Six years after the West toppled Gadhafi, world still coping with a shattered Libya

Special to

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Libya is a shattered land. Awash in weapons and explosives, riven by tribal and political rivalries, flooded by illegal migrants, and haven to lethal terrorist groups, Libya remains North Africa’s glaring tragedy, six years after an Anglo/French/American military effort toppled the Gadhafi regime.

Now with a certain quiet remorse, Britain and France are striving to put Libya back together again. But to paraphrase the nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty, can “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men put Humpty together again?”

Illegal migrants from Africa at a naval base in Tripoli after being rescued by Libya's coast guard in the Mediterranean Sea on Aug. 29. / AFP
Illegal migrants from Africa at a naval base in Tripoli after being rescued by Libya’s coast guard in the Mediterranean Sea on Aug. 29. / AFP

This twice Texas-sized country with a tiny population of 6 million people defies easy answers.

After writing an article “Libya can be Great Again,” Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson breezed into Tripoli to see things for himself. It was not his first trip, but the voyage represents the British government’s genuine commitment to fix a problem which it sadly started back in 2011 when misguided foreign intervention during the Arab Spring uprisings overthrew longtime Libyan dictator Colonel Gadhafi.

Minister Johnson conceded that Gadhafi’s removal in 2011 has been “a tragedy so far” for the Libyan people. He told the BBC that “we were way over optimistic” about Libya’s future.

The UK’s David Cameron, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, and America’s Hillary Clinton were instrumental in shattering Libya’s status quo and instead opening the Pandora’s Box of social and security problems which are yet to be resolved peacefully.

Realistically speaking the country has two rival governments, a fractious gaggle of militias, and an entrenched Islamic fundamentalist culture. Moreover, and this is why the West is finally serious about solving the problem; Libya remains the conduit of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants from Central and West Africa now pouring into Italy.

Addressing the Security Council, the UN’s new Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salame, told delegates of the practical difficulties facing residents in the capital Tripoli, “People are tired of the endless cuts in electricity and water, which in turn take down the telephone and the Internet. Libyans cannot understand being poor in a country rich with natural resources.”

Dr. Salame, an academic from Lebanon, added, “It is unnatural that in this wealthy country, university departments are closing one after another because the outrageous gap in the exchange rate has led the foreign faculty to quit en masse.”

He conceded, “There is obviously a serious problem of governance.”

Uruguay’s delegate advised that after six years it’s “hard to call what happening a success story.” Organized crime and human trafficking are among the challenges facing the country.

In the West, including Tripoli the capital but not much else, there’s the embattled Government of National Accord. Though internationally recognized, the rulers face an ambiguous political scene. They are confronted in the East by a rival regime in Benghazi which is backed by the powerful Libyan National Army under the mercurial Gen. Khalifta Haftar.

Though French President Emmanuel Macron has opened mediation between the two sides in an effort to put a positive EU imprint on the post-Gadhafi era, national unity eludes easy solutions.

Oil may lubricate but not solve the question. The UN reports that petroleum production reached over one million barrels of oil per day, boosting government revenues. Yet in a major oil producing country, people must often wait a day to get 5 gallons of gas.

So why is this so important for Europe and the USA?

Libya remains a failed state serving as a funnel of illegal migrants into Italy and beyond. A vast network of criminal human smugglers send unwary migrants on their way into the Mediterranean often to their deaths.

Then there’s the unsettling issue of ISIS, Al Qaida, and foreign fighters who profit from Libya’s chaos.

Boris Johnson stressed Britain’s national interest in Libya: “the front line in Europe’s struggle against illegal migration and terrorism.”

UK delegate Matthew Rycroft stated, “Our top message is one of unity, to make sure all Libyans come together at this difficult time, put their divided path behind them, and unite in order to defeat terrorism, to tackle the challenge of migration.”

A UN report cautions, “Threats to national security can only be addressed effectively through the creation of unified Libyan armed and security forces.”

Now there’s a big diplomatic effort to have a High level meeting on Libya during the upcoming UN General Assembly debate.

But as the UN’s Salame warns, “Any efforts to force a solution must be Libyan-led and Libyan-owned. The United Nations is here to support them in they endeavors, and certainly not to replace them.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]