Libya – failed state par excellence

Faraj Alasha asks whether, in the event of General Haftarʹs forces taking control of the Libyan capital Tripoli, its population will embrace and support him? Or will his forces be worn down by attacks inside the city, thus ushering in a new chapter of bloodletting?

By Faraj Alasha

Libya is a failed state. There is no single political system. There is no single authority. There is no single government. There is no single military force with a monopoly over the possession and lawful use of weapons. Thatʹs why it is such a spectacular failure.

It is really a proto-state. As history teaches us, wars create states, when one power asserts itself over its rivals, extends its control over the entire land and establishes a single authority of whatever form or system of government. It is up to the consciences of the governed and their willingness to forge their own destiny. Until that point, the ordinary citizens of Libya will remain hostage to the open struggle between the warring factions that are jostling for power and control over the countryʹs oil wealth, fuelled by the agendas of regional and international powers.

War is a terrible thing. It is often said that when war breaks out, hell opens its gates, as it is doing right now on Tripoliʹs outskirts. It is a long-drawn-out battle to control the centre of political decision-making and the oil revenues. It is being fought, on the one side, by the "Libyan Army" led by General Khalifa Haftar, a disciplined force with a clear chain of command, superior numbers and overwhelming firepower. It does not hide the fact that it is supported by regional powers such as Egypt and the UAE.

On the other side, the "Libyan Army" faces forces (backed by Qatar and Turkey) which were mobilised in haste in order to repel General Haftarʹs assault on the capital. They comprise assorted militias, mostly made up of civilians and headed by dozens of local warlords who hail from Tripoli, Misrata and the surrounding areas.

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They all have a common interest in preventing General Haftar from taking control of Tripoli and, most particularly, from taking control of the Central Bank and with it, the oil revenues. Meanwhile, Tripoliʹs two million inhabitants are suffering the consequences of being caught in the middle of a bloody and destructive conflict to control the state and all its worth.

What is happening in Libya now is the result of economic, social and cultural policy, not to mention the ins and outs of four decades of Gaddafiʹs rule and personal whims. His rule was akin to that of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah a millennium ago.

Libyaʹs plight is a result of four decades of one-man rule

Gaddafiʹs was a fascistic, individualistic rule with ludicrous ideological misconceptions. They included drawing up plans to disrupt state institutions and turn them into functional tools for the sake of his imaginings and desires as "the one and only leader".

His rule also saw a deliberate neglect of the countryʹs physical infrastructure as well as its education and health services and its economic production. In a country swimming in oil and gas, he was a tyrant who despised those over whom he ruled as if he had a vendetta against them born of some hidden abuse in childhood.As it was one-man rule, when Gaddafi was captured and killed in an abominable manner, the whole form and substance of his state collapsed, his army disintegrated and the police vanished. Chaos ensued and armed mobs assumed the mantle of revolutionaries.

Democracy is available over the counter without a prescription

In his famous Prolegomena (Al-Muqaddimah), Ibn Khaldun spoke about the logic of the historical maxim: "the destruction of civilisation and the civilisation of destruction".  According to him, a new group can only come to the fore upon the ruins of another defeated group, something that has belatedly become known in political sociology as "creative chaos". In other words, in the cold light of history, modern democracy and the first universal declaration of human rights grew out of the terrible and bloody chaos of the French Revolution.

Thereʹs no point in trying to re-invent the wheel. In the 21st century, democracy is available without a prescription like aspirin, unless the system in question is in the so-called Arab world. Take Libya for example; whatʹs happening in the way of political chaos and continued fighting is only natural after the collapse of a dictatorship. The facade of Libya as a proper state died alongside Gaddafi. Weapons have spread aplenty throughout the population. There is no possibility of a Libyan state being achieved through dialogue amid the jungle of weaponry and the loss of any collective national sense of identity resulting from four decades of tyranny.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his country was "deeply concerned" by the fighting near the Libyan capital and called on the forces of Field Marshal Haftar to cease their attacks "immediately". Pompeo said in his statement that: "We have made plain that we are opposed to the military offensive launched by Haftarʹs forces. We urge the immediate cessation of these military operations against the Libyan capital." The "Government of National Accord" in Tripoli and the warlords welcomed Pompeoʹs statement warmly, seeing it as definitive international support in their confrontation with General Haftar.

About a week later, however, the White House announced that U.S. President Donald Trump had spoken by phone with the "Libyan National Army commander", Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The U.S. president acknowledged "the crucial role of the Field Marshal in combatting terrorism and securing Libyaʹs oil resources" and he affirmed the need to oversee "Libyaʹs transition to a stable democratic political system".Libya – an arms market awash with petrodollars

The White Houseʹs disclosure came a day after the U.S. and Russia refused to back a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya. Let us explore for a moment the surprise agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Indeed itʹs exceptional, dictated by the intersection of interests between them. For Russia, Libya is a very important geo-political centre of influence and it was a rich source of arms purchases for four decades under the "Brotherly Leader".

Meanwhile, Trump is banking on General Haftar fighting terrorism, protecting the oil wells and ports, and ensuring the flow of oil to world markets. Trumpʹs bet is based on reports by his national security agencies, which showed that the forces fighting alongside Fayez al-Sarraj and his Presidential Council and government are teeming with Islamist militias, part extremist and part terrorist (including the remnants of al-Qaida, IS, and the group who murdered the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi in 2012) as well as criminal militias dealing in drugs, oil and people.

Libyan general Khalifa Haftar; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (photo: Reuters/picture-alliance/Getty Images)
Another proxy war: Haftar, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Trump, now controls nearly 90 percent of Libya. The Government of National Accord and Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, count the EU, Turkey and Qatar among their supporters. Along with Qatar, Turkey aims to form a counterweight in Libya – once part of the Ottoman Empire – to its regional rivals in the Middle East

As for the present situation, after almost four months General Haftarʹs forces have taken control militarily of nearly 90 percent of the country, including the outskirts of the capital. The outcome of the intense fighting remains uncertain and both sides continue to reject a ceasefire.

The militias amassed inside the capital and its suburbs are utterly adamant in their refusal to stop fighting, as has been voiced by their political front the Presidential Council (which is recognised internationally, for diplomatic reasons). Reflecting the stance of the various militias, they insist that General Haftarʹs forces should return to their positions before their April 4 attack on Tripoli.

Over and beyond this, according to their loud rhetoric, General Haftar should not have any personal role in any dialogue or negotiation over the future of the country, because he is seen by them as a war criminal. Despite all this, they lack the power required to repel his forces, especially after the hardcore militias from Misrata sustained such heavy losses that their people even took to the streets, calling for information about the fate of their sons amid the rising death toll. In other words, it is highly likely that General Haftarʹs forces will soon enter the capital and take control of sensitive sites in and around the city.

But what next?! .. Will Tripoliʹs inhabitants become a popular recruiting ground for the youth forces of the cityʹs major districts? Or will the city become the target of an exhausting guerrilla campaign which will open the door to a new chapter of blood and destruction?

Faraj Alasha

© 2019

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton