Sometimes a conflict just doesn’t fit in to our idea of how life works. In Libya NATO intervened to protect heroic rebels, the capital fell and the mad dictator Gaddafi was overthrown. End of story, happy ending. The aftermath of what has happened isn’t so nice and clean, and doesn’t make for as good a story. This week though our attention went back, after the brutal murder of 21 Egyptian Christians by Libyan Islamists. Egypt’s response was to launch airstrikes on the militants, who also happen to be allied to Islamic State. With Egypt now looking for a UN resolution to support intervention, it’s a good time to look at what on earth happened in Libya, and how could it have been different.
Libya is now the new Somalia – a country without a government. This map from the BBC says it all. There are two parliaments claiming to be the ‘legitimate’ government. One is backed by the UN – for what that’s worth – but the other controls the capital of Tripoli. Both are backed by coalitions of militias that arose during the revolution. There are also two southern areas of the desert controlled by tribal militias. Finally, numerous important cities are under the control of Islamist militants, including Benghazi (spilt between different forces), and Derna. The militants controlling this last city have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, and are led by veterans of the war in Syria.
So how has the triumphant revolution led to utter disaster? There are a few different people or causes we can look to:
Gaddafi – During the 42 years he ruled Libya, the country’s civil society was systematically broken down. Any sources of unity besides his rule were discouraged, and even the army was kept weak. This created a country with no experience of unity, democracy or cooperating to solve differences.
The revolution – Partially because of this, the revolution wasn’t a clean one with a rebel group vs. the government. Different militias cropped up in different cities to fight the government where they could, and this created a whole lot of groups who thought they had the right to determine the future of Libya.
The militias – These militias then showed very little interest in cooperation. This was partially thanks to the lack of democratic experience, but also simply due to greed and lust for power. After a gun has gained you power, it’s hard to put it down again.
The outside world – When NATO intervened in Libya in 2011, they kept bombing until the moment Gaddafi was lynched. After that – nothing. There has been no real effort to support any Libyan government, no operations to disarm militias and impose peace, no financial aid to restart the economy. The Arab League has also been noticeably absent. With the Gulf states busy aiding Syrian rebels, the region hasn’t had much time to help the rebels who actually succeeded. Even the African Union has ignored the country which was a founding member. Libya simply wasn’t important enough to spend time on.
This could have gone so differently. It would have been the perfect chance for the international community to come together to help rebuild the Libyan state. This wouldn’t have had to have been forced imperialism, as after the rebels triumphed, the French and British leaders were welcomed as heroes in Benghazi. Troops from either NATO or the Arab League could have provided the security and rule of law that Libya so badly needed, allowing a new Libyan government to make decisions and set up institutions without having to deal with armed gangs. Instead the world turned its back, allowing the men with guns to determine the country’s path.
Only now, as the plague of Islamic State spreads to Libya, is it back in the spotlight. One thing is for sure though – airstrikes on Islamist militants will be absolutely worthless in restoring peace to Libya. The country needs a real effort from its regional neighbours and the West to save it from those men with guns.