The State(s) We’re In

Libya flagIt has been a long time since I wrote for this site about Libya.

The summer’s ongoing refugee crisis, as well as a series of media appearances to discuss and debate it, and a recent short visit to Greece, have combined to take priority from North Africa’s failing state.

It would be a relief to say that Libyan affairs had improved in the last few months – that the ongoing four-sided Civil War had ended, that IS had been removed from Sirte (and Libya in general), and that the state’s two squabbling, illegitimate and powerless governments had arrived at an agreement.

Sadly, but predictably, nothing could be further from the truth.

Libya (and its Western neighbour Tunisia) is a state close to my heart. I lived there immediately after its first Civil War (which deposed Muammar Ghaddafi) and my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis (available now) contains the first-hand accounts of Libyan and Tunisian citizens – soldiers as well as those who fled the fighting – as well as refugees from across the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, of their lives and experiences to date, and their hopes and fears for the future.

My time there introduced me to the real people at the centre of a crisis we have this summer seen hit the headlines across Europe, and kept me committed to working on saving and improving lives across the world.

And Libya – and the state it’s in – has become increasingly important to the European and global situation.

Because it was NATO which led the aerial campaign against Ghaddafi in 2011, and left unaided a state with literally no government structure and (outside Ghaddafi’s criminalised coterie) no-one with any experience of governing.

Because those people travelling from Libya to the EU (very few are from Libya itself) show the vast geographical extent of the crisis, having originated from all over the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa; and because roughly one in three of the people who have arrived in the EU as refugees this summer have arrived not in Greece (where almost all are Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian or Iraqi) but in Italy – that is, a third of all the people to have entered the EU since May have travelled through Libya.

At present, Libya is mired in a war in which two illegal militia groups claim to support one or other of the state’s two powerless, illegitimate governments, while another two militias – one, Ansar al-Sharia based in Benghazi and affiliated to Al Qaeda, and the other IS, recently expelled from Derna in Libya’s far north east and currently in control of Sirte, centrally-positioned on Libya’s major coast road – are also battling to seize the state.

The causes are widespread, and include NATO activities during and after the deposing of Muammar Ghaddafi. but the war actually broke out in May 2014 when a disgraced former General, Khalifa Haftar, who had been part of the group which raised Ghaddafi to power but spectacularly fell out with him after a botched mission in Chad, simultaneously attacked Ansar Al Sharia in Benghazi, and opened fire on Libya’s elected parliament in Tripoli.*

(* these events, and what led up to them, are detailed in the final section of The Toss of a Coin)

The war has caused thousands of sub-Saharan Africans (and many people from the Middle East), many of whom might have settled in Libya while they waited for the situations in their homelands to improve enough to return, to choose instead to rush north, fleeing for a second time conflict which would otherwise end their lives.

It has also enabled IS to gain a strong – though not yet anywhere near as strong as in Iraq or Syria – presence in areas of north Libya; just a short sea journey from the EU itself.

But primarily, it has both intensified an existing humanitarian crisis: forcing tens of thousands of men, women and children fleeing war, terror, oppression, starvation and lack of access to basic medicine to endure warfare once again, attempting to dodge bullets and bombs long enough to board unsafe boats to risk death by drowning; while at the same time creating an entirely new one: casting Libya’s 6m people into a grim war which might at any time claim their lives, devastating an already weakened state, wrecking the educations of a generation of children, and disrupting supplies of money, water and food.

Against this background, the latest series of reconciliation and future planning negotiations have been taking place this month between Libya’s two illegitimate governments – the HoR and GNC.

The HoR (House of Representatives) is made up of the politicians who won Libya’s May 2014 elections (against a backdrop of the start of the Civil War started by Khalifa Haftar and enthusiastically engaged in by the major enemies of his illegal ‘Operation Dignity’ militia, ‘Libya Dawn’, or ‘Fajr’). It is the ‘government’ Haftar claims to support (though his force began fighting before the HoR even existed), and which has been officially recognised by the international community.

However, in the face of war, and the effective collapse of the Libyan state, it is entirely powerless, and relies of Haftar’s illegal force for survival. Late last year, it was officially declared illegitimate by Libya’s High Court (details in The Toss of a Coin).

Nor is its rival, the GNC (General National Congress) any better. Its members are almost all politicians who had sat in the parliament which had existed before May 2014’s national elections (the remainder are those elected in May 2014 who refuse to serve in the HoR), and relies upon the illegal Fajr militia (a conglomeration of forces from Misrata and other cities, which had opposed Ghaddafi; many have a religious motivation, but despite propaganda to the contrary from Haftar, few if any are fundamentalists. Both Fajr and Dignity are illegal militias, but it is Fajr, rather than Dignity, which has directly battled IS, while Dignity, rather than Fajr, has fought against Ansar Al-Sharia) for its continued existence.

The best one could say for the GNC is that it has severely overrun its mandated period of governance (the HoR’s own mandate ends on 20th October). The worst – and entirely accurate – thing one could state is that it is, like the HoR, illegitimate, powerless, and entirely reliant on an illegal band of violent, heavily-armed and ruthless men for its survival.

‘Peace’ talks between the two have been fraught, and have so far taken several months. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), led by the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative Bernardino Leon, has led a process in which – not least because of UNSMIL itself – both sides have threatened to end all discussion, and which in any case, because none of the four groups actually fighting in Libya have been invited, is extremely unlikely to result in peace in Libya, lasting or otherwise. I have written on this extensively elsewhere on this site.

But despite these reservations, I have also noted elsewhere that these talks – which amongst other things aim to create a new national government, regulate Libya’s armed forces and outlaw and remove illegal militias from the state – are literally the only chance Libya has of peace (albeit a very small chance indeed) and that they must not fail.

On 1st September, following a summer in which GNC actually withdrew its representatives from the talks (once again, dealt with elsewhere on this site, but in short, its members walked because Leon and the UN rewrote a previous agreement at the behest of the HoR, without any consultation with GNC), Leon and the GNC re-opened talks, in Skhirat, Morocco.

Ten days later, Leon addressed a press conference, saying: ‘We are starting a new round of talks, which we hope will be the final round. The deadline set, of 20th September, must be the last one, that will allow Libya to get out of this crisis.’

He cited as reasons for urgency civilian deaths across the state, the seizure by IS of the Libya Central Bank branch in Sirte (IS looted more than US$1m from the bank’s vault) and kidnappings and murders by IS in Sirte.

I have mentioned before that Sirte is an extremely important place for me. I lived there when I was based in Libya, and formed close friendships with many of its residents. It is a central part of The Toss of a Coin and many of the interviews within the book’s Libya section are with people from the town. It is extremely difficult to accept that some of those people (I now know some have escaped) are threatened daily by maniacal gun-wielding members of the world’s most vicious, least reasonable organisation.

Nor have matters slowed. On Wednesday (16th September), IS seized the faculty housing of Sirte University – an institution I have visited and spent time at – for its members (rumours that these members are reinforcements, arriving to bolster its presence in Sirte in the face of continued civilian revolt and predictions of a strike by Fajr upon it, are certainly possible, but as yet unconfirmed), and two days before, its leader in the town, Hassan al-Karami, announced on local radio that IS intends to set up a religious court next month (among other things, he claimed the court would try people believed to have worked for Ghaddafi) and that the people of Sirte must ‘repent for their sins’ before then.

The charge for anyone who refuses to do so will be ‘apostasy’ – a ‘crime’ IS punishes with execution.

As well as Leon and members of the GNC and HoR, the talks were attended by ambassadors and special envoys from the UR, France, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE, UK, and USA.

But on 15th September, just five days before the deadline by which agreement must be reached, the HoR withdrew all of its representatives from the talks.

It is still not entirely clear why it did so – either in terms of which parts of the ‘updated’ agreement, in which the GNC had now had a chance to take part, the HoR disagreed with, or which parts of the HoR itself found the agreement unacceptable.

In itself, this lack of clarity is not necessarily a negative: it has enabled the HoR to get its house in order behind closed doors, and hopefully without raising objection or suspicion among the GNC’s own delegation. But it is extremely likely that two points – each demanded by the GNC – may have been central to the walk-out.

The first is that the political agreement on the table specifically states that the new Libyan government’s legislative body – the only body allowed to pass laws in all of Libya – should be made up of members of the HoR. The GNC, however, demands that the agreement must include a statement that the HoR itself is illegitimate.

On the face of it, this is a cosmetic request: the HoR’s mandate runs out on 20th October, after which point it must either cease to exist, or exist in direct contravention of its own laws (the sharper-eyed amongst you may have noted that the GNC is already doing exactly this), and the new national government will not be the HoR, but an entirely new body which, by entering the agreement, the GNC will be accepting as legitimate.

But it is a matter of some import to the GNC, which is attempting with this demand to alter the tone of the entire political debate in the state, from one in which the HoR claims – largely due to the wildly inaccurate statements of Haftar – that the GNC is a group of fundamentalist maniacs attempting to seize Libya through terror, to one in which the HoR itself recognises the complexities of a situation in which it, too, lacks legitimacy (for balance, I believe it would be reasonable for the statement to read that neither the GNC or HoR are in any way legitimate).

The second GNC demand runs rather deeper. It wishes a clear statement to be included in the agreement that Khalifa Haftar will not be allowed to hold any position of influence in the new Libyan military, or within the new Libyan government.

The reasons the HoR may balk at this are understandable: Haftar – through both his illegal arms and illegal acts – is literally the only reason the HoR continues to exist (again, balance: Fajr’s illegal arms and illegal acts are the only thing propping up the GNC). It would be insane for HoR to bite the hand that feeds it, unless under circumstances in which an acceptable alternative to the HoR’s current situation are at least a virtual certainty.

Equally, a number of its members – despite the lack of any evidence at all – actually do agree with Haftar, that the GNC and its members are a dangerous body, hell-bent on seizing control of Libya and twisting it into an illiberal caliphate.

But for the GNC, Haftar is the red line. It was members of the GNC who suffered when Haftar ordered militia members to open fire on the Libyan parliament in Tripoli; it is GNC members who suffered when Haftar called in airstrikes from Egypt and the UAE on Libya’s capital Tripoli: and it is GNC members who have repeatedly, and groundlessly, been called terrorists and fundamentalists by Haftar.

Whichever group one chooses to side with, (for the record, neither seems especially reliable or trustworthy), the GNC’s objections to Haftar are obvious, and seem reasonable.

In the end, on the day I write this (19th September), the HoR returned to the negotiations, stating that its ‘internal dispute’ had been resolved. The entire affair was an important reminder that both Libya’s ‘governments’ have serious and deeply-held concerns and problems with one another (as the HoR was ‘resolving’ its internal dispute, other of its representatives were working to prevent companies who work with the GNC from exporting oil from Libya – even where those firms were exporting oil from regions nominally governed by the GNC, while on 16th September, the GNC captured a Russian-flagged vessel attempting to smuggle oil from the Western port of Zuwara).

But it is also a symbol for some hope. Both the GNC and HoR have now been to the brink, and both have returned to the negotiating table, to attempt to overcome their differences.

It is not much, perhaps, but it may be the most promising sign in today’s war-torn, collapsing, Libya.


Of course, whatever happens in Libya, we cannot – and should not – ignore what is happening elsewhere, as this extraordinarily complex and challenging international crisis unfolds.

On Monday, (15th September) the EU agreed a system to settle some 120,000 of the 250,000 people to have entered Europe since the start of this summer. Yet in the days that have followed, Hungary – a state through which many of those who land in Greece are attempting to pass to reach Germany and other EU nations – has erected a second wall on its border, meaning that it has now blocked all crossings not only from Serbia, but from Croatia (from which many refugees have attempted to enter Hungary since the latter state built a wall between itself and Serbia).

I am on record as stating that Hungary’s record and attitude in regards to the international crisis is unacceptable – that it has forgotten that the people attempting to reach safety are human beings, deserving of understanding and kindness – but this measure is indicative of a wider issue, and one I raised in my last post on this site: individual nation states simply cannot be trusted to respond to international crises of this kind, and this magnitude.

Not only is Hungary behaving extraordinarily poorly, it is also attempting – by literally throwing up walls – to abnegate its own responsibilities towards people in need, and force states around it to make up for its blind refusal to live up to the promises it made when joining the EU (the irony is, of course, that the majority of refugees do not wish to be in Hungary – they are hoping simply to pass through on their way to Germany).

This is not only unacceptable from a moral and human perspective, or even from a political one (Hungary is now seriously in breach of EU statements on refugees, which include the line ‘Asylum is a fundamental right; granting it is an international obligation… In the EU, countries share the same fundamental values and States need to have a joint approach to guarantee high standards of protection for refugees.’ it is now seriously risking international security.

The Croatian PM Zoran Milanovic has stated clearly that his country will respond to Hungary’s flagrant disregard for international law by ‘forcing’ Hungary to accept refugees. Hungarian ministers have responded by calling him ‘pathetic’. Though this is only a ‘war of words’, so far, it is also a serious exchange, and we should recognise that Hungary’s actions are a genuine risk not only to human life, but also to general European peace and stability.

The solution – as mentioned in my last blog – is to allow the EU itself to set quotas and centrally operate the system by which desperate people are allowed to enter, and where they stay until it is safe to return home. Hungary – and to a certain and shameful extent the UK and Spain – show why the alternative is unworkable and unacceptable.


A short note on Tunisia, where thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against the ‘Economic Reconciliation Law’, which they believe may grant amnesty to corrupt members of the regime of former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Though the law claims to demand that former state employees pay money they had embezzled back to the country – in return for an amnesty which would mean they face no further prosecution for those crimes – serious concerns remain about the law’s implications, including that it effectively means those who stole money from Tunisia during Ben Ali’s rule will escape the consequences of their crimes.

The protestors, who took to the streets of major Tunisian cities last Saturday (12th September), held signs reading ‘Your law is not about reconciliation; it’s about impunity’ and ‘We Want Accountability’.

The ability of Tunisians to take to the streets without fear of violence is a mark of just how far ahead of its ‘fellows of the Arab Spring’ it sits. In Egypt, protest against the government receives police violence and results in lengthy prison sentences, while in Libya and Syria, not only are laws not being passed at all, ongoing warfare makes any trip outside a risk.

But just because other states are worse, does not mean we should not take the concerns of Tunisian people seriously. It is a state now governed by Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently called a state of emergency which included a ban on all protest, and who served under Ben Ali himself. The suspicions of the public are understandable, and should not be ignored, regardless of what is happening in other North African and Middle Eastern states.

Tunisia is the sole remaining success story of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Its progress must not be eroded either by representatives of the repression which came before, or by ignoring its government’s transgressions just because they are smaller than those of others, or that government exists at all.


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