Libya and the lessons of history

It remains a fact that many of the insurgent militias – including those associated with the most extreme and radical face of Islam – had been armed by Western countries in 2011 during the uprising against Gaddafi

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The worsening situation in Libya – and to a lesser extent also in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East – entails very worrying implications for Malta.

Foreign Minister George Vella recently hinted in a press interview that Malta’s neutrality clause – which ironically dates back to a time of international tension, also involving Libya – may need updating, as the legal provision does not protect Malta from ‘new’ threats.

That such threats may arise is independently confirmed by the fact that many Mediterranean countries – including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Spain, France, Portugal and Italy – are conducting joint anti-terrorism military exercises in conjunction with the US navy.

Even if one discounts the danger of a direct terrorist attack on Malta, the fact remains that the widespread unrest associated with the emergence of a violent Islamist subculture has already dangerously destabilised Libya, our closest neighbour to the south.

This already volatile situation threatens to escalate even further: with air strikes, reportedly carried out by the United Arab Emirates from bases in Egypt, suggesting that the conflict may broaden from an internal conflict to large-scale hostilities involving several countries.

At the same time, this threat poses a dilemma both for Malta and for the international community at large. In theory, the West (including Malta) has a responsibility to sustain the democratic transition in Libya by backing the al-Thinni government, which is the legitimate successor to the Zeidan government. Like many other European leaders, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat supported Zeidan by publicly endorsing – and in a sense legitimising – his government.

Moreover it remains a fact that many of the insurgent militias – including those associated with the most extreme and radical face of Islam – had been armed by Western countries in 2011 during the uprising against Gaddafi. This fact alone illustrates the short-sightedness of a policy that never looked beyond the immediate fall of the ousted Libyan dictator.

Faced with an escalating crisis that is partly of their own making, the same countries that contributed directly to the present armed conflict have ruled out military intervention in the foreseeable future. A joint statement signed by Washington, Paris, Berlin, Rome and London stressed that “outside interference in Libya exacerbates current divisions and undermines Libya’s democratic transition.”

At face value this appears to contradict the USA’s foreign policy in Iraq, where US air strikes have targeted strongholds held by the Islamic State (IS). It would be a mistake to view developments in Libya as unrelated to the self-proclamation of an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. In both cases, sectarian division is a driving force behind the violence. Benghazi militias have carried out IS-style beheadings, and likewise call for the establishment of a Sharia state.

Last week a group of Islamists in Benghazi issued a statement rejecting the idea of democracy and secular political parties in Libya.

It is therefore difficult to view the civil war raging in Libya as a ‘transition towards democracy’. But if this is the interpretation the West chooses to apply, then the question arises as to how best to facilitate this transition, without exacerbating matters further.

Nonetheless, while the conflict appears to be evolving into a war between radical and moderate versions of Islam, the underpinnings remain rooted in Libya’s economy. So far fighting has concentrated around strategic locations – oil fields, airports, etc. – suggesting that rival militias operating under different tribal allegiances are attempting to wrest as much control over the oil-rich country as possible.

These dynamics make it difficult to ‘pick sides’, as it were, because at present there is no clear indication of which of several emerging factions would exploit the country’s resources for the greater good of all Libyans, regardless of creed or tribe.

At the same time, the situation poses a very real threat of radical Islamisation of the region, with all the security risks this entails for surrounding countries.

At this point, the lessons of recent history may come in useful. The current upheavals in Iraq have widely been associated with shortcomings in strategic planning of the 2003 US/UK invasion to remove Saddam Hussein. One mistake (now acknowledged by all, including the invading countries) was the subsequent dismantling of Hussein’s Baathist party – the only party that had any direct experience in governing.

Added to the sectarianism promoted by the Al Maliki government, the experience teaches us that foreign intervention – be it military or diplomatic – requires a fully-fledged strategy for the post-war scenario… a strategy which must aim to include all parties, within reason, in the new political reality.

In the case of Libya, this means that any intervention would have to envisage the inclusion of at least the moderate Islamist movement within the future decision-making process. It is plainly useless to advocate ‘democracy’, only to refuse to recognise Islamist victories at the polls when they occur – for example, Hamas in Gaza, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. One must also make a distinction between moderate Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and radical Islamists who clearly are a threat to stability in the region.

In such a complex situation, the one option that cannot realistically be considered is to look the other way.

More in Editorial