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OP-ED: A deep crisis in Libya

  • Published at 08:45 pm July 25th, 2020
Photo: AFP

Can the suffering of Libya be alleviated?

Libya, although an Arab Maghreb country of far off north Africa, is known to many Bangladeshis. This is primarily because Bangladeshi migrants, both from professional streams and unskilled workers streams, went to Libya since the 1970s and brought home interesting stories.

The doctors, engineers, other workers, and their families were relatively richer and ecstatic about the south Mediterranean country they had lived in for so long when they returned to Bangladesh after completing their long stays in Libya.

The key feature of their excitement had been that Libya was a poor country in the Sahara desert till the 1960s, and now it was hugely prosperous with nice cities, buildings, roads, schools and universities, good cars, good administration, service delivery, and almost southern Europe-like scenes all over.

The modernization, or quasi-modernization, of the Middle Eastern and North African Arab states followed a pattern or two. The chief one had been that, between the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionary dictators emerged to oust the emirs or kings set up by Western colonial or mandated powers following the weakening and eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire.

Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi was such a strongman, who ascended to power a bit later in 1969, removing the corrupt King Idris I. Like other such modernizers -- Gamal Naser, Saddam Hussein, Hafeez al Asad -- he undertook big development initiatives, even including empowering women.

With its newly found oil resources, Libya just did that well. Libya has the 12th largest proven oil reserve in the world, with a tiny population of just 6 million. In the mid-1980s, Libya’s development and life standard even surpassed Saudi Arabia.

But, like some other Arab dictators. Gaddaffi was also irrational, and in the regional and geo-politics, he faltered. Terror links and links to dubious elements of a few other anti-government elements of various countries resulted in questions about the sanity of Gaddaffi.

Also, a too-long rule by a single aging person has its wear and tear, and the backlash of stagnant ideas slowed down the pace of development. One or multiple power cliques composed of the dictator’s relatives, close associates, top ministers, and bureaucrats rose up. They started controlling the resources and their allocation through corruption, cronyism, and various other links. Neo-patrimonialism sank in; the spirit of fairness and justice of the early revolutionary time was gradually gone.

The Arab Spring of 2011 onwards was a strange phenomenon. On one hand, it demonstrated the political awakening of the otherwise muted Arab citizenry, resulting in government/regime changes ie Tunisia, Egypt, etc; on the other, it plunged some Arab countries into civil war -- Syria, Yemen, and Libya are among the second league.

Wherever the long-standing dictators gave up in time in the face of these popular mobilizations -- like Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt -- the countries were saved. Where it did not happen, there were civil wars. Unlike Syria -- in Libya the dictator Gaddaffi was deposed through an armed rebellion aided by the West, and the rebels killed him.

After the change an interim body was formed for transition with international support, an election was held in 2012. Meanwhile, with the disintegration of the Libyan Armed Forces, a big number of militia and militia alliances came into being, and were often allied with various political outfits and tribes.In Libya, there are about 140 tribes.

Although Libya has become an Arab country through Arab conquest and Arabization since early medieval times, there are considerable ancient Barber elements in the Libyan demographic mix. The Turkish elements also got into Libya later. Despite some modernization, the primitive tribal affiliations still remain to a considerable extent in Libya. These militia and militia alliances often have tribal affiliations as well. Overall, the situation in Libya is quite complex.

In the 2012 election of General National Congress (GNC), the Islamists did reasonably well, although the moderates were in the majority. However, alongside other political and militant entities, some radical Islamic entities also emerged in Libya, and some of them started vandalizing heritage sites and Sufi shrines, etc.

Sensing the Islamist elements in GNC, the seculars demanded a fresh election, and agreement was reached among the major political entities to hold the election of the renamed parliament -- the “House of Representative” -- in 2014. The seculars did much better in the 2014 election, but the GNC rejected it on the basis of low turnout (18%) in comparison to the GNC election (60%) in 2012.

The House of Representative government was supported by the biggest war lord of Libya, General Khalifa Hafter, and it moved to the eastern city of Tobruk while the GNC government got itself consolidated in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

However, in both the camps there were disagreements and factionalism. In 2015, the UN initiated a peace talk which eventually led to the formation of a Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. It included the GNC leadership, but the House of Representative government supported by Khalifa Hafter in Tobruk did not get on board. Yet, the GNA government still remains the UN backed authority.

Meanwhile, there were ISIS affiliated elements active in central coastal parts of Libya and in a few other parts. Hafter’s forces fought and neutralized them. In 2019, Hafter also wanted to expand westwards from his bases in the east towards the areas of GNA supported militias, but his strides were thwarted.

Turkey supports GNA while Egypt is backing the Hafter and Tobruk government. Russia supported Hafter but now it’s willing to cooperate in a Turkey-led peace initiative. The West which so enthusiastically helped bring down Gaddaffi has no clue about Libya. Like in Syria, the plethora of fractions and militia has baffled them.

The Arab world is a strange trans region and so are the Arabs themselves. The dynamics of the Arab societies and countries are so bizarre, even the West or the rest of the world finds it difficult to adopt a cohesive policy. Despite having common language, culture, and common ancient to early medieval history, there were hardly any strong Arab nationalist movements even when nationalism was the key trend around the globe.

Pan-Arab nationalism, post-colonial state identities or whatever else binding force -- the failure of it and the destruction of erstwhile prosperous countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq, etc, is very hard to watch. Once there were happy flourishing communities in nice, well managed cities -- now all is dust and ruins.

The future prospect also looks bleak. Numerous UN and other international peace initiatives haven’t resulted in anything concrete. It’s beyond rational imagination -- why can’t Turkey, Egypt, and other major local players agree, for the sake of humanity in Libya?

The country isn’t yet fully destroyed like Syria -- still something can be salvaged. The process of negotiation and a final lasting settlement could be long and tedious. But, with agreement among the major regional actors, at least the main groundwork for that would have been complete. This basic cooperation beyond petty individual interest is a must to save the suffering humanity of Libya.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an opinion contributor to Dhaka Tribune.

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