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Libya : Whither goest this Nowhere Land?

28 August 2014 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Libya is fast sliding down a political abyss -- with world leaders not knowing whom to contact or who is in control of the country. Foreign governments are in confusion as to the status of the Libyan mission in their countries. Which of the two governments does the Libyan mission represent? Is it the one in Tripoli or the one in Tobruk?

It was only three years ago that the United States cited Libya as an example where it had achieved a regime change without American boots on the ground -- at least officially.  Following the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and famously flashed a V sign to the world cameras declaring a major foreign policy victory for the United States.

But what has happened in the three years since this vulgar display of US triumphalism that symbolised the use of a sledgehammer to kill a crippled fly – the Pentagon calls it “Shock and Awe and the Israelis call it Gaza – is a regime-change experiment gone awry. Barack Obama playing for the history books as a second term US president apparently wants to be known as a president who brought troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan -- and not as the President who put the lives of US soldiers in harm’s way. This policy was in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor George W. Bush, who showed little respect for the United Nations or international law.

Yes, Obama wants to be different. Why shouldn’t he be? After all, the Nobel peace medal awarded to him -- not for his achievements in peacemaking, but on a preposterous presumption that he would be a peace builder -- adorns his White House corner stand. Unlike Bush, he believes in collective military response – let NATO fight the US war. So when the Arab Spring revolts spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, the Obama administration seized the opportunity and rallied behind the NATO flag to oust Gaddafi even though the Libyan leader had opened up to the West following the 9/11 attacks.  This was because the Libyan leader was still unpredictable and had not given up on his grand vision for Africa. Gaddafi was against US military expansionism in Africa and was promoting a common African currency and a development bank. Many transnationals saw him as an impediment to their plunder of African resources. Hence the need for his removal. And the Western governments did it, not by sending troops to Libya, but by arming anti-Gaddafi rebels and providing them air support. The strategy worked. Gaddafi was killed, perhaps in keeping with the wishes of the United States’ West Asian allies. Libya got a new government, a parliamentary democracy, and recognition as a ‘civilised nation’ as opposed to a pariah nation under Gaddafi.

The US cited Libya as a case that bears testimony to its “Smart Power” – a philosophy that, apart from unleashing relentless air attacks on an enemy which is usually a minnow by the US standards, advocated skullduggery to mislead other world powers. In the case of Libya, it was Russia and China that were deceived.

Three years after Clinton’s famous V flash in Tripoli, Libya today is a hellhole of anarchy with two governments, two parliaments and scores of armed groups with areas of control, different ideologies and tribal affiliations.  Since the overthrow of Gaddafi, half a dozen governments have come and gone and one prime minister has run away from the country while militants have stormed parliament to dictate who should hold which post and demand more money for their survival.

As the country hurtled towards lawlessness, some rebel groups even tried to sell oil, bypassing the government authority. Adding to the chaos are regional power games, with reports this week claiming that the United Arab Emirates together with Egypt carried out air attacks on Islamic militants in a vain attempt to prevent them from taking control of the Tripoli Airport. More about this later.

The telltale signs of Libya’s slide into chaos were visible within a year of the death of Gaddafi on October 20, 2011. On September 12, 2012, US ambassador Chris Stevens was killed by militants of the Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah. In a futile bid to defend the Smart Power philosophy which the Obama administration touted as a success story that got rid of an evil system to bring about Utopia, Secretary Clinton made the biggest blunder of her political career – a blunder that haunts her White House bid in 2016.  She linked the killing of Stevens to the angry Muslim reaction to the YouTube movie “Innocence of Muslims” – a movie that sought to defame the character of the Prophet Muhammad. But subsequent investigations revealed that Stevens died in a deliberate attack on the US consulate in Benghazi by Ansar al-Shariah militants who alleged that the consulate building was being used as a spy centre.

Following this incident, the US and its Western allies tried their best to prop up the Libyan regime and bring about stability in the country. But parliament was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who were seen as anti-West. Every effort the West took to stabilise Libya only worsened the crisis, with armed groups running the regions making a mockery of the central government’s control of the country.

With Libya’s Islamists becoming a law unto themselves, a renegade military commander and CIA lackey took upon himself the task of bringing order to the country. Of course, General Khalifa Haftar had the blessings of the US and the US-backed government in Tripoli when he began his war against Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi. But instead of defeating the Islamists, his all-out military campaign codenamed Operation Dignity pushed various Islamist groups with different viewpoints to strike unity under the umbrella group Fajr or Dawn. This they did to ensure that what happened to the Brotherhood in Egypt would not happen to them in Libya.

A picture taken on August 26 shows bullet casing and damaged airplanes on the tarmac at Tripoli international airport in the Libyan capital after Islamist fighters captured the airport from Khalifa Haftar’s forces. AFP

In another development prior to General Haftar’s misadventure, the Libyan crisis exploded in neighbouring Mali. With weapons freely flowing from Libya, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an organisation fighting to make Azawad (Northern Mali) an independent homeland for the Tuareg people, was on the verge of capturing the capital, Bamako. It was only after French military intervention that the rebels – who were also Islamists -- were pushed back.

This week, after months of heavy battles against the Zintan militia allied to Gen. Haftar, Dawn backed by the militia from the Misurata region captured Libya’s international airport in Tripoli.  The group is now in control of all major airports in Libya. In the absence of a political leadership, the Libyan military is rudderless, with some officers backing General Haftar and others backing various armed groups based on their ethnic or regional affiliations.

Probably sensing the victory of the Islamists, the United States as early as last month evacuated its diplomats and their families under heavy security escort and moved them to Tunisia across the border, using land transport. Several other Western countries also did the same or kept only the essential staff at their embassies.

Following the capture of the airport and effectively the capital city, Operation Dawn restored the previous Islamic-dominated parliament, which was voted out in June this year in violence ridden elections won by secular and liberal candidates who have come under a loose alliance called the National Forces Alliance. The Islamists’ move has prompted the NFA to convene its parliament in Tobruk, an eastern city 1,000 miles away from Tripoli. Though away from the capital, the NFA still enjoys the West’s support as indicated by Wednesday’s vote in the UN Security Council. The council passed a unanimous resolution to impose sanctions on Islamists and accused them of fuelling Libya’s escalating war.  

The crisis in Libya cannot be viewed in isolation. It is in effect an extension of the political chaos in neighbouring Egypt and the cold war between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other. While Qatar supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Saudi Arabia and the UAE financed the coup that ousted the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi Government and brought in military strongman Abdel Fateh al-Sisi as the new Egyptian president.

The Saudi-UAE-Egypt alliance wants to prevent a Brotherhood-friendly Islamist government in Libya. This was probably why UAE aircraft with Egyptian help carried out air attacks on the Islamists. Both the UAE and Egypt have denied reports that they launched the air attacks. The New York Times which broke the story quoting US officials, however, is yet to retract it. The cold war between the Gulf oil kingdoms also manifests itself in other conflicts in the region. Qatar is seen as a supporter of Hamas while the Saudi-UAE-Egypt alliance loathes the Palestinian group which this week interpreted the ceasefire deal with Israel after 51 days of relentless air attack, bombardment and suffering as a moral victory. In Iraq and Syria, too, the Gulf oil kingdoms back different rebel groups.

The crisis in Libya is not only between secularists and Islamists or feuding tribes. It involves regional and big power politics. True Gaddafi was a tyrant, but he was also loved by a section of the Libyans and a vast majority in Africa. In hindsight, Libya under Gaddafi was a much better place to live in than what it is today. This is the case with pre- and post-invasion Iraq. Many Iraqis now say they wish Saddam Hussein had been in power. Whether it is Smart Power or Shock and Awe, the US foreign policy only disturbs world peace and causes chaos wherever Washington intervenes, as the Libyan crisis shows. Don’t they say that capitalism thrives in chaos?

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