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From Baghdad to Tripoli

From Baghdad to Tripoli

Wednesday, 31 August, 2022 - 09:00

And so it is another one of the ongoing intermittent rounds of civil conflict in Libya. Blood, corpses, and destruction.

Neither the Skhirat Agreements, the Bouznika Understandings, nor the UN envoys could contain this conflict. What began in the summer of 2014 with the war over control over Tripoli International Airport is ongoing and escalating.

True, the belligerent parties are no longer called the Tripoli Islamists, the Misrata Warriors, or the Zintan Militia, as had been the case eight years ago. Their names have changed, as have their slogans and symbols, but the ethnoregional fusion that produces violence and strife has not. Libya is now an imposed frame encompassing the East, West, and South, and in each of these regions, neighboring groups refuse to go from being juxtaposed groups to becoming peacefully coexisting national communities.

We know that, since its independence in 1951, Libya has had two competing capitals, Tripoli in the West and Benghazi in the East, and that some have proposed turning Sirte into the new capital as a compromise because it lies between the two capitals geographically. In light of the sharp regionalist awareness prevalent throughout Libya, the country’s oil wealth, in turn, could only increase the ferocity of the competition over spoils.

The February 2011 revolution and the subsequent killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte were not enough to compel Libyans overcome these divisions or lay the groundwork for overcoming them, especially after the West’s interest in the country waned in the aftermath of the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, on September 11, 2012, and the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Civil strife did open the door to foreign “interest” of another kind, especially since its oil wealth makes this kind of “interest” tempting. Thus, the countries of the region and others in Europe, as well as the United States and Russia, became implicated. Their interventions only aggravated the reasons for the conflict and made them more difficult to resolve. Just as civil wars draw foreign covetousness, they allow the warlords’ swollen egos and the corruption that comes with them to run amok.

In contrast to Lebanon, where the state’s menial presence is among the reasons for civil strife, the most significant underlying cause of civil conflict in Libya is the state’s excessive presence, or rather its excessive power. Here, it seems that its similarities to Iraq are sharp and salient. The two scenarios are almost one and the same: A despotic military-security regime like those of Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein collapses, and society implodes altogether. Longevity strengthened this capacity for wreaking havoc: the Gaddafi regime (1969-2011) remained in power for over four decades, while Saddam and the Baath regime (1968-2003) ruled for three and a half decades.

During this long period, society was totally paralyzed, and it was fully subordinated by the state. All initiatives were prohibited, and the population were deprived of even the capacity to launch initiatives. The state stood between citizens and communities and their ability to express their plurality, while the political power identified with one segment, sectarian or regional. That is how, in silence and in the underground, native loyalties and repressed identities grow stronger. Forced pregnancy can only be followed by birth shaped by hatred.

There can be no doubt as to whether foreign actors share some responsibility for what has happened to Libya and Iraq before it. Nonetheless, the legacy of the despotism that went about breaking society apart and expanding the gulf between its segments remains the main factor. The fact is that overstating foreign factors has the practical effect of masking “anti-imperialist” tyrants’ role in this history and justifies it. Actually, those regimes did not satisfy themselves with ruining everything while in power but also made fixing things in the future all but impossible.

However, if this assessment is correct, then re-examining the modern history of our societies has become a pressing duty. In Iraq, as in Libya, conservative regimes emerged after independence, moving forward with modest steps that could be measured in meters in a fast-paced world. Thus, the paths they took were safe but not impressive or exciting. These slow regimes were destroyed under the pretext that progress had to be accelerated, even if it came without freedom: the military men who upended the status quo promised to take steps that would be measured in miles. When the crises that would hit the societies concerned erupted, the hundreds of miles taken backward were likely to become thousands. That happened during the Cold War as Egyptian Nasserism was inciting Iraqis, Libyans and other Arab nations to overthrow the “reactionary regimes of the colonialists.”

It is then that the robust foundation of our lax world began to be laid. Muammar Gaddafi, who reminded Nasser of his youth, stuck his nails into the Libyan body, and the Baath Party that took part in the 1958 coup became, ten years and a round of coups and counter-coups later, a killing machine targeting Iraqis.

As for the second re-establishment effort, at least in Iraq, it was undertaken by another “anti-imperialist” regime, that of Iran, which is simultaneously both a foreign and domestic force as a result of the golden opportunity it had been granted by Iraq’s disintegration. With the solidarity of the fragmentation left by Saddam with Khomeini’s exploitation of this fragmentation, this tormented country is now adding intra-sectarian and intra-ethnic conflicts to the conflicts among sects and ethnicities.

A radical re-examination of this history is now a requisite for several objectives, among them breaking the implicit alliance between critiquing tyrants and sympathizing with their “nationalist” “anti-imperialist” justifications.

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