The beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts working in Libya, as shown in video footage released by the Islamic State on February 12, 2015, made headlines across the world. The story was variously framed as one more vicious murder of Middle Eastern Christians by militant Islamists, one more index of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya and one more opportunity for an Arab state, in this case Egypt, to enlist in the latest phase of the war on terror. What was left unaddressed was the deep and long-standing enmeshment of the Libyan and Egyptian economies, embodied in the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers who remain in Libya despite the civil war raging there.
Hassan al-Amin is a long-time activist for human rights in Libya. He left Libya in 1983 under duress from the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In his London exile, al-Amin founded the dissident website Libya al-Mustaqbal (The Future Libya). He returned to his native city of Misrata in June 2011, in the midst of the rebellion against Qaddafi. Al-Amin was subsequently an independent member of Libya’s first elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), from Misrata and a member of the Human Rights and Civil Society Committee. He fled Libya again in March 2013.
China and Africa grosso modo are often seen as standing at two ends of the spectrum of developing countries, the former having acquired enormous industrial capacity in short order, and the latter not. In this view, a great potential for exchange exists between the two: manufactures and infrastructure in exchange for raw materials. Certainly the two do not exist in a vacuum; to think about how this potential may be realized in the coming decades, it is useful to think about them in the larger international arena.
Bill Lawrence is director of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Morocco), Fulbright scholar (Tunisia), development consultant (Egypt), State Department official, Arabic translator and filmmaker (Marrakech Inshallah, Moroccans in Boston). He has also participated in the production of 14 albums of North African music, including co-production of the first internationally released Arabic rap song. He has lived in North Africa for 12 years, six of them in Morocco. I spoke with him in Rabat on March 15.
Can you talk about the problems in Libya caused by the proliferation of militias and arms?
Within days of the deadly assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the skies over Libya began buzzing with American surveillance drones, prompting annoyed responses from some Benghazi residents. “Give it a rest, Obama,” one resident posted in a Twitter message after a low-flying drone woke up much of the city. “We want to get some sleep.”
Beneath a golden canopy lined with frilly red tassels and vaulted with chandeliers, hundreds of militiamen from across Libya gathered at a security base in Benghazi, the launch pad of their anti-Qaddafi revolution, at the end of April and called for another uprising. After a lunch of mutton and macaroni, a nod to their former Italian masters, one belligerent revolutionary after another took to the podium to lambast Libya’s would-be governors, the National Transitional Council (NTC). “Thuwwar (revolutionaries) of Libya unite!” cried the chairman, beseeching his fellows to reclaim the country from those who had stolen the revolution. These are no idle threats. My lunch companion from Jufra, one of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s former garrison towns in central Libya, claimed to have 600 tanks under his command. If push came to shove, the militias could overpower the fledgling forces the NTC have at their disposal.
Libya is commonly counted as a success story among the ongoing Arab uprisings. NATO bombing, the story goes, saved thousands of lives and allowed Libyans to overthrow the absurd and murderous Muammar Qaddafi. The intervention proves that the West has aligned its interests in the Arab world with its values — and may even be a measure of redemption for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the deeper colonial past.
Not much of this comforting tale rings true.
Anna Baldinetti, The Origins of the Libyan Nation: Colonial Legacy, Exile and the Emergence of a New Nation-State (Oxford: Routledge, 2010).
With the fall of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, his paranoid and largely successful attempts to close off contemporary Libyan history to academic inquiry have presumably also come to an end. Over the next several years, there is every reason to anticipate a flowering of scholarship utilizing Libya’s untapped archival resources. The authors of these yet-to-be-written studies would be wise to root themselves in the work of the few Western scholars who were productively operating in Libya prior to the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime.
The death of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi has become one of the most contested moments of Libya’s eight-month war. The exact circumstances of the colonel’s demise on October 20 are unclear, but evidence is mounting that Libya’s former ruler was killed — extra-judicially executed — by the band of young gunmen who captured him.
The UN Security Council has been a key arbiter of international action regarding the upheavals in the Arab world in 2011. In late February, the Council issued Resolution 1970 calling for an “immediate end to the violence” in Libya, imposing sanctions and an arms embargo, and asking the International Criminal Court to investigate the regime of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. Less than a month later, on March 17, the Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing NATO “to take all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians, leading to Qaddafi’s eventual fall from power. In late September, the Security Council will also take up the request of Palestinian leader Mahmoud ‘Abbas for full UN membership for a state of Palestine.
Half an hour’s drive east of Tripoli, a solitary interim government soldier peers through binoculars, scouring Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s hunting ranch — known as the farms — for signs of life. Detritus of war litters the savannah, the remains of recent fighting as Qaddafi’s forces fled east from the Libyan capital to their strongholds in the center of the country. Flies swarm around parts of bodies dismembered when a NATO bomb flattened the colonel’s Moorish villa, replete with its nests for hawks. Wooden cases are strewn amidst the olive trees; all the boxes are empty, save two that house unused heat-seeking missiles six feet long. The cages of the predatory animals raised for hunting lie open, and the anti-Qaddafi fighter seems as concerned by their escape as their owner’s.
To the average American, the NATO intervention in Libya may look like another Iraq: another US-led adventure aiming to dislodge a would-be totalitarian Middle Eastern state with lots of oil and sand. The topography of the two countries is similar: The land is flat and parched, and the architecture dun and unloved. Even the terminology sounds the same, with the “no-fly zone” subject to “mission creep” that is rapidly turning its goal into “regime change.”
Reasonable, principled people can disagree about whether, in an ideal world, Western military intervention in Libya’s internal war would be a moral imperative. With Saddam Hussein dead and gone, there is arguably no more capricious and overbearing dictator in the Arab world than Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. The uprising of the Libyan people against him, beginning on February 17, was courageous beyond measure. It seems certain that, absent outside help, the subsequent armed insurrection would have been doomed to sputter amidst the colonel’s bloody reprisals.
Since the rule of Col. Muammar Qaddafi had been even more gruesome than that of neighboring dictators, the Libyan people’s release from captivity by the February 17 uprising pulsated with an unparalleled hope. Freed from a ban on public assembly of four or more persons, rebel-held towns across Libya thronged with celebrants late into the night. Benghazi, Libya’s second city, which the colonel had stripped of its museums, cinemas and cultural symbols, including the mausoleum of its anti-colonial hero, ‘Umar Mukhtar, buzzed with impromptu memorials to Qaddafi’s victims, political theater, songs and art, and mass open-air prayers. And after four decades in which one man had appropriated the right to speak on behalf of a country, Libyans in their hundreds of thousands recovered their voice. “Your place, Muammar,” scrawl protesters on upturned rubbish bins.
Stability is the least understood and most derided of the trio of strategic interests pursued by the United States in the Middle East since it became the region’s sole superpower. Vexing, because it is patently obvious code for coziness with kings, presidents-for-life and other unsavory autocrats. Perplexing, because it seems to involve only cost, lacking the material benefit of protecting oil deposits or the domestic political profit of backing Israel, the two other members of the troika.
Under a tent in Benghazi on August 30, 2008, Silvio Berlusconi bowed symbolically before the son of ‘Umar al-Mukhtar, hero of the Libyan resistance to Italian colonial rule. “It is my duty to express to you, in the name of the Italian people, our regret and apologies for the deep wounds that we have caused you,” said the Italian premier.  Eastern Libya was the site of the bulk of the armed resistance to the Italian occupation, which lasted from 1911 to 1943. More than 100,000 Libyans are believed to have died in the counterinsurgency campaign, many in desert prison camps and in southern Italian penal colonies.
On May 15, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States would soon open an embassy in Libya, long classified by Washington as an inveterate “rogue state.” This move came, she said, “in recognition of…the excellent cooperation Libya has provided to the United States…in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001.” Most discussion of the renewal of US-Libyan relations has focused on two very public and, as Rice put it, “historic” decisions by the Libyan government following the launching of the Iraq war in 2003: one renouncing terrorism and the other abandoning programs for weapons of mass destruction.
The Bush administration renewed US sanctions against Libya earlier this month. The announcement, although expected, frustrated US oil companies, which had hoped to gain access to some of the world’s largest reserves of light crude oil. The rollover of sanctions comes despite the efforts of Libya’s erratic leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, to convince Washington he is an ally in the war on terrorism, and it stands in stark contrast to recent European moves to improve relations with his regime.