What future for Libya | Joseph Cassar

Instability and violence are to be expected after the collapse of any regime, but former Ambassador to Libya Joseph Cassar argues that the situation in Libya is more complex than most

Joseph Cassar : ‘A degree of confusion immediately after the fall of any regime is to be expected. The extent of the confusion, as well as the speed with which things escalated, that is perhaps another question’ (Photo: Ray Attard)
Joseph Cassar : ‘A degree of confusion immediately after the fall of any regime is to be expected. The extent of the confusion, as well as the speed with which things escalated, that is perhaps another question’ (Photo: Ray Attard)

It’s been almost four years since the corpse of Muammar Gaddafi, leader of the September Revolution, was dragged through the streets after the violent overthrow of his violent regime: an overthrow that had been backed, directly or indirectly, by several European countries as well as by a UN-imposed no-fly-zone.

As many had predicted at the time (not least by Gaddafi himself), Libya has since descended into chaos. Even as I write, news is very slowly filtering through regarding the abduction of a Maltese national by armed militias in Tripoli: and that, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, instability has likewise succeeded the ousted regimes of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak… though admittedly much more in Egypt than in Tunisia… while bloodshed and carnage reign in Syria, Iraq and now also in Gaza.

Naturally each case must be considered on its own merits, but the implications are decidedly uncomfortable. It would appear that almost everywhere a dictator is overthrown, horror and violence inevitably rush in to fill the void. Does this mean that authoritarian governments such as Libya’s Gaddafi regime – while in themselves associated with gross human rights violations – ironically offer greater protection from violence than the alternative?

Inherent to all these conflicts is another issue that is becoming too conspicuous to ignore. To what extent – if any – is it justifiable for third countries to intervene in the internal conflicts of other territories? Are Europe and the UN partly to blame for the present Libyan crisis, and if so, how does one fulfil this moral obligation? By intervening again, thereby risking further escalation in future?

It is with questions such as these in mind – and also about the possible future ramifications of the present conflict – that I meet Joseph Cassar for an interview. Cassar was ambassador to Libya between 2005 and 2009, and has consular experience in other parts of the world which have undergone substantial recent upheavals: not least, Russia and China. He was last in Libya two years before the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ (now increasingly resembling a stormy winter). At the time, nobody could have realistically predicted that the Gaddafi regime would come to an end so soon.

Yet many later predicted that the regime’s downfall would unleash a wave of violence and instability, as well as a surge in Islamic fundamentalism. Did Cassar himself see this coming, and would he agree with the view that authoritarian governments provide an ‘insurance policy’ against greater evils?

“A degree of confusion immediately after the fall of any regime is to be expected,” he begins. “The extent of the confusion, as well as the speed with which things escalated, that is perhaps another question….”

Cassar however cautions against lumping all the North African upheavals – not to mention the countless analogies from history: from the collapse of the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia after Tito – in the same category. While Egypt and Tunisia were also engulfed by the Arab Spring, there were considerable differences.

“The change in Libya was brought about by two main factors: a popular uprising against the Gaddafi regime, but also the supply of weapons, arms and ammunition in enormous quantities. Various historical experiences indicate that it is always easy to arm rebels, but it is very difficult to get them to relinquish the power that a gun gives…”

He smiles wryly. “I don’t know if they were the same two fighter jets we once hosted here… but fighter jets have bombarded the civilian population and targeted villagers…”

Certainly it is an ironic perspective: Malta at the time had refused a request by the Libyan government for the return of those defected jets, precisely because there was a danger that they might be used to kill civilians. Cassar however admits that this irony became evident only with hindsight.

What matters is that in Libya – unlike Tunisia and Egypt – there was use of force from the very start.

“But the three scenarios cannot be compared for other reasons. Tunisia, for instance, has a very strong tradition of political parties. Some of them are in exile, that is true, but the country still has a strong sense of national institutions. In Egypt it was the military that was in control. A different scenario, but again one rooted in strong institutions.

"Libya’s case was different. One fact that has had a direct impact on the present situation is the systematic dismantlement of national institutions under Gaddafi. Anyone under the age of 40 in Libya today has no real idea of political parties at all. Not even the military had any real control. Only Gaddafi and his clan wielded real power.”

There is also an irony in the timing of the uprising. “What is interesting in Libya is that the revolt came at a time when there were already internal efforts to address the country’s institutional problems. The efforts of Saif [Al Islam] Gaddafi to instil a level of Constitutional government in the country…” Here he pauses. “Mind you, Saif’s efforts, though they were undoubtedly progressive… as with so many other things, it was a case of two steps forward and one back...”

Cassar adds that the reforms touted by Saif Al Islam were in part induced by increasing Western political pressure, coupled with a willingness on the part of the West to tap into Libya’s resources. And with the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia, there was added impetus to pre-empt a similar situation by promising more reforms. But it would seem the obstacle was Muammar Gaddafi himself.

“Gaddafi still considered himself relatively young as far as Arab leadership goes. He still very firmly believed in his own concept of a ‘Jamahiriya’ which he considered unique…”

He was, Cassar suggests, too romantically attached to that ideal to let it go. “Do you remember that CNN interview in which he told the interviewer that ‘The people love me’? When there was already gunfire in the streets…?”

Apart from illustrating the extent of his own delusion, Cassar argues that the same interview is also very revealing of the root causes for the current post-Gaddafi meltdown. Inherent in Gaddafi’s message is the synonymity between the state and himself. This was not a mere bluff: in many respects Gaddafi had indeed blurred the distinction between his own personality and Libya’s national identity.

“Gaddafi considered himself to be [Gamal Abdul] Nasser’s heir, in that he initially believed in Nasser’s concept of North African unity. After those experiments failed, however, Gaddafi tended to concentrate more on the Libyan identity.

"For the most part this took the form of a personality cult. But it still gave the country a sense of identity. If nothing else, the Gaddafi regime consolidated the idea of Libya as a nation instead of only as a network of tribal communities. But at the same time, the Libyans are aware they are a very small population in a very big country…”

Such a large country being so sparsely populated – just over six million inhabitants – with its hand on the tap providing 2% of the world’s oil supply… and then losing its only reference point for national unity… from this perspective, fragmentation appears almost inevitable. Cassar is however reluctant to make specific predictions about the future ramifications of the conflict.

Will the country divide along sectarian lines? He shrugs. “Out of self-interest there may be some form of devolution, giving greater autonomy to individual regions. But I would hesitate to forecast partition. We tend to underestimate feelings for a region, a city or a nationality. These feelings run deeper than we think. Who would have predicted, only a few years ago, that there would be a referendum for Scottish independence in 2014…?”

Meanwhile, even if Gaddafi provided an alternative focal point to the tribal communities, he did not dismantle the underlying social fabric as he did to the country’s institutions.

“He couldn’t, and it wasn’t in his interest anyway. He was part of that system himself. If the September revolution was ‘bloodless’, it was because there was networking among tribes, and Gaddafi – who was himself a tribal leader – had support. And who was Idris, but another tribal leader who became king?”

Consolidating national identity also involved giving this communal network a structure: which Gaddafi did in the form of a Council of Tribal Elders. “Before some legislation went to the Libyan national congress, it was submitted to the council… a way of assessing the impact on far-flung communities, and so on. This all helped the tribal culture to further consolidate itself. And there were other factors, too.”

The role of the internet in the Arab Spring has been well documented, but Cassar talks of how social networking sites affected the situation in less predictable ways. “From my time in Libya I can tell you that the number of blocked sites was less than in either Egypt or Tunisia. We all can see how the flow of information and communication impacted the uprisings, and with hindsight you can make connections. But what we failed to give adequate thought to was that the same technology also strengthened networking among tribes...”

This doesn’t just mean logistical benefits for organising revolutions. Improved communications also helps families stay in touch, improves bonds and strengthens the idea of belonging to a community. So even if Gaddafi left an institutional void in his wake, Libyan society still has an independent structure upon which a country can be built.

This is an unexpectedly optimistic take on the situation. But what sort of Libya can emerge from the present scenario? The conflict is often portrayed in suspiciously simplistic terms, as a straightforward battle between Islamist insurgents and forces faithful to the government.

If this is true, and the alternative to an authoritarian regime is an Islamic fundamentalist state – when so many countries had actively used Gaddafi as a shield against the latter – it is possible that there may be future international resistance to an emergent fundamentalist government (as had arguably happened elsewhere: in Algeria in 1998, and with the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2004).

How much does this consideration weigh in the present conflict? And seeing that military involvement or logistical support proved so disastrous in Libya in 2011… what other options are left to the international community to try and stabilise the region?

“If you look at that segment [of the CNN interview] again, you will note how Gaddafi had constantly warned the West ‘you have to be careful of Al Qaeda’. That was an excuse Gaddafi liked to use: there can be no doubt that he used Al Qaeda as a name to prop up his own regime. But at the same time it was not just an excuse. It was also a reality…”

Cassar argues that the international community must find a way, however difficult, to engage with radical Islam... proposing interfaith dialogue of the kind recommended by past and present Catholic Popes as a possible model.

“How do you combat the radicalisation of religious feeling, based on denial of any form of dialogue? This is not only a problem in Libya, and not only in the Islamic world. The truth is that the influence and penetration of Western liberalism has encountered a wall of resistance.

"You cannot compare societies in all ways. Wherever you have strong religious institutions which feel threatened by outside entities, you will get radicalisation to resist the pressure...”

As for the portrayal of the conflict as being of a secular versus fundamentalist nature, Cassar expresses his doubts. “I really don’t believe that in Libya today, except perhaps for a few hundreds of families, there is anyone who feels ‘secular’ in the sense we understand it. There are various shades of Islam.

"Libya has traditionally not been extremist on religious issues. Libya was one of the few Arab countries where Christian churches would exercise religious freedom without interference. They were not encouraged, but they were tolerated.”

As for any possible roadmap for a future peace, Joseph Cassar reminds me of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address: which had famously warned of the dangers of allowing the ‘industrial military complex’ too much political influence.

“To find solutions in Libya you have to build on what there is in Libya. I think that in any situation of conflict... even, on a vastly different scale, if you look at the different times of political crises we have had even in Malta – nothing in comparison with Libya, but there were times of tension, of extreme tension… solutions can only be found if you try to build bridges between the parties. If you tend to blow up bridges, you are going to have a perpetual problem. But building bridges is not always popular…”

The day before we met, Cassar had attended a commemoration of Prof. Guido de Marco, the former President who (back in the 1980s) had negotiated an agreement to amend the Constitution with former Pirme Minister Dom Mintoff.

“I remember even within the [Nationalist] Party that there was criticism… are you dealing with them, are you not dealing with them?… but the reality is, no less than in the Christian world, you either take the brave steps [of ecumenical rapprochement] taken by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI and subsequent popes… I remember the meeting between Pope Paul and the head of the Orthodox church… or else you retain a situation where you don’t speak to each other, don’t discuss with each other, and you have a situation which will last 100 years.”

However one approaches the issue, Cassar reasons that any country’s internal problems cannot be solved by other countries only looking at their own interests. “You cannot find solutions by merely saying ‘let’s eliminate the extremists’. Time and again experience has shown that for every person you eliminate another 10 will take his place…”