“It is great to be in free Libya”, David Cameron exclaimed in Benghazi’s Liberty Square in September 2011. “Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your democracy.”
How things have changed.
Libya is no longer free and is in chaos. Her internationally recognised — and popularly elected — government is holed up in Tobruk. Another government rules from Tripoli, run by a mixture of Islamists and secularists who lost the June 2014 elections and are anxious that the Tobruk government is just a rehash of the Gaddafi era. Water, electricity and gas are in short supply across the country and crime is on the rise. On Sunday 25 January, gunmen kidnapped the Deputy Foreign Minister in Bayda. Tripoli international airport has been burned down, with at least 90 per cent of the facilities reportedly destroyed. Turkish Airlines, the last foreign airline operating in the country, has halted flights (although some Libyan-owned airlines have recently restarted some services). In the east of Libya, Benghazi is in disarray as clashes continue between rival armed factions. The so-called “Islamic State” governs the city of Derna — with an Islamic court and education ministry — and operates a number of training camps in the country. They have claimed a number of attacks, including the beheading of several activists in Derna, the abduction of twenty Coptic Christian Egyptians and, most recently on January 27th, an attack on the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli, in which ten people were killed.
Over 1700 competing groups are vying for control of the country. Tens of thousands of Libyans are fleeing to Europe every month, with 400,000 citizens already displaced. The country’s GDP declined by 10 per cent during 2014. Over the past two months, there have been escalating battles over oil wells. In December, two oil terminals responsible for more than half of the country’s oil output were shut down by fighting. Oil storage facilities have been set alight, burning such an enormous amount of oil that recent plumes of smoke coming from them could be seen from space. According to the FT, oil production — which accounted for 97 per cent of the government’s income at the end of 2011 — has decreased from 1.4 million barrels a day in the aftermath of the Civil War to fewer than 300,000 and The Economist maintains that “the Central Bank is now spending at three times the rate that it is taking in oil money.”
The Tobruk government lacks the money even to pay employees and many ministers do not own phones whilst their departments are run “on short-term commercial loans”. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have released reports declaring that crimes against humanity have been committed by militias throughout the country. In an interview with pro-Saudi Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat last month, the internationally recognised Prime Minister, Abudllah al-Thani, said the conditions under which his government are working “are not just tough; they can be impossible sometimes… the economy has practically collapsed… and… the situation is getting tougher and tougher every day.” Libya is a failing state.
Libya’s 6000km porous border, sparse geography (over 90 per cent of the country is desert and uninhabitable) and the lack of a strong, central government, has also resulted in the flow of arms and militants which are destabilising neighbouring countries. Huge stockpiles of weapons are flowing from Libya to other countries and aiding jihadist groups in Mali, Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Syria, the Gaza Strip and beyond, completely in defiance of an international arms embargo. In July 2014, a senior Egyptian official said, in the aftermath of a militant attack on a border post which killed 21 soldiers, that an “unprecedented” number of weapons and ammunition, worth tens of millions of dollars, were crossing through the almost 700 mile long Egyptian-Libyan border. The figures are likely to be even higher today. In February last year, an expert panel told the UNSC that arms trafficking from Libya “is fueling [sic] conflict and insecurity — including terrorism — on several continents.”
Libya is a “crucial linchpin of North African stability”. The instability and the spread of arms have been directly responsible for conflicts and attacks in neighbouring countries. The long- simmering conflict in Northern Mali recommenced after hundreds of Tuareg fighters fighting for Gaddafi in the Libyan Civil War returned home with their newly acquired sophisticated arms and overtook a number of towns. Last month, Mali’s Foreign Minister highlighted the destabilising effect that Libya is having on other countries when he asked for foreign intervention in Libya “to neutralise the armed groups” and set up a stable Libya, stating that: “Unless we help the Libyans to have a state structure, to have a security apparatus which is able to control these terrorist organizations, it will be just an illusion to think that we can have security and stability in the Sahel.” In 2013 in the Eastern Algerian town of In Amenas, around 35 miles from the Libyan border, al-Qaeda-linked militants took hundreds of gas workers hostage. A source close to “hardline Islamist groups in Libya” told AFP that “logistical support [for the attack] was provided from Libya”. Only 300 miles from the coasts of southern Europe, jihadists will find it easier to stage atrocities against the continent from Libya than states in the Middle East such as Yemen, Syria or Iraq. Already, jihadists have taken advantage of the lawlessness by setting up training camps to prepare militants for future terrorist attacks.
No wonder U.S. President Barack Obama said in August last year that his biggest foreign policy regret was his failure to have “an answer” for the aftermath of the Civil War in 2011. But in 2013, he recognised that NATO “has an important role to play” in making sure “that a democratically elected Libyan government has the capacity to control its borders and ensure that it does not become a haven for terrorism.” He admitted to a Cabinet meeting in the same year that “we have not been doing enough” and that he wanted to “accelerate” assistance to the Libyan government. Afterwards, a US defence official told the Washington Post that the Libyan government requested help. And yet there has still been, no meaningful action has been taken.
The United States and NATO washed their hands of the whole affair after aiding rebels to depose Gaddafi and allowed Libya’s baby democracy to fend for itself in the wild. The West spent billions on toppling Gaddafi’s regime but has so far wasted it by not backing the Libyan people in the dawn of their democracy. This disengagement is one of the biggest factors in the subsequent conflict. It is vital that the West now intervenes to bring Libya back from the brink. To do otherwise will spread her instability throughout North Africa, allowing terrorist networks to flourish and continue to take advantage of the country. We will see more terror attacks as a result, the proliferation of arms will create more conflicts elsewhere and deepen current wars; migrants and drugs will continue to wash up on the shores of southern Europe. Action is imperative to the West’s national security.
The current peace talks in Geneva are a start. A delegation from Tobruk and one allied to the Tripoli government are attending, although no representatives from Libya Dawn and the General National Congress (the unrecognised government in Tripoli, which left the talks following an attack by the Thinni-allied army on the Central Bank in Benghazi) have joined. The UN wants to form a unity government, but is looking first at establishing local ceasefires. However, the talks need to go much further than their current “transitional” structure. The greatest threat to Libya is currently the spread of local and international jihadists, who have been responsible for a number of atrocities in the country. Peacekeepers from the international community, supported by the main two loose groups in Tripoli and Tobruk, need to be put in place in order to maintain a balance of power. They will need to be in control of ports, border crossings and airports. A unitary government — with members from the two groups — should be formed and the militias should be compelled to leave the cities and return power to the Libyan state unitary government. Those who choose the path of dialogue must be rewarded with future financial and employment opportunities and those who oppose talks should be punished. UN Security Council sanctions are an important foundation.
The regional powers who have taken sides (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with the eastern forces in Tobruk. and Qatar and Turkey with those in Tripoli) should be invited to talks to make the process as transparent as possible. If they do not help the process, pressure should be applied. According to an Atlantic Council report in December, recent evidence has suggested that Qatar is bowing to pressure and is weakening its support for Libya Dawn. The arms embargo — enforced against the wishes of both sides — must continue and revenue from oil sales should be held in trust by a UN-supervised body. Groups who lay down their arms should be financially rewarded; those which do not should expect military strikes. International assets (including $113 billion in foreign currency reserves) should be frozen. Fundamentally, the international community must incentivise a desire for peace. In addition, the role of Islam and federal powers in the west and eastern parts of the country need to be discussed and a new Constitution should be set out, legitimised by a free and fair referendum.
In the end a moderate pact of Libyans — and a united and forceful international response — is needed to save the country from the ledge from which it is currently leaning. It will take time, it will cost money and it will require long term planning. But inaction now will only lead to the need for action later.
The research for this article was aided by the Human Security Centre. The HSC is an independent foreign policy think tank in the fields of human rights, international security policy, and democracy. See www.hscentre.org for more information.