Europe must be united on Libya

In this kind of chaos that Libya seems to have become permanently embroiled, terrorism will thrive

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Yesterday, hundreds of migrants were reported to have fled a detention centre in Libya’s capital Tripoli as fighting rages nearby. A spokesman for Libya’s department to fight illegal migration denied migrants had escaped but an aid official working at an international organisation said as many as 1,800 might have left the facility located near airport road.

Fierce clashes erupted last week between the Seventh Brigade, or Kaniyat, from Tarhouna, a town 65 km southeast of Tripoli, against the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigades (TRB) and the Nawasi, two of the capital’s largest armed groups.

The UN-backed government based in Tripoli declared a state of emergency in the capital.

Libya remains deeply divided country in the seven years since a NATO-led campaign toppled the Gaddafi regime.

Weak governance and the lack of functioning institutions were among the immediate repercussions for Libya’s society and economy following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. This, coupled with the presence of aggressive and authoritarian regimes in a number of Sub-Saharan countries, opened the road for increased levels of smuggling activities through Libya.

From a final destination, Libya quickly turned into a transit point for Eritrean, Somalian and Nigerien migrants who attempt the dangerous trip into Europe. The trafficking of these migrants to Europe will undoubtedly increase in the weeks to come.

Inside Libya, the failure of the country to achieve stability is down to the way power rests in local figures and alliances. The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has very little effective power, even inside Tripoli. The United States, as well as Malta, officially support the PC/GNA.

But as usual, contradictions in foreign policy are never far too behind.

While the West is intent on backing democratic and effective government demands by supporting the UN-approved GNA, the Serraj administration lacks the muscle to take the State under its total command.

And despite their international backing, it is General Khalifa Haftar who is the closest person Libya has to a ‘national’ figure. Indeed, the United States – in seeking its counter-terrorism objectives – supports Haftar, who is the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is however, not the national army of Libya.

Haftar retains a broad base of support in the eastern part of the country, has ties with US and European intelligence agencies, and has battled the terrorist groups that overtook cities including Benghazi, Sirte, and Derna. Despite being bogged down by reports about his health, Haftar has been involved in talks hosted by Egypt on creating an official Libyan army – which is crucial if Libya has to take over from local militias.

Haftar’s influence is endowed by the very absence of the culture of a democratic state: his strongman guarantees of security means he is unlikely to believe that democracy is the solution Libya needs. Like Gaddafi, Haftar is seen as the kind of leader with whom Egypt’s al-Sisi would feel comfortable with.

The influence of the US in Libya is mainly framed within counter-terrorism operations. The US works with both Haftar and the GNA in its bid to defeat the Islamic State presence that at one point was running entire cities in Libya. The US conducted hundreds of airstrikes against terrorist targets, mostly in 2016; until late March 2018, all of those strikes had targeted the Islamic State, mostly in the coastal city of Sirte. Then in March, the US conducted an airstrike in the southwestern part of the country near Ubari to hit Al Qaeda affiliate al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in the Sahel region.

In this kind of chaos that Libya seems to have become permanently embroiled, terrorism will thrive. Al Qaida plays the long game of moving into regions of chaos to fill in the vacuum – consider how those vacuums have now spread: from Afghanistan, to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, and Tunisia.

The EU’s fragmentation over the migration phenomenon does not bode well for the way it should be tackling the Libyan problem. The Italian right-wing government yesterday held a crisis summit on Libya and migration. Far-right firebrand Matteo Salvini has insisted Italy must be the protagonist of stabilisation in the Mediterranean. But he has used the occasion to hit out at liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron, to attack the French interest in removing Gaddafi, adducing to him “the incursions of others who have economic interests must not prevail over the common good which is peace.”

Salvini said Italy should be “willing to run some risks and soon return to Libya” – a statement that puts into question whether any EU member state would be willing to give up its own national agenda in Libya. Indeed, the European Parliament must present a united front that can push the European Council to act in a united manner on Libya. Without a united European push, the Libyan chaos risks spilling over.