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Libya’s frustrating quest for itself

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • May 02, 2016

    On 31 March 2016, a new government team led by Fayez Mustafa al Serraj reached Tripoli by boat from Tunis. The team had been waiting in Tunis for a while and had to abandon plans to fly in as the airspace was closed by another government based in Tripoli, termed “the government of national salvation”. Mysteriously enough, “the government of national salvation” decided to dissolve itself within days of the arrival of the new Serraj government.

    The Serraj government is the result of a long process of consultations, among some Libyans and some interested foreign governments, mainly from the West, led by UN official Martin Kobler, a German career diplomat, who acted virtually as the midwife. There is yet another government based in Tobruk in the east. That government has not yet accepted the new government in Tripoli. The Central Bank, the Libyan National Oil Company, and the Sovereign Fund of Libya have pledged allegiance to the new government in Tripoli. When can we expect to see Libya having a single government and starting the daunting journey towards democracy, considering that Gaddafi, during his 42- year long rule, had methodically destroyed any institution that stood in the way of his megalomaniacal autocracy?

    Before trying to answer the question, it will be useful to go into Libya’s recent history and raise one or two questions. As far as recent history is concerned, we need to look at four periods: the Italian occupation of Libya starting in 1911-12; Libya’s liberation in 1943 by the UK and France and its emergence as a single state under the auspices of the United Nations in 1951; the take-over by Gaddafi in 1969 and his rule ending in 2011; and the post-Gaddafi chaos from which Libya is trying to recover.

    Italian Occupation

    Under the Ottomans who controlled the coastal region of what is known as Libya from 1551 onwards, there was no single political entity called Libya. There were three vilayats (provinces), Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, each administered separately. In 1911-12, Italy, wanting to be an imperial power holding colonies, invaded Tripoli and easily defeated the dying Ottoman Empire. Benito Mussolini who captured power in Italy in 1922, wanting to recreate the glories of ancient Rome, pursued with much vigour and singular cruelty the project of Italy’s overseas expansion. By 1934, Italy declared the foundation of Italian Libya at a cost of 80,000 Libyan lives as the League of Nations and the West looked the other way. In 1937, Mussolini paid an imperial visit to Libya and got himself declared as Protector of Islam. The Libyans fought valiantly against the foreign aggressor, but the powers of the day did not want to, or dare to, annoy Mussolini.

    Western Colonial Shenanigans

    When World War II broke out in 1939, Libyans were divided as to whom to support. In 1940, many thought the Axis Powers would win and some Libyans joined the Italians. But Idris, the future king, calculated that the Allies would win and thousands of Libyans joined the British and fought against Italy. In 1941, Italy invaded Egypt which was then under British control, and General Archibald Wavell, the future Viceroy of India, administered a crushing defeat on Italy at Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. What is remarkable is that Italy had ten divisions and Wavell only two. Another name associated with India is General Claude Auchinleck, the last British Chief of the Indian Army, who defeated the redoubtable General Rommel. Cyrenaica fell to the UK in November 1942 and Tripoli in February 1943. French forces, with the approval of the British, came in from Chad and occupied Fezzan.

    The French wanted to keep Fezzan, and the Libyans were worried that Fezzan might be detached from Libya. The 1945 Potsdam Conference of the US, UK, and USSR, decided that Italy should not get back its colonies. However, political machinations continued. The USSR wanted trusteeship over Tripolitania for itself, with France getting Fezzan and the UK getting Cyrenaica. The 1947 peace treaty with Italy enigmatically stated that the present status of Libya should continue till a final decision, leaving it open for Italy to come back. The UK and Italy hatched a plan for Italy to get Tripolitania, the UK to get Cyrenaica, and France to get Fezzan. Over protests from the people of Libya, the plan was adopted at the Political Affairs Committee of the UN General Assembly. But, fortunately for Libya, the plan failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority at the General Assembly, falling short by a single vote.

    An Independent Libya

    In November 1949, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of an independent Libya by January 1952. Adrian Pelt of The Netherlands, as Commissioner for Libya, led the talks that resulted in the declaration of independence by King Idris in December 1951. Talks were required since the three provinces were together only for a brief period under Italy. In short, Libya narrowly escaped a Trusteeship status, a euphemism for colonialism.

    Idris was an enlightened monarch, but he was seen as partial to Cyrenaica where he was from and he had less support elsewhere. By the late 1950s, petrol was discovered. Following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, there was a strong pro-Nasser wave in the Arab world in the late 1950s and 1960s. 27-year old Muammar Gaddafi, a military officer and an ardent admirer of Nasser, staged a bloodless coup in 1969 when the king was in Europe.

    Gaddafi’s Libya

    Gaddafi closed down the military bases of the US and UK; nationalized the assets of Italian companies; expelled 13,000 Italians; and nationalized the oil industry. He supported a number of political movements abroad ranging from the fight against Apartheid in South Africa to the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Northern Ireland. He was vehemently opposed to Israel. By 1979, the US placed Libya on the list of states sponsoring terrorism. The 1988 crash of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie was blamed on Libya and Gaddafi became an international pariah.

    Gaddafi decided to restore himself. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US, Gaddafi agreed to stop his nuclear weapon programme. On Mandela’s advice, he consented to surrender the two Libyan nationals held responsible for the Lockerbie crash; and in 2003, he offered USD 2.7 billion as compensation to the families of those who died in the Lockerbie crash. By 2004, the US re-established diplomatic relations with Libya and Gaddafi ceased to be a pariah.

    In 2008, Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi went to Benghazi and in the presence of Gaddafi apologized for Italy’s past. “In the name of the Italian people,” Berlusconi said, “as head of government , I feel it my duty to offer an apology and make plain our sorrow for what happened many years ago, and which affected so many of your families.” The two states signed a treaty of friendship and Italy agreed to pay USD 5 billion in goods and services over a period of 25 years by way of compensation for its 30-year occupation. Bilateral relations between Italy and Libya got intensified. Before the troubles started in 2011, Italy was getting 25% per cent of its oil and 10 per cent of its gas from Libya. Italy’s oil company, ENI, was heavily engaged in Libya. The distance from the Libyan coast to Italy’s Lampedusa Island is only 100 miles. For obvious reasons, Italy wants to be a major player in Libya.

    Ouster of Gaddafi

    As the Arab Spring dawned, Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell in January 2011, and Egypt’s Mubarak in February. Gaddafi, watching with much anxiety, was determined to hold on to his position. He was convinced that his people adored him. However, he did not want to take any chance and tried to put down with force the first protests. To his dismay, the protests spread. But he was in no danger of being dislodged from power till the West decided to intervene militarily. Western media carried grossly exaggerated reports of Gaddafi’s plans to kill the protesters and Gaddafi himself unwittingly assisted his foes by talking in terms of “killing the rats”.

    The UK, France, and Italy – Germany did not join – took a decision to dislodge Gaddafi from power with US concurrence. They took care to conceal that their intention was to effect a regime change. The Western media put out exaggerated reports to suggest that unless he is stopped Gaddafi was about to kill thousands of Libyans.

    UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 approved the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ over Libya and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. There was no appeal to Gaddafi and his opponents to sit down and sort out their difference. The resolution was passed with 10 votes in favour and five abstentions (Russia, China, India, Brazil, and Germany). The movers were able to outwit Russia and China who could have vetoed the resolution. Later, after NATO used its airpower to dislodge Gaddafi from power, these two countries regretted their decision not to veto the resolution.

    NATO carried out its military mission efficiently, mainly because Gaddafi was in no position to resist. His modest air-defence was neutralized in no time. In the name of protecting the civilian population, NATO targeted Gaddafi’s forces and destroyed them. Gaddafi, fleeing for safety, was detected by his foes and killed on the spot on October 20, 2011. The man who proclaimed himself the King of Kings was killed in an atrociously wicked way. NATO terminated its intervention by 31 October. The West walked out of Libya, naively hoping that the rebels it had supported will usher in a democratic government friendly to the West and will permit it to exploit the country’s oil wealth.

    The key question to ask is about the motivation of the West. Was the West primarily motivated by the moral urge to prevent a massacre? If so, why was there no similar intervention in Syria, a country with a much bigger population where Basher al Assad, much better armed than Gaddafi, was killing his protesting co-citizens? Obviously, the key difference lay in the fact that Libya has more oil than Syria, not to speak of the post-World War II trusteeship ambitions of the West.

    Chaos and Instability

    However, the West did not complete the job it had undertaken. It naively assumed that a democratic Libya friendly to the West will emerge after Gaddafi. For a while, it looked as though that Libya was going to start a more or less peaceful journey to a democratic destination. The National Transitional Council that assumed power even before Gaddafi’s death arranged for an election in July 2012 and a new government with Ali Zeidan as Prime Minister took office in November 2012. In March 2014, Ali Zeidan was dismissed by parliament. There was another general election in August 2014, but some members of the old parliament did not recognize the new parliament and Libya was saddled with two parliaments and two governments, one in Tripoli and another in Tobruk. Post-Gaddafi Libya was awash with weapons and militias, not answerable to the elected government. Libya resembled the state of nature posited by Thomas Hobbes where everyone waged war against everyone else.

    In a 2016 interview to the Atlantic Monthly, President Obama confessed that not planning for a post-Gaddafi Libya was one of his big mistakes. He blamed Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy for lack of diligence. The confident assumption that the West could have successfully planned for the post-Gaddafi Libya is worth questioning. Be that as it may be, whosoever be at fault, it is clear that the NATO military intervention was a big mistake. We do not know whether the West’s attempt at nation building in Libya would have succeeded. But the West had the moral obligation to make an attempt.

    There is some talk of sending a 6,000 strong army to Libya under Italian command, with soldiers coming from the UK and France also. The UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has been consistently inconsistent about his country’s plans to send troops to Libya. On 20 April, he said there was no plan to send troops. On 24 April, he said that he could not rule out the sending of troops. The West has been waiting for a request from the Serraj government. That government has been going slow on making the request as it is already seen as a government imposed by the West. The Serraj government needs an army and only the West is coming forward to assist it in building up a national army. We have to wait and watch which way the cat jumps.

    We have seen that the government at Tobruk has not decided to disappear. When there were two governments, one in Tripoli and another at Tobruk, it was the latter that was recognized by the West and, consequently, by the UN. Now, the UN has de-recognized that government.

    Recently, Distya Ameya, an Indian-flagged tanker, took 650,000 barrels of crude from Al Hareega, a port controlled by the Tobruk government. However, since the UN has ruled that only the Libyan National Oil Company can sell oil, the tanker was forced to off-load the crude at a port controlled by the Serraj government.

    Given the chaos and instability in Libya, it was inevitable that the Islamic State (IS), coming under pressure in Syria and Iraq, should seek to expand to Libya. The IS has established itself at Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi, controlling about 200 kms of the coast. Sirte is an oil port and the refinery at Ra’s Lanuf is in the area controlled by the IS. The question is whether the IS, which has about 6,000 fighters, will be prevented from selling oil by the West. The West has been trying to generate popular support for sending troops to Libya by arguing that it is necessary to destroy the IS in Libya, so close to Europe. Another argument is that there are about 800,000 potential immigrants in Libya eyeing Europe. NATO has already deployed some ships in the area.

    Coming back to the question of Libya’s march towards democracy, it is too soon to answer that question. The Serraj government might or might not survive and establish control over the whole of Libya. What is clear is that the West made a serious error of judgment, mainly owing to its greed. The Libyans are paying the price.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.