Disgrace: politics and murder in Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Syria

‘Disgrace; noun. Loss of reputation or respect as the result of a dishonourable action.’

‘Disgrace; verb. Bring shame or discredit on.’

At some point before the end of this month, Bernardino Leon, the United Nations’ Special Representative and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) will stand aside, to be replaced in the post by German diplomat Martin Kobler.

This has been expected for several weeks, now, and should have passed with only a summary of Leon and the UN’s (patchy) achievements in the 14 months since he first took the role.

Instead, Leon will leave Libya in disgrace.

The remarkable thing is just how unnecessary that is; the extent to which Leon has somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of – not victory, but at least competence.

On 1st September 2014, Libya was in its fourth month of civil war – its second such conflict in three years.

The war had been started by Khalifa Haftar, who had, in May, launched an attack on the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al Sharia militia in Benghazi and ordered a simultaneous attack on sitting politicians at Libya’s parliament in Tripoli (this attack was undertaken by the Zintan khetiba, and involved the militia firing missiles at the building and opening fire on the politicians within).

This dual action took place just over three months after Haftar had appeared live on national television and called for the Libyan government to be removed by a coup, under his leadership.

Haftar, however, once described by a Libyan historian as ‘the worst military leader in Libya’s history’, has not achieved this feat.

Instead, Libya now has two governments, neither legitimate and both equally powerless, in Tripoli and Tobruk.

The General National Congress (GNC), based in Tripoli, is propped up by the Misrata khetiba – the largest and strongest of Libya’s illegal militias – along with other armed groups, under the name Libya Fajr (Libya Dawn).

The House of Representatives, (HoR), made up of politicians who won their positions in an election held while Haftar’s war was already underway, is based in Tobruk, in Libya’s far east. It is reliant for survival on Haftar’s ‘Operation Dignity’ force, made up of some of Libya’s armed forces, and his allies in the Zintan militia.

Haftar’s force has so far failed to remove Ansar Al Sharia (now allied with some other religious groups in the Benghazi Shura Council) and true to its form elsewhere in the world, IS has taken advantage of the mayhem and chaos of the war to enter Libya. It currently controls Sirte, the city where Libya’s former dictator, Muammar Ghaddafi, was born, and where I lived following the state’s first civil war.

Against such a backdrop, Leon’s record appears reasonably neutral. The second Libyan civil war is still taking place, now in its 19th month of wrecking and ending Libyan people’s lives, but Leon has played no part in starting or promoting that war.

And in fact, he and his negotiating team have been the only consistent promoters of peace in the state, hosting and driving negotiations between the GNC and HoR aimed at setting up a new national government under which order and reconciliation could take place.

I have previously noted that such an agreement is by no means guaranteed to deliver stability, as neither the GNC nor HoR has the power to call off the illegal armed groups upon which they rely. But there is no escaping the fact that Leon and the UN have, for the last 14 months, represented the only hope of peace in Libya.

The negotiations were not always smooth – both sides had at different moments walked away from the process, only to be coaxed back soon after. But at least it was both sides who had had reason to feel aggrieved, rather than one side feeling the other was always given precedence: one must be grateful for small mercies concerning modern Libya.

And although the process has not yet delivered, it is clear that the final proposals for a ‘government of national accord’ presented by Leon on 8th October this year had the support of the majority of members of both the GNC and HoR, despite being rejected by hardliners in both ‘governments’.

He was criticised when he announced – many believed well ahead of time – the leading members of that government, but as I commented at the time, the negatives of this unusual decision could be balanced by the positive of presenting not just a concept of governance, but an actual government to be considered by the GNC and HoR.

Nor did its members – chosen from all areas of the country, and seemingly deliberately including leading legislators to whom the GNC (which was always to be the junior partner in the deal, as a result of most of its members not having won in the elections in which the HoR’s members won seats) would not object – betray any sense of ‘bias’ on behalf of Leon or the UN.

And yet Leon will leave Libya in disgrace, having taken an almost inexplicable course towards his retirement from UNSMIL.

One feature of Libya’s Second Civil War has been the implacable hatred by Khalifa Haftar of the Libya Fajr force – a hatred which appears to overstep even that expected from the leader of one force towards another he is fighting.

He has consistently claimed that Fajr – and indeed the GNC – are ‘Islamic extremists’ despite the fact that the majority of them are nothing of the sort, and that he has signally failed to engage IS; genuine and actual extremists, in any form of combat at either Sirte or even in the eastern city of Derna (Derna, a Libyan port city situated between Tobruk and Benghazi, was overrun by IS. It is to Haftar’s eternal shame that Al Qaeda, not his Dignity force, chased IS from the city. At Sirte, Fajr forces battled IS, again unassisted by Haftar’s illegal militia. Fajr was forced to retreat.)

In this plainly indefensible position, he has been backed by Egypt’s bloodstained military dictator Abdel Fatteh Al Sisi, and the absolutist monarchical states of the United Arab Emirates.

The reasons for this are complex, but effectively can be condensed to the following: the GNC’s members are largely (though not solely) comprised of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group which espouses democratic Islam.

Sisi, who murdered 1,000 people and maimed 4,000 on his way to power, and has jailed more than 18,000 political opponents since, staged his coup against the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood, shooting them from power, and has since been at pains to pretend it is a terrorist organisation. That it is not is clear to almost every other state on Earth (see below for more on Sisi and the Brotherhood).

The UAE, meanwhile, opposes the Brotherhood on the basis that though an Islamic political group, it is a democratic organisation – a position which sits badly with absolute monarchies (the largest absolute monarchy in the region, Saudi Arabia, also opposes the Brotherhood, but is the major backer of IS, and has as a result largely ignored Haftar).

Both Egypt and the UAE are known to have been providing Haftar with arms (Turkey and Qatar, which largely support the Brotherhood, have supplied Fajr) but far more serious, perhaps, is the fact that the two states united at the behest of Haftar to launch a series of air strikes against Tripoli and Misrata – the first strikes of this kind since the first Libyan Civil War ended in 2011.

Bernardino Leon is stepping down from his post leading negotiation between a ‘government’ backed by the UAE and another against which it has launched air strikes, for a role as director-general of the UAE’s ‘diplomatic academy’ – a think-tank based in Abu-Dhabi, the state’s capital, which aims to promote the UAE’s foreign policy and strategic relations, and train its diplomats.

In itself, this would be at the very least an uncomfortable decision.

But it is made worse by the fact that on 31st December 2014, he told the UAE’s foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan that he (Leon) was working to ‘eliminate’ and had a strategy to ‘completely delegitimise’ the GNC, and to ‘reinforce’ HoR.

He added that ‘all of my movements and proposals have been consulted with (and in many cases designed by) the HoR following Your request.’ (his capital ‘Y’, not mine)

He also states clearly his support for Haftar, the man who started the Second Libyan Civil War, and notes ‘as you know, I am not planning to stay (in Libya) for a long time. I am criticised for having been too tough on zero recognition to Tripoli and I am seen as biased in favour of HoR.’

(You can read the full e-mail at: www.middleeasteye.net/news/full-text-email-un-libya-envoy-bernardino-leon-uae-foreign-minister-1313023554)

It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine how a man charged with bringing peace to Libya could have written anything worse – an expression not only in favour of one ‘government’ ahead of the other, but also in favour of Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who started the conflict, leading one of the four illegal militias killing Libyans and casting the state into chaos.

Leon’s own statement on the revelation is: ‘The only defence I have against these attacks is my work. Read my proposals, the agreement and the government proposal. It has been considered by the Libyans from both camps as a fair proposal.’

Setting aside his incorrect use of the word ‘attacks’ (‘revelations’ would be more accurate) the statement is not entirely without worth: Leon’s proposals did  seem reasonable, and were largely accepted by moderates in both the GNC and HoR.

Perhaps even more revealingly, they were not accepted by extremists not only in the GNC, which we may expect if Leon is ‘anti-Tripoli’ but also in the HoR.

So what happened? It seems likely that one – or perhaps both – of two alternatives* took place.

First, that Leon, attempting to angle for a new job, and having met and been well-received in the UAE, was simply saying whatever he felt that state would want to hear. If this were the case, it would betray an almost unbelievable foolishness on Leon’s part – and a level of selfishness unbefitting any person with a say in the future of a nation.

The alternative is that he genuinely believed what he said at the time that he said it, but that as he worked on the negotiations, he realised that the politicians of the GNC were preferable to the warlord Haftar, and gradually moved towards a position in which the GNC could be included in Libya’s future, rather than being ‘eliminated’ by a UN representative.

This would at least go some way to explaining his proposals for political solutions. On the other hand, while bias is unfortunately a characteristic of almost all people in almost every situation, it is deeply concerning that a man representing the UN in a state at war should have been not only committed to the cause of a violent illegal warlord, but so strongly committed that he was willing to say so to a leading member of an interested government.

(*there is a third possibility – that Leon’s repeated suggestions of new political agreements were designed to be unacceptable to the GNC, which would repeatedly reject them and then be delegitimised as an opponent of peace. If this were his intention, however, it failed: largely because the HoR consistently rejected each proposal as well) 

It is of no surprise that the GNC has contacted the UN for an urgent response – though it is undeniable that for at least some of its members this is set to be used simply as an excuse to postpone any meaningful political agreement for Libya even further.

So whether he was motivated to write the mail through selfishness or stupidity, for personal gain or because he genuinely believed a warlord deserved greater priority than peaceful politicians, Leon’s legacy to Libya is in fact to have driven back yet further a political agreement he worked to deliver.

He is certainly not as bad as Haftar, nor the Fajr militia members. He deserves greater credit than most members of either the GNC or HoR, and it should be obvious that he is a better man than the members of IS or Ansar Al-Sharia.

But that legacy is what means he leaves Libya in disgrace, and having disgraced the United Nations.


‘Disgrace’ may take more than one form, however, and can certainly differ in its level and extent.

Such was the case last week in the UK when Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed Egypt’s blood-stained military dictator Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi to Downing Street.

Sisi has brought disgrace to himself and to Egypt by shooting its only democratically-elected government from power in 2013, killing 1,000 people, maiming 4,000 and imprisoning 18,000 political opponents.

He has compounded this disgrace by outlawing political opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood to which the government he shot from power was aligned as well as many liberal groups, and sentencing the President he ousted, Mohamed Morsi, to death.

He has added ridicule to this disgrace by declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, even though the only incident he based this claim on was a bombing for which another group claimed responsibility, and then disgraced Egypt’s justice system by having more than 700 people sentenced to death – and a further 420 jailed for 25 years – for the deaths of two police officers.

His final act, to date, has been to heap disgrace onto Egypt’s political system, first by ‘running’ for President in 2014 against two people who had already expressed their support for him and declaring he had won 96.1 per cent of the vote, and then by holding parliamentary elections in which the only two opponents to his ‘party’ were two groups who actually assisted his coup, and had declared their support for him before the election began.

The Egyptian people are so impressed by Sisi’s disgrace that just 26 per cent of them bothered to vote.

On Thursday 5 November, an Egyptian journalist asked David Cameron what he planned to do about the presence in the UK of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Cameron did not say, as he should have done: ‘We kowtowed to your, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s demand to run an investigation and it found no evidence the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organisation.’

Instead, he said that the report on the investigation would be released ‘soon’.

The fact is, this report should have been issued late in 2014, but was delayed, then was delayed again in March this year precisely because it found no evidence of Brotherhood terror activity. This is important because Saudi Arabia and the UAE are extremely wealthy allies of the UK, and Egypt is deemed as ‘strategically important’.

So, because of its fear that they may be angered by the report’s refusal to wrongly condemn a political organisation as terrorists, and as a result withdraw support from the UK at home and abroad, we have simply refused to release it.

As he cowered behind a podium in his own government residence, alongside a smiling murderous dictator, one could not quite say Cameron’s disgrace was the greatest in the room.

But the UK Prime Minister should aim for something rather better than ‘not as bad as Sisi’.


One man who has not disgraced himself by association with Sisi is Recep Erdogan, President of Turkey.

Stories have been recirculated in the last fortnight about his repeated refusal to shake hands, or sit down to eat with the Egyptian, mainly by Turkish supporters of the former football star.

Sadly, it appears Erdogan’s aversion to Sisi is based more on his own sympathy with and support for the Brotherhood, rather than any great commitment to decency in public office and commitment to democratic rights.

Fresh from winning the Turkish general election (his AKP Party took 49.5 per cent of the vote and 317 of the 550 parliamentary seats, on a turnout of 85.18 per cent. The Left-wing/Kurdish amalgamated group, the HDP, passed the 10 per cent vote threshold necessary to take seats in the parliament, preventing the AKP winning a ‘supermajority’ which would have made passing Erdogan’s own plan to deliver himself even greater power, far easier), he ordered a series of arrests on TV stations and magazines critical of his leadership, including the two most senior staff members of Noktar, which had carried a front-page story claiming a ‘civil war’ had started.

They are to be charged with ‘attempting to bring down the government by force’.

It is a charge almost as ludicrous as that of ‘insulting Erdogan’ levelled against two boys, aged 12 and 13, who tore a poster of the President in Diyarbakir, a city with a Kurdish majority population. They face prison sentences of anything from 14 to 40 months.

Erdogan and Turkey deserves a great deal of credit for its excellent response to the Syrian Civil War and resultant refugee crisis, and his (to date) commitment to democratic elections.

But the arrest of children for tearing a poster, journalists for being journalists and political opponents and Kurds for opposing him politically certainly bring disgrace on him, and by association, Turkey as a whole.

And once again ‘being better than Sisi’ is not an appropriate ambition for a world leader.


Should Sisi ever display enough self-awareness to do so, however, even he could find a local leader who is more of a disgrace than himself.

Bashar Al-Assad has so far killed more than 200,000 of his own people in a civil war which he began, and in which he has consistently and relentlessly targeted the very civilians he is charged with protecting and governing.

On 30th October in another example of his propensity to murder Syrians, his airforce attacked a market in Douma – a city in a rebel-held area east of Damascus – killing 70 people and injuring 550.

On the same day, Assad’s forces also bombed Aleppo, killing 32 more people.

These massacres are not – as some Western observers have suggested – simply ‘collateral damage’ in Assad’s attempt to destroy the Free Syrian Army (neither strike was launched on IS-held areas). They are part of a consistent, concerted campaign to destroy any and all people who stand against him, including civilians whose protests are peaceful of only privately stated.

Whatever the outcome of Syria’s civil war (see http://www.roryokeeffe.co.uk/the-united-nations-syria-and-the-urgent-need-for-change/ for an examination of how and why the conflict must be brought to an end), Assad’s murder of civilians must see him tried in an international court. His massacres must not be forgotten in wider debate about IS, or lost in vague talk of ‘victims of war’.

The people of Douma, Aleppo, and countless other massacres must not be forgotten. Neither should Assad’s deliberate responsibility for them.

Disgrace, in this context, is too weak a word.


A week later, on Friday 6th November, 23 more people were killed by Russian airstrikes on Douma. At least three strikes were launched on the city’s Kouatly market.

It is extremely likely that these strikes were called in by the Syrian regime itself. But that is not an excuse. The responsibility for airstrikes and the deaths they cause is with those who launch them, not those who request them.

And this latest mass killing by Russia must be remembered when it claims to be ‘targeting IS’ in its airstrikes on Syria.



Not that the disgrace in Syria lies solely with Assad, or even with him and his Russian allies.

On 2nd November (Monday), Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Jaysh al Islam group had begun showing videos of kidnapped Syrian people placed in cages and paraded on streets in Eastern Ghouta, the region which includes Douma city.

The people trapped inside are believed to have been kidnapped by Jaysh al Islam and the Al Nusra militia – both of which oppose Assad.

They are of Alawite origin – the branch of Islam to which Assad also belongs and amongst whose members support for him is strongest – leading HRW and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights to suspect they are being used as human shields against further bombings.

Once again, the responsibility for acts of cruelty lies not with those one might argue ‘provoked them’ but with those who carried them out.

The targeting of Alawite Syrians – albeit stopping short of killing them – is just one more example of disgrace, and should not go unmentioned.

Rory O’Keeffe is the author of The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, available now.

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