Paying the price of a failed Libya

Paying the price of a failed Libya
Comment: Amid chaos caused by mismanagement, intervention, international rivalries and civil war, ordinary people who hoped for a better Libya are dying, says Vijay Prashad.
6 min read
25 Feb, 2015

News comes from Tripoli, Libya of another assassination. It is almost impossible to keep track of the violence there. But this time the story is bewildering: who would want to kill 35-year-old Entissar al-Hasaari?

Hasaari was a cultural activist who organised festivals and reading groups and founded the Enlightenment Group, which held small protests against the militia's stranglehold of her city.

This brave stance was apparently enough to get her killed. Her body was found on Tuesday in the boot of a car. Her aunt was also killed in the attack.

The level of violence in Libya is astounding. In 2014 in Benghazi, 230 people were assassinated - activists, professionals and military personnel. Among them were people of integrity and experience, as well as young people fuelled by hope - the most deceitful but necessary emotion.

Benghazi's senior lawyer, Salwa Bugaighis, was one of those number. On June 25 last year, she had voted in the general election, returned home, and was shot dead by hooded men wearing military clothing. Her husband Essam was abducted and is still missing.

Salwa was a remarkable woman, brave and committed. In March 2011, she joined the National Transitional Council, but left after four months, disgusted by the direction it was being taken by members of the Libyan diaspora and their backers in the West and the Gulf. They did not have Libya first in mind.

It looks like there will be no justice for Salwa. A witness to her killing, Salwa's gardener, Salem Ahmed Abdul Qader, died in Libyan police custody.

A month before Salwa's murder, on May 26, the brave journalist Miftah Bouzeid was shot in daylight hours while he sat in his car. A witness said the killer "looked like any other guy in Benghazi. Young, unmasked, wearing civilian clothes and shaven. He did not have a beard like the Islamists usually do. It was all over very fast."

Entissar al-Hasaari: Murdered for her opposition to violence.

Libya's slow strangulation

What has happened to Libya? The Nato bombing of 2011 destroyed the state - the painfully thin institutions that held together this archipelago of cities. Out of the ashes of the Gaddafi regime emerged a Nato-authorised government that had more interest in central banks and oil contracts than the creation of a new Libya.

The West and its allies were not interested in the surrender of the old regime, no interest in creating a platform of reconciliation and patriotism. Various armed groups thrived as western-backed liberals found themselves with little popular support and no real institutions to do their bidding. It is what sent Libya into spiralling into chaos.

Geopolitical tensions between Qatar-Turkey and Saudi Arabia cracked the politics of Libya, and the two parliaments that now exist in Tobruk and Tripoli represent this division.

Tripoli, led by Omar al-Hassi, is run by Libya Dawn - an alliance of the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, the remnants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the al-Watan Party and militia from Misurata. Qatar and Turkey back Libya Dawn.

The eastern side of the country, and the city of Zintan, is controlled by an alliance of western-backed Libyans (many from the Libyan diaspora) and members of the armed forces fed up with the Islamists. 

Their bloc, which sits in Tobruk and is led by Abdullah al-Thani, has earned a new fighting force in Khalifa Haftar's Operation Dignity. The Tobruk alliance has the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

This division and associated geopolitical rivalry has squashed hope of national unity. Out of this chaos has emerged not only a civil war, but the "Islamic State" in Libya, announced by the group's murder of the 21 Egyptian Copts earlier this month.

But the IS group in Libya is not really a new phenomenon: It is the extension of Ansar al-Sharia, created in Benghazi after the Nato bombing campaign. The appearance of jihadis in Libya is not surprising. It is precisely what is to be expected.

A country governed on a whim

Politics in Libya before 2011 operated in the margins. Inside the Gaddafi regime, two camps had emerged - the socialists and the neoliberals.

     The IS group in Libya is not really a new phenomenon: It is the extension of Ansar al-Sharia, created in Benghazi after the Nato bombing campaign. It is precisely what is to be expected.

The socialists lived in dismay at the erratic governance of the Gaddafi clique. Decisions seemed to flow from random conversations, with whim a principle driving force. Robust socialist plans to use oil revenues to build society and diversify the economy were ignored.

The neoliberals, led by Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, wanted to make peace with the West, get sanctions lifted and draw in expertise from the diaspora to "modernise", or rather privatise, the economy. Saif al-Islam hired Libyans who had made their money in the Gulf, people such as Mahmoud Jibril. Saif al-Islam was the man of the moment.

By the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood (the Libyan Islamic Group) had been largely destroyed. Most of the leaders who had not been executed had fled abroad. Mosques were the secret nodes of the Brotherhood, but even here Gaddafi had set up his own preferred clerics.

Extremists who formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - with main bases in Derna and Benghazi - was ruthlessly suppressed by Gaddafi. Those he did not kill he exiled, and many went to Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria, where they trained in the arts of contemporary jihadism.

Some of those in prison would later recant their ideology under Saif al-Islam's tutelage. Many of them would later join Abdel Hakim Belhaj's al-Watan party.

But during the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi, the Islamist groups emerged from hiding and from abroad. They headed straight to the frontlines, bringing their experience to bear on the battlefield.

The middle-class, people such as Salwa and Miftah, who had benefited from the national institutions created by Gaddafi's policies and the diasporic Libyans, did not have the will to die. They stayed behind, talking to their Western interlocutors.

It was these discussions in hotel lobbies that blinded the Western governments to the realities of politics in Libya. When Nato came in, it delivered the advantage not to the middle-class and the diaspora, but to the Islamists.

     This regional cold war broke the political process and helped create two parliaments, and two prime ministers.

And the geopolitical tensions have exacerbated this mess. Right after the fall of Gaddafi, Qatar and Turkey rushed in to help support the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the UAE pushed an anti-Brotherhood agenda across North Africa, and backed Haftar's war against the it in Tripoli and Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.

This regional cold war broke the political process and helped create two parliaments, two prime ministers, and had the knock on effect of pushing Islamists to the extremes.

Haftar's war brought the Muslim Brotherhood closer to Ansar al-Sharia, who were in alliance with fighters who had returned from Syria and Iraq, inspired by the audacity of the IS group there to form a branch in Libya.

The entry of Egypt on Haftar's side has created a fault line in Libya that has pushed Islamists into one camp or the other, with the Brotherhood in the uncomfortable position of having to stand with the IS and Ansar against Haftar.

It is the opposite of the direction for a robust political process in the country.

And it is people like Entissar al-Hasaari - who loved literature, including comic books, and wanted only the best for our country - who have paid the price of these years of folly.

Friends say that she was likely killed by the growing number of "Islamic State" cells in the country. Her killers could have been anyone. They will certainly be hard to find.