The East Libya Dilemma

Why would a city that rose up against dictatorship and oppression suddenly embrace totalitarianism once more, less than five years later? This is the question that many are speculating on these days, following the almost near total control of Eastern Libya by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

There have been many analyses and attempts to answer this question, especially now that military rule has permeated almost all aspects of life in the region. With the replacement of elected municipalities by military mayors and the daunting return of the omnipresent intelligence services, many are drawing parallels between the Gadhafi regime and what Khalifa Heftar is currently trying to achieve. But the folly of most of these analyses (I’m looking at you, clueless foreign Libya experts) is that they do not take into account the full picture and the causes that led to the current situation.

Before going in-depth, I need to make a disclaimer here; I do not, in principle, support military rule. As a person who believes wholeheartedly in civil society, I know that military might alone cannot build a country. But civil society will not be able to fulfill its purpose without the safety and security established by the rule of law, which, expediently, is enforced by security forces. It is not a choice between one and the other, but rather a balance that Libya needs during this transitional period. However, it would be naïve to deny that the country is undergoing incredibly exceptional circumstances, one that requires exceptional action.

I will not go over the five or so years of history that led to the appearance of Khalifa Heftar, as it needs much longer than a single post and I’ve already documented what I’ve witnessed ad naseum on this blog. Suffice to say that this situation in Benghazi drastically deteriorated after 2011 until the all-out war on October 15, 2014. It was this point that Benghazi had reached its lowest point in recent history. The city was crippled, a ghost town with barely functioning services. Almost half the population of the city was displaced, evacuated from their areas by the intense fighting.

Fast-forward two years. It is the beginning of 2017, and Benghazi has become almost unrecognizable from the ruin of a city it was. Bustling with life and renewed hope, the war here has reached its last leg, and reconstruction has already begun. But more noticeable than the physical changes to the city are the security changes. Military cars patrol the streets at all hours, the police are working at full capacity, and, most notably, the intelligence services are back in full swing. The mayor has been installed by the military ruler, and all civic services now have a large degree of oversight by the intelligence.

It is, for all intents and purposes, military rule. But ask the people of Benghazi how they feel about this, and you will get very positive reactions. There are no more street wars, no more assassinations, the judiciary has begun to function again, things are actually getting done.  That’s not to say the situation is perfect. There are still a number of IDPs who have not returned, and the reconstruction process will take years to complete. But the fear and terror is gone, those elements that had paralyzed the city for years.

Many people (mainly those who have never visited Benghazi) are decrying these developments. “Benghazi wants to return to the Gadhafi era!” they screech. “You have sacrificed your freedom for return to oppression; you will be once again under a dictator’s boot!” The only problem with these accusations is that we have never really experienced “freedom”. We went from oppression under one man to oppression under chaos.

And yeah, it’s not an ideal trade-off to go back to what we had. But it’s also pure stupidity to assume that the current situation in Libya will somehow evolve into a stable democracy on its own. The unity government solution has collapsed on itself, and our politicians, regardless of ideology, are all unfit to run a country. And yes, Heftar has ulterior motives, East Libyans are not deluded enough to believe that he noble ideals. But he presented a solution that achieved results, something no one else has been able to do.

To answer the initial question, it first needs to be reexamined. The current situation in East Libya is not the same as under Gadhafi, nor can it be called despotism in the traditional sense. East Libyans are not embracing dictatorship; they are embracing stability and a chance to live in peace for the first time in six years. The alternative is not freedom. It only takes one look into the harrowed face of a Benghazi resident to realize that they will support and defend this current peace no matter what accusations are hurled against the city.

And so what remains are the real questions that should be asked; Will East Libyans ever have faith in democracy again? In what direction will this military rule evolve? And if it does evolve into a Gadhafi-esque system, are Eastern Libyans prepared to give up the basic freedoms they regained in 2011? This is the dilemma that we’ll have to confront sooner or later, and one that might determine the future of the country.

Advertisements

Conspiracies and Karama

“But it is horrible… …to fear the place you once loved.”

 Erica Bain

The revolution has really taken its toll on Benghazi. We go from one problem to another, all the while trying to keep a positive outlook and pray that, insha’Allah, things will eventually get better.

After more than two years and 150 assassinations of the police and army, the Islamists* have finally been hit back, and by no one other than Khalifa Hiftar.

Remember that guy I told you about a few months ago, with the half-hearted coup? Well, it seems he had bigger plans than anyone had anticipated. He has declared a war against terrorism, under the name of Operation Karama. What makes this proclamation more powerful than his previous one is that he now has the might of the Libyan National Army behind him.

What army, you ask? Well, the Special Forces, the Navy, the Air Force and pretty much every military unit in East Libya. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of the attacks, so it makes sense that they will join an operation that seeks to protect them.

Many have asked why the army didn’t act before Hiftar appeared on the scene. The truth is, they have tried numerous times to secure Benghazi, each time ending badly for them. No matter how bad it got, they refused to use force against other Libyans.

Another important question that’s being asked; who are the terrorists?

This is where things get murkier.  Ansar Shariah are known for their anti-democracy sentiment, and have been oddly silent on the issue of the assassinations in Benghazi. There has also been increasing rumors of Al-Qaeda affiliates controlling the city of Derna. These are the people considered the number one target for Operation Karama.

But what about the “thuwar” (revolutionaries/rebels, depending on what you think of them)? They’ve declared Hiftar’s operation to be a coup and an attack on Libya itself. They staunchly defend their militias and claim that they are not involved in the violence in Benghazi.

The current situation has divided Libya deftly in two. The pro-Heftar camp (mostly in the East, those who are directly affected by the violence) say that he is the last hope for a dying city that has been ignored by government and international community alike. The anti-Heftar side claims that Hiftar has skeletons in his closet where the Chad war is concerned, and that his public renouncement of the GNC is a blatant grasp for power and will destabilize Libya.

The government itself has also been divided in two. The provisional government has made statements that clearly indicate a schism between them and the General National Congress, currently headed by Ahmed Maetig, who is holding the position illegally.

The GNC, meanwhile, is pretending like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. They’re pretty consistent in their behaviour.

Many parties, both in and out of Libya, have said that the parliamentary elections, due to be held this June, is crucial to restoring order to Libya. Until then, Heftar has continued to carry out his attacks against the armed groups in Benghazi, in what can be described as a rather precarious and clumsy manner.

The most ubiquitous question being asked now between Libyans is, “Who’s side are you on?

The extreme polarization that we’re facing as a nation has broken apart families and friends as everyone clings to their own ideology, being sustained by the social media group of their choice. What’s sad about it is that, as we bicker, the country is crumbling around us.

It’s also irritating because, ultimately, we all want the same thing; security, stability, prosperity, a country we can be proud of and yes, dignity. It’s almost baffling how a country that agrees on these basic points can be so torn apart.

But it’s because we feed on conspiracy theories and jump to slander the other side that we’ve lost sight of the ultimate goal, which is a better Libya. We’re still in the infancy of our democracy, and frankly, we need to grow the hell up.

—————————————–

* I hate using the word “Islamists”, even though that’s the term used to identify them in the media. There is nothing Islamic about their behaviour by any stretch of the imagination, and associating that term with them is insulting to actual Muslims.