by Austin Bay
October 3, 2017
The UN and western diplomats are trying to put Libya back together again.
Previous diplomatic attempts to glue the broken state have failed -- bloodily. The Libyan curse of regionalism is a major reason.
World leaders underestimated the damage done to Libyan society by dictator Muammar Gaddafi. During his four decades in power, Gaddafi savaged the country, leaving a legacy of torture and corruption. He exacerbated factional resentments. The factional resentments fed the regional rivalries and distrust that, in turn fired, the episodic warfare that has shredded Libya from 2014 through mid-2017.
Gaddafi's persistent warmongering and terror attacks made enemies of nations worldwide. Gaddafi tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In 1988, Libyan terrorists and intelligence officers, on orders from Gaddafi, used a bomb to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
When Libya's Arab Spring 2011 rebellion erupted, loathing for Gaddafi made supporting the rebels an easy decision for Egypt, Western Europe and the U.S. alike. Gaddafi was the problem, and his removal (preferably by exile) was the implicit goal. The pro-rebel coalition avoided the freighted term "regime change." U.S. President Barack Obama had scourged President George W. Bush for pursuing "regime change" in Iraq, with chaotic consequences.
The Obama Administration did use a term to describe its Libya policy and claimed Nelson Mandela coined it: "leading from behind." This purportedly meant America empowered other participants in a war-making anti-Gaddafi collaborative. Critics said the phrase confirmed Obama's Libyan operation was meandering, indecisive and inept.
Several analysts suggest that thinking of Libya as a collection of city-states helps explain the fractious politics. Within Libya, local, tribal and regional loyalties are stronger than national ties. Geography is involved. Libya is a narrow seacoast along a vast desert stretching south, deep into Africa. Rivalries between and among the Mediterranean seaport cities are a domestic political reality.
Tribal divisions persist. During the civil war, Berbers opened an anti-Gaddafi front in the Nafusa Mountains. They said they fought for Berber cultural rights and political autonomy.
The Romans called western Libya Tripolitania and eastern Libya Cyrenaica (after the ancient city of Cyrene). The old names, still occasionally used, record a historical divide. West versus east is another political factor.
In fact, east and west have separate parliaments, a matter which has remained one of the key disputes since 2014. In 2011, Gaddafi used the capital, Tripoli (in the west), as his political and military power base. The eastern seaports of Benghazi and Tobruk became rebel strongholds. 2017's western parliament, the General National Congress, sits in Tripoli. Tobruk hosts the east's House of Representatives.
In July 2012, Libya held a successful election, won by a secular coalition. However, security throughout the country was weak. Radical Islamic militias terrified civilians, west and east.
As the 2014 parliamentary elections approached, violence ripped the country. The Tobruk HoR emerged and claimed electoral legitimacy. A rump GNC, backed by Islamist political groups, remained in Tripoli.
In 2015, the UN helped form a "Government of National Accord" to unify the parliaments. Fayez al-Sarraj became prime minister. Tobruk rejected the GNA on the grounds Sarraj favored the west and was compromised by radical Islamist supporters.
Within the last year, Tobruk's Libyan National Army has managed to defeat most opposition factions in eastern Libya. The army commander, Khalifa Haftar, has emerged as a major political figure. Tobruk's army and Haftar have used battlefield victories as "glue" to begin re-building their half of Libya.
The diplomats have noticed. Perhaps Tripoli has as well. In May, mediators brought Haftar and Sarraj to Abu Dhabi. Egypt encouraged the meeting. In July they met Paris. They agreed to establish a ceasefire and have elections in 2018.
Sarraj still leads the internationally recognized government. However, Tobruk's HoR and Haftar continue to create order by defeating militants. In July, Haftar declared victory in Benghazi over a militant Islamist faction. This week the eastern government re-opened Benghazi's seaport. It had been closed for three years. The city celebrated.