On February 15, a Libyan group acting allegedly on behalf of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), released a gruesome video. It was of the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian workers held hostage by them since last December. While some technical experts have since argued that parts of the video, such as the backdrop of the beach of the port city of Sirte where these beheadings appear to have been staged, have been faked, the fate of these workers is likely sealed. Recent events have in any case brought to light how the Libyan territory has become a new ground for the IS project of geographical expansion.
This video of the beheadings immediately provoked retaliations from Cairo’s military regime. Egyptian fighter-jets launched a series of airstrikes in Darna, a city under effective IS control since last year. Despite official claims of targeting “training camps and weapons caches”, seven innocent civilians were killed in heavily populated areas of the city during the course of the operation. Last Friday, a group of militants claiming loyalty to IS killed another 42 people in three suicide car bombings in Qubbah, a small mountain town in eastern Libya, in apparent response to the Egyptian air strikes. More Egyptians have also been taken hostage since. About 15,000 workers have reportedly fled Libya back to Egypt in the last couple of days, fearing further retribution.
This recent show of forces marks a new escalation in the violence which has gripped Libya in recent years.
The Egyptian rulers’ pretext of avenging the blood of the Coptic workers killed by IS is farcical. For decades, the Coptic minority in Egypt has been enduring numerous abuses, repression and scapegoating by the ruling class. For all its posturing, the Egyptian state is also the custodian of the very economic system which pushes hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to try and escape poverty and unemployment by seeking jobs abroad. Despite many leaving, it is estimated that over 700,000 Egyptian workers still currently live in Libya.
Many of them, coming from the poorest areas of Egypt, work in low-paid and precarious jobs to sustain their families back home, despite the appalling security conditions. As reported by Reuters: “In the Egyptian village of Al-Our, about 200 km (125 miles) south of Cairo, it is easy to see why young men take the risk. There are no paved roads, clean drinking water or adequate health care.”
The military intervention of the Egyptian army on the Libyan battlefield is not new; the regime, in collaboration with the Emirati government, has carried out several airstrikes before. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seeks to export his battle between brutal dictatorship and religious extremism on to Libyan soil, to divert attention away from the growing crisis of his regime, and to whip up the fractured prestige of his army - responsible for mass murders, torture and other brutal methods of repression against political opponents. Sisi also hopes to use the airstrikes as a launch pad for installing a like-minded authoritarian regime on Egypt’s western borders.
Egyptian generals, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have thrown their weight behind Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, an ex-officer of Gaddafi’s army. He broke with Gaddafi’s regime at the end of the 1980s to defect to the United States, and has worked closely with the CIA ever since. Haftar is an aspiring dictator who thinks that an iron rule is the only way to sort out the country’s problems. “Eliminating the Islamist threat”, with whom he fought side-by-side during the war against Gaddafi, has become his new mantra.
Haftar’s army, composed of many residues from the old regime’s military, until now has been in a precarious alliance with the so-called ‘official’ government of Libya. This government, which has the blessing of Western imperialism, is now based in the Eastern city of Tobruk, close to the Egyptian border. It was thrown out of the capital Tripoli in August 2014 by Libya Dawn. This is a loose network of Islamist-leaning militias allied with brigades from the north-western city of Misrata and with officials of the former Parliament, the General National Congress.
Libya Dawn has since established a competing government and parliament with the backing of the Qatari and Turkish regimes, and is controlling Tripoli and a few chunks of the western side of the country.
In reality, both these ‘governments’ are barely able to impose much order beyond the cities where they are based. The country is breaking apart into an intricate patchwork of fiefs controlled by local militias, often based on tribal or regional affiliations, fighting for territories and influence.
The idea often propagated in the media of a battle between an ‘Islamist’ and a ‘secular’ government is over-simplistic. The Saudi and Emirati monarchies, who are backing the Tobruk-based government and General Haftar’s campaign, are not models of secularism themselves. Libya has become the scene of a bloody battle between rival power centres backing competing militias, supported by various outside players using the country as a stage for a new version of the proxy wars engulfing the region. Oil wealth and weapons have become much more important bargaining chips for these militias and their political backers than principled considerations of any sort.
For these reasons, shifts in existing loyalties are probable in what appears to be an extremely volatile situation. Among other things, tensions are developing between the weak, exiled rulers of Tobruk (so weak they had to retreat for a time to a Greek car ferry on the city’s harbour!) and the would-be military strongman Haftar. Haftar is building support for military rule, boosted by Egypt’s cash and weapons. He might aim to sideline his previous allies to impose a dictatorial statelet in the eastern part of the country, installing himself in power.
Another failed State
In 2011, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi warned that if toppled, he would be replaced by “tribalism, Islamic extremism and anarchy”. This warning was thrown out as a threat against all those daring to challenge his regime, but succeeding developments have proved him right. Yet this was not inevitable. The lack of a viable left-wing alternative to Gaddafi’s rule allowed what was initially a popular uprising to be derailed. While signs of regionalisation and city-based differences in the protest movement existed from the start, in part inherited from Gaddafi’s divide-and-rule system of favours and retributions, the subsequent military intervention by the NATO powers paved the way for the colossal disaster that we are witnessing today.
Three years ago, the Obama administration and its French and British counterparts heralded the toppling of Gaddafi as a humanitarian triumph and a new model for Western intervention. NATO officials even declared that the mission in Libya had been “one of the most successful in NATO history.”
But as the CWI highlighted at the time, the NATO forces never intervened in Libya with the aim of coming to the rescue of the Libyan people. The aim was to turn the tide of the mass revolutionary uprisings which had started in Tunisia and Egypt and had caught them off guard, to sideline the most popular grassroots elements of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion, and to impose a regime more subservient to the interests of Western oil giants and multinational corporations. This was even though Gaddafi’s clique had cozied up to Western governments and to neo-liberal reforms in the last decade of his reign.
For this purpose, Western powers did not hesitate to provide training, weapons and money to notorious Al Qaeda-linked jihadists. Some of the most prominent trainers of rebel forces in 2011 included militants who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo. This included, as revealed by the New York Times back in April 2011, the notorious Abu Sufian Bin Qumu, a founding member of the Salafist militia Ansar al Sharia. This group is held responsible for the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012. Its Tunisian branch also organised the assassination of two prominent left-wing political leaders in 2013.
While the demise of Gaddafi was welcomed by significant layers of the Libyan population, this was done through a mass bombing campaign that caused large-scale civilian killings and destruction on the country’s infrastructure. It was also through the promotion of a myriad of unaccountable militias, of pro-imperialist “free market upstarts” keen to do business with the West, and of religious fundamentalists ready to use their newly acquired influence to bite the hand that had fed them before.
On the toppling of Gaddafi, the CWI commented in October 2011: “If this had been purely the result of struggle by the Libyan working masses it would have been widely acclaimed, but the direct involvement of imperialism casts a dark shadow over the revolution’s future”.
The CWI argued against those on the left such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) or the so-called Marxist professor and USFI supporter Gilbert Achcar, who had stood in favour of imperialist intervention in Libya under the guise of preventing Gaddafi from committing atrocities against his own people. Figures from Claudia Gazzini, a journalist for the Middle East Research and Information Project, have exposed the fallacy of such arguments: “the death toll subsequent to the seven-month NATO intervention was at least ten times greater than the tally of those killed in the first few weeks of the conflict”.
Revealingly, the same “left interventionists” have since been totally oblivious to the horrors and sufferings generated by the policy they supported at the time, which has made life for ordinary Libyans far worse than what it was even under the tyranny of Gaddafi.
Libya has now become a source of instability for the whole region, a regional magnet for the training and harbouring of jihadist fighters, as well as a flourishing market for weapons, drugs and human trafficking. According to the UN, at least 400,000 people have been internally displaced by fighting across the country, with as many as 83,000 people living in camps, schools and abandoned buildings. Over a million Libyan refugees have fled to Tunisia. Several reports indicate that the vast majority of the Libyan exiles who had returned after Gaddafi’s fall have left as well.
The country is facing an unprecedented level of violence. Targeted assassinations and torture have become commonplace; migrant workers are subject to horrific abuse; and a lot of basic services are dysfunctional if they have not collapsed all together. “Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your democracy” were the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron as he visited Benghazi with ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy in September 2011. Yet, all Western embassies in Libya have now packed up and gone, incapable of even guaranteeing the security of their own staff.
Several armed radical Islamist factions in Libya have declared their recent allegiance to IS, as the latter has gained supporters in some key parts of the country. Religious fundamentalist groups admittedly existed in Libya prior to 2011, but their influence was relatively limited. Sectarian killings, such as perpetrated against the Egyptian Christian workers, is a recent phenomenon.
The calamitous state of the country, the free fall in living standards, the huge resentment against the actions of Western imperialism, and the massive amount of weaponry available in the country have all provided a breeding ground for IS-type jihadists. It is no accident that the coastal town of Sirte has arguably become a stronghold of IS militancy. The birthplace of Gaddafi and once a relatively prosperous city, Sirte has been reduced to ruins by intense NATO bombings.
Socialist programme needed
Only formed by the Italian colonial power in 1934, Libya is facing the possibility of violent break-up. The toppling of Gadaffi has given birth to a multitude of little tyrants, mercenaries and warlords carving up the country. The added intervention of various foreign actors is exacerbating existing tensions and heightening the possibility for more bloodshed.
The Libyan people, the poor, the oppressed and the workers, need to build wherever possible independently-run organisations that can help them bring back on the agenda a collective struggle for their most vital and pressing needs. They will need to confront all those forces basing themselves upon any form of economic plundering, corruption and violent suppression of the people.
Such a struggle would need to be equipped with a programme standing for full and equal democratic and social rights for all, repudiating any form of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, tribe, regional or city affiliation.
The potential for ordinary people to challenge the rule of reactionary militias has been expressed on a number of occasions in the last period. The setting up of democratically organised, accountable and non-sectarian workers and poor people’s defence committees in the neighbourhoods could assist in giving a more organised expression to this struggle, and in protecting communities from the rampaging violence from multiple sides which is ripping the country’s apart.
The Libyan people need to be able to determine their own future. Any further meddling and military intervention by regional and western powers needs to be vigorously opposed. The drums for a new international military intervention have been beating from some European quarters -even though it is rather likely that Western governments will try to avoid a new military campaign in the country at this stage.
These powers have clearly demonstrated that they are no friends of ordinary Libyans. As revealed by the first wave of revolts and revolutions that swept through the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011, only in the masses of the working class, the youth and the oppressed of other countries will the Libyans find a genuine ally in their struggle for social and political change.
A “neat” military coup on a national scale is unlikely, seeing the state of erosion of the Libyan state machine. But a section of the military wing led by General Haftar and his clique could exploit the despair and the fear of jihadists among large sections of the Libyan population to try and impose some form of military rule in the eastern side of the country.
However, as shown by the growing violence in the Sinai Peninsula and other parts of Egypt, the butcher-like methods of repression of Sisi, that his henchman Haftar wants to emulate in Libya, will only lead to further terrorist blowbacks. This will not address any of the problems faced by the Libyan people.
Mass action from the grassroots is necessary to oppose jihadists’ atrocities, corrupt militias, military adventurers, and the broader, nightmarish scenario of a violent disintegration of the country.
Importantly, a struggle for decent jobs and better living standards, for adequate and functioning infrastructure and services needs to take centre stage, in order to cut across the social basis of support for religious extremism. Independent trade unions need to be built in the workplaces to defend migrant workers and all workers’ rights, to fight for better wages and working conditions. Such unions can play a pivotal role in resisting the spread of racism and religious sectarianism.
Eventually, the Libyan people should strive for a government based on representatives of workers and poor and all oppressed layers of society, elected via democratic structures in the workplaces and communities.
By refusing any deal with big business and any privatisation of Libyan assets, by bringing back under public ownership and democratic people’s control the massive gas and oil reserves and other resources, a plan could be outlined for rebuilding the country to offer a better future for all Libyans.