I have been putting off writing this post, because well, I have been a bit unclear myself as to what has been transpiring over the last few weeks in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. On one hand, I, like you, read the news report and see young men with AK-47s blasting into the browned sun-soaked streets of I’m not exactly sure where. On the other hand, my husband keeps calmly calling his family, in the inner-urban section of Tripoli, and everyone is fine, acting like a civil war is no big thang.
Reportedly, the UN-backed government in Tripoli is under attack from the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, run by General Khalifa Haftar, causing a current death toll of 264 people this month (April 2019), and 1,266 injured (from the World Health Organization).
There’s a lot I don’t understand; it’s hard for someone who was raised in a pretty stable democracy to understand what life in a political vacuum looks like. But I’m here to try and piece it out for you, and you should also continue to do your reading, from sources beyond faulty-Facebook. Remember, Rule #1 is: everything is liquid.
If you need a real basic run-down on how Libya was factioned into two plus different political governments, then let’s go back to February 2011. This is when Libya’s version of the Arab Spring erupted in the eastern city of Benghazi, resulting in push-back from the long-standing leader, Muammar Gadhafi. Instead of ending the violence as called to by the United Nations, Gadhafi continued on, “Rather to die a martyr.” (Watch your words, Brother Leader!)
This was seen as a human rights violation by the West and UN, and resulted in international trade embargoes, a freezing of Gadhafi’s assets, air surveillance, and the list goes on. A rebellion beginning in Benghazi comprised of Libyan civilians fought Gadhafi, slowly moving westward. Eventually, Libya was a no-fly zone, NATO was bombing Libya, Gadhafi had lost his youngest son and several grandchildren, and this is all within a matter of months. On October 20, 2011, Gadhafi was killed.
Say what you will about Muamarr Gadhafi, but he kept things stable in Libya.
Yes, he was rather ruthless, and he was once called the “Mad Dog” of the Middle East by Reagan. But, he also was the figure head in power who kept the nation together, and among many things, did create a lot of positive change as well. Women advanced. An epic water pipeline was built from the Sahara desert to the coastal cities. He dreamed of a very interesting version of an empowered Africa. I’m not saying he should have stayed in power, but to not have a more complex understanding of this notorious character would be short-sighted. Unfortunately, the government, and Libya’s persona in the world, was also solely wrapped up in him. He was a one-man show. When he died, chaos ensued.
This political vacuum continues today, nearly ten years later. The current violence that has been seen in surrounding Tripoli (I want to make that distinction because the fighting has been more in the southern and western suburbs, not yet directly in the center of the city), is an aftermath of everything in Libya being up in the air.
Currently, these are the key players:
- The Tripoli-based government led by Fayez al-Sarraj of the Presidency Council (PC). The Presidency Council has practically no army, and instead relies on local militias and the strong militias of the city of Misurata (200 km east of Tripoli). This is the government recognized internationally by the UN.
- The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar. The LNA is currently advancing on Tripoli. Haftar was originally under the command of Gadhafi in the 1980’s, and was commander in Gadhafi’s invasion of Chad. France interceded, and he was captured and then defected to the United States. Haftar lived in the United States for almost twenty years, during which he became US citizen. While in the US, he was rumored to have ties to the CIA. A little suspicious, no?
- Local militias, tribal interests, regional and international influences. Some regional influences include Egypt and Algeria. Larger players include: Turkey, The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, France, and The United States. This makes for some pretty interesting playing ground, that is ever-changing, including loyalties.
What is the solution for libya?
That is the million dollar question. But one thing is for sure; Western involvement dating back to the early 1900’s, has not helped. Libya is a country construct that was created following Italian rule. The Maghreb before the influx of Italy, France, and England, was much more fluid, and the borders that we see drawn today are somewhat arbitrary to what real relationships were like in that region before European influence. Like so much of Africa, the colonization that began more than a hundred years ago still leaks its toxicity into every day life. Will Libya continue to exist as a country, or will borders be redrawn as a new government emerges?
Additionally, there is a deep identity question that needs to be addressed. After decades of Gadhafi’s pan-Arabism, Libya is Mediterranean, yet part of the Arab world, Islamic but Sufi (which pushes back against foreign Wahhabist money from Saudi Arabia), and has a rich culture of the native Berber people. This war is for political gain, but the bigger question of Libyan identity hasn’t been solved yet.
In writing this article, I have decided that I myself, and perhaps everyone else, needs a crash course on the last 1,000 years of North Africa and the Middle East. There’s a lot to unpack there, and the current situations that exist in this region have direct consequences to the European Union and the rest of the world. For now, we will continue to keep an eye on what unfolds, knowing we can never really know the true situation on the ground.
2011 Libyan Civil War, Fast Facts: CNN:
A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players: European Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.ecfr.eu/mena/mapping_libya_conflict
Arab Uprising, Country by Country-Libya: BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-12482311
Libya is on the Brink of a Civil War, and a U.S. Citizen is Responsible: Time: http://time.com/5566575/libya-tripoli-khalifa-haftar-gadddafi/
How can Libya be stabilized?: Al-Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/libya-stabilised-180830151116488.html
Inside Story: Are foreign powers worsening the conflict in Libya?: Al-Jazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/house-house-battles-libyan-forces-push-haftar-190428162658370.html