proxy for Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen) came under extensive criticism from military analysts and media outlets in how they were conducted and opposition to the wars, particularly in Iraq, have been very strong. Furthermore, Britain is in a civil war of words in the 21st century rather than bullets (thankfully). The “Global War on Terror” and conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Gaza and Afghanistan have undeniably shaped or informed much of the fierce debates consuming and dividing Britain today. The United States had also been deeply polarised by conflicts abroad, particularly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the collapse of the Balkans in the 1990s and intervention in Libya. Its unflinching support for Israel (including its wars in the region and the occupation of Palestinian territories), the Gulf States and precarious authoritarian juntas in Turkey and Egypt have drawn sharp criticism from politicians, academics, journalists and human rights lawyers.
The United States and in-turn the United Kingdom are more inclined to favour the Israelis and the Sunni states (as England supported the Protestant cause in the 1630s and 1640s) in the war reshaping the region, a contradiction in the latter case because extreme Sunni, Salafi and Wahabbi militants, frequently utilised as proxies in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan have launched countless terrorist attacks on Western states and allies across the world including in the Middle East. Of-course, reducing the Middle East’s turmoil, much like the Thirty Years’ War to an issue of religion is an oversimplification to those who live in the region. Libya, Iraq and Syria are predominantly Sunni states which had or continue to have poor relations with the Western powers. Secular politics, contemporary global political and economic currents and propaganda shapes these multilayered conflicts. Reducing cause to the Shia-Sunni schism and jihadism, factors important in themselves, excludes other primary and secondary causes at play in North Africa and the Middle East. Should Libya matter to UK politics and an incoming election? Absolutely.