News Middle East

Thursday 29 September 2016

Blame game goes on as Libya still burns

Mary Fitzgerald

Published 17/09/2016 | 02:30

Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. Photo: REUTERS/Desmond Boylan
Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. Photo: REUTERS/Desmond Boylan
Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gaddafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces near Benghazi, during the Nato-led military intervention in Libya, in March 2011. Pic: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

Five years ago this week the popular uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was in its seventh month, the Nato-led aerial intervention that aided it in its sixth. It would be another month before everything would culminate in the capture and killing of Gaddafi at the hands of rebel forces in his hometown of Sirte, which would later - in early 2015 - become Isil's stronghold in Libya.

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Almost immediately after Gaddafi's demise disagreements over Libya's transition from dictatorship to democracy set in among those who then comprised the various political and armed branches of the rebel camp. In many ways, these disputes - ranging from petty personal rivalries to conflicting visions for Libya's future - inform the multi-faceted power struggle that sparked a civil war in 2014 and continues today.

So caught up in their country's current travails - including a months-long battle to rout Isil militants from Sirte - are Libyans at present that the publication this week of a damning British parliamentary committee report into Britain's role in the 2011 intervention and aftermath was not a major talking point.

The committee said it had seen "no evidence" that the UK government carried out a proper analysis of the nature of the rebellion in Libya before deciding to intervene. "It may be that the UK government was unable to analyse the nature of the rebellion in Libya due to incomplete intelligence and insufficient institutional insight, and that it was caught up in events as they developed," the report said.

But among those Libyans who have read the findings, one element has proved controversial, as has the fact no Libyans were called to give evidence to the Westminster committee. Many have taken issue with the report's assertion that Gaddafi's "threat to civilians was overstated" and UK government "selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi's rhetoric at face value".

By the time the Nato-led intervention to "protect civilians", which was called for by the Arab League and authorised by a UN security council resolution, began in late March 2011, hundreds of Libyans had been killed as regime forces tried to snuff out anti-Gaddafi protests in several cities, particularly Benghazi, where the first demonstrations had taken place in mid-February.

The eastern city of Benghazi had a long history of opposition to Gaddafi's 42-year rule. Memories were strong there of a 1996 massacre in a Tripoli jail, in which 1,200 political prisoners, a large number of them from eastern Libya, were killed by the regime. When Gaddafi, pictured, made blood-curdling speeches in the early weeks of the uprising against him, threatening to cleanse Benghazi "street by street", few in the city were under any illusions about how he intended to punish the city.

I was in Benghazi at the time and recall how frightened and jittery people were before the UN resolution passed. The first air strikes targeted a long regime convoy of tanks and trucks mounted with multiple rocket launchers that had already reached the city's outskirts. While we will never know what might have happened if the Nato-led intervention had not taken place, many in Benghazi feared the worst from the famously mercurial Gadaffi

The fact the French, British and US-led intervention later evolved into an undeclared goal of regime change is a matter of debate among Libyans today. It has been interesting to observe the revisionism that has crept into the Libyan conversation about 2011, what happened that year and why. Some Libyans - including a number who played key roles in the post-Gaddafi period - have become conspiracy theorists, others have expressed regret given the instability that plagues Libya today.

The result of the intervention, the report states, "was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi-regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil in north Africa."

It refers to the blame game that has ensued since, with US President Barack Obama publicly accusing the UK and France earlier this year of not doing enough to support Libyans with post-Gaddafi stabilisation and reconstruction. Libya, he declared, had become a "shit-show".

While most Libyans believe those countries that participated in the 2011 intervention could have and should have done more in the aftermath, particularly in relation to tackling the challenge posed by the constellation of militias that emerged during and after the uprising, some are also willing to acknowledge that a great many of the high hopes of the early days were dashed on the rocks of greedy and exclusionary politics as various Libyan factions vied to control the country's hydrocarbon wealth. That struggle over Libya's oil reserves - the largest in Africa - continues to wrack the country today, driving civil war and allowing a space for Isil to expand until recently. There are few signs of it ending anytime soon.

@MaryFitzgerld www.mary-fitzgerald.com

Irish Independent

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