“L’Etat c’est moi”
A VACUUM ON THE SHORES OF THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA
“L’Etat c’est moi, ” proclaimed Louis XIV on April 13, 1655. He was the state for 72 years and 110 days, the absolute monarch of France, who was "l’état lui meme" since he was four years old when his reign began. Louis made his nation the leading power in Europe, defining its foreign policy mainly through warfare. The monarch turned into a myth, surrounded by extravagance and luxurious exaggerations, the roi soleil dominating forever his nation’s history books, which celebrate the greatness of France, and his genius. Versailles comes to mind, the glorious palace, where he died in 1715, still the king, buried in the Basilica of St Denis, today not really an adequate surrounding for a noble figure, succeeding in controlling aristocracy and papal power during his eternal years of rule.
Lesser, more megalomaniac, rulers come to mind, trying to impose on their people the control of authoritarian power by claiming l’Etat c’est moi - oppressive dictators, who exist in their delusion of grandeur, executing or incarcerating those who are questioning their minds or excessive authority. Muammar Gaddafi survived his delusions of greatness, protected by an imagined divine power, unlimited cash and hundreds of trusted, often female, bodyguards, for 42 years. Unlike the noble king of Versailles, aristocracy or men of wisdom advising him on how to establish a modern nation with his enormous wealth did not surround the ruler of Libya, the ninth largest oil producer of the world. He ruled without opposition, critical newspapers or the intellectual input of thriving universities. L’état c’est moi, was his Leitmotiv, his egomania and self-indulgence did not tolerate opposition.
I was expelled from Libya, accompanied by police to the British Caledonian Jet returning from Tripoli to London, because Germany’s media and politicians reacted fiercely to the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics in the summer of 1972 – Gaddafi supported the Palestinian movement, as he assisted the Irish Republican Army, and other radical groups with weapons, logistics, and money. The killed Palestinian terrorists, members of the Black September movement, were flown from Munich to Tripoli, and I followed to cover the heroes’ funeral, heroes for Palestinians and Gaddafi. The Munich attackers were buried with full military honors, a ceremony I missed because the Colonel decided to expel German citizens, especially members of the media criticizing the useless murder at a global sporting celebration.
THE MICHAEL JACKSON OF GLOBAL POLITICS
After Tripoli fell under rebel thrust and allied interventions in 2011, questions surrounded the fate of “the Michael Jackson of Global Politics” as an American Journalist characterized the dictator, adding that he was: “an unhinged figure, vanished, whose wealth bought him repeated indulgences for [un-seeming] behavior.” Did he take off in a private jet, landing on an airbase in Tunisia, embraced by his sunny brothers? Did the Bedouin hide in an oasis, protected by Tuareg tribesmen? Banal, the way he abandoned his power and life, discovered outside of Sirte, his birthplace. Gaddafi ended his reign in hell, in the depths of a drainpipe. There he was, bleeding from a head wound, surrounded by rebels from a unit of Misurata. Salim Bakir, a fighter, suddenly was face to face with the despised ruler, who looked dazed and repeatedly asked: “What’s happening? What is wrong?” The rebels dragged the dictator, who suddenly had turned into a creature of no power (as Hitler was, when he chose death in his Berlin Bunker), up the dirt embankment towards a Toyota truck. Rebel fighters insulted the tyrant, who, for almost half a century, admired himself, engulfed in arrogance, as the embodiment of his state. Nothing glorious now, just anger by the enemy fighters. The release of fear, revenge for their suffering. The aged dictator seemed dazed to witnesses, irritated, possibly in shock by the severity of his plight on that October day in 2011. No chances to scheme, bribe, or intimidate. A man naked, although still clothed, his arrogance ripped out his soul, his brain confused, caught in a human quagmire. Despots, as history tells us, are not guaranteed a gentle death. Saddam Hussein comes to mind, or Che Guevara, never a political tyrant, but a revolutionary, killed in a forgotten jungle of Bolivia, hit by bullets paid by the CIA.
No words are recorded on a video, no begging for mercy by the authoritarian leader, who turned in a fraction of a second into a lonely, very old man — his absolute power reduced to zero. No time to inhale a last cigarette. A shot is fired. Gaddafi, surely “one of the most flamboyantly eccentric rulers ever to commandeer a country,” as US writer Dexter Filkins reported, is history. Some loyalist cry, and several thousands of his loyal soldiers are still behind bars — the nation does not mourn. The people are hungry, miserable in life, desperate for education. The leader’s older sons hired Hollywood stars for their playboy-celebrations in London or Beverly Hills. Their father is lying on the pavement, his eyes half open, but unseeing. The shot, which killed him, entered his head through the left temple. The rebels declared the dictator was hit “in a crossfire,” and died on his way to the hospital. “No one believes it,” says author Jon Lee Anderson, “the images are there and they tell a different story.” Murder in cold blood. For days, Gaddafi’s body lay in view in a refrigerated locker in Misurata.
SLOGANS, A LOT OF SLOGANS
History books will never glorify Muammar Gaddafi, or his rule. For those who celebrated the Bedouin and his wealth (a French President for example, who allowed the bizarre dictator to pitch his tents in the picturesque center of Paris), did they ask themselves the question of why this Libyan ruler was allowed all these excesses as he rejected democratic rule? In that fateful second of Libyan history, the end of Muammar Gaddafi, Regeb Miselatti, former head of Libya’s Central Bank, asked himself, “What are we going to do now, fight each other?”
“We Libyans [act],” the banker felt, have remained “as if we’re held in 1969,” adding that “(…) there were no civil institutions, no civil society. There was nothing to learn except the teachings of the leader, collected in a green book… and Slogans, a lot of slogans.”
The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, told me during a visit at her home near Greve in Chianti, how proud the dictator was during an interview with her about his political achievement: “A state in which there is no government, no parliament, no strikes, no demonstrations.” L’état c’est moi.
“When the so called Arab Spring reached Libya, three Gulf States — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, along with Turkey — leapt at the opportunity to move against the despised Libyan leader,” wrote Mark Lynch, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and author of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East published by Foreign Affairs, and featured in Carnegie Endowment.
“These nation-states passed an Arab league resolution to help push the United States and the United Nations into supporting a humanitarian intervention. They also funneled huge quantities of weapons and money to their preferred local militias fighting the regime,” noted author Lynch, adding that, “These indirect interventions had long lasting, negative effects. Qatar and the UAE both supported the opposition to Gaddafi, but they backed different local proxies. After the regime fell, those forces retained both their weapons and their external patrons, thus impeding the consolidation of a functional Libyan state and enabling the countries subsequent descent into civil war.”
The CIA was authorized by General Haftar to return to duty at the war torn country; the spies are stationed in Benghazi, and a handful American Special Forces soldiers are present at an airbase near the city. Possibly, the US units were alarmed last year when Russian special forces commandos delivered weapons and intelligence to the Field Marshal —from their base in western Egypt.
WILLING TO FACE DEATH BY BOARDING BOATS HARDLY SEAWORTHY
Seven years after the execution of Gaddafi, Libya remains a catastrophically failed nation. 200,000 of its citizens are displaced. In November 2017, 348,372 illegal migrants were waiting for their chance to reach their European dreams on a rubber dinghy or an overcrowded fisher boat by the end of last year, and more are reaching the coast each day. The collapse of the Libyan State left a vacuum on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, just 180 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. Libya is a lawless place, riffled with criminality and flare ups of fierce fighting, including for control of the shores, which means exorbitant fees for a dangerous voyage towards destiny and more drama, and additional money secretly paid by Italy for stopping migrants from even reaching their boats, or more international donations for the incarceration of migrants in odious detention centers, inhumane and some even controlled by gangs. Oil prices are falling, due to recent clashes and plunder by the elite. Oil smugglers and weapon importers are active without fear, the masses are just surviving, willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money, willing to face death by embarking boats often barely seaworthy to make the treacherous passage towards their European dreams, often ending in a nightmare. Most of the 200,000 migrants and asylum seekers who reached Europe by sea last year departed from Libya. For the non-functional state, the arrival of hundreds of thousands migrants turned into a colossal humanitarian crisis. In November of 2017, 19,900 migrants were being held in facilities under control of various departments of government, unable or unwilling to protect and support the jailed masses, who were tortured, raped, and sold in public auctions.
"The suffering of migrants detained in Libya," stated Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations Human Rights chief, “is an outrage to the conscience of humanity,” and anxious Europe is also to blame. The EU has embarked on extreme measures, underwriting, for example, a Libyan coastguard for a government that hardly exists, paying militias, some of which are major human traffickers, authorizing cash transfers for tribes and other militias to patrol the land borders of Libya as well. The European policy of assisting the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return migrants discovered and detained within the 12 nautical-mile zone, al-Hussein has become labeled as “inhuman.” Niger was well paid by the EU for drastically reducing the number of African migrants using the country as a conduit to Europe, a few years ago an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people weekly. Niger positioned troops in the distant northern desert, battling armed human traffickers and driving them back towards poverty. Brussels promised to return the favor-one billion Euros in development aid through 2020, with hundreds of millions earmarked for anti-migration projects.
SIMPLE ANSWERS ARE FASHIONABLE
Fright, anxiety, and panic is rattling European governments, united in their Christian beliefs (often ignored) and their foreboding of political drama. The chaotic arrival, uncontrolled, of more masses, from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nigeria or Libya, in Europe, will provoke the citizens even more ,will drive them away from traditional parties to the extremists, racists, nationalist movements, which are gaining influence and are applauded by ever more voters, although their political programs are limited to the exclusion of migrants. The phobia is real. Simple slogans as “America first,” or “Brexit,” do touch the insecure, frightened masses, troubled by troubling changes and turmoil in the world. Simple answers are fashionable, and quick solutions - intolerant, racist and xenophobic solutions - are accepted with sympathy.
“The popular backlash consuming Europe,” writes Dexter Filkins, “can be seen in many ways as a reaction to the collapse of the Libyan state (and the war in Syria), which have unleashed a massive movement of migrants.”
For Frederic Wehrey, author of the book The Burning Shores-Inside the Battle for the New Libya, the failed nation today is “Europe’s African shore.”
It is an illusion to believe that intervention of NATO’s warships, or corrupted coastguards, will be able to interrupt the flow of desperate people, although Niger claims only 1,000 migrants pass their country weekly these days. To exchange hope for a risk is an easy task if you or your children are dying of hunger and illness in your country of birth. The internet, the cell phone of the neighbor allowed a dream to blossom, the escape into the far away land, an assumed paradise. The prospect of arriving are dim, but thousands of your neighborhood dared, and they are one-step closer to survival — housed in an Italian tent city or Greek detention center. The tragedies, the drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, from January to July 1,095 persons, are buried in the wastebasket of history, blended out of the conscience, which feeds itself on hope. Most took the route from Libya, whose coastguards surveillance is pushing the human traffickers to direct their dinghies or overcrowded fisher boats towards riskier waters.
Anxious Europe will probably succeed to slow the arrival of the undesired asylum seekers, but just as Donald Trump will be failing in his attempt to keep the Latino masses out by constructing the longest and highest wall ever build, the impoverished masses will continue to arrive in Texas or Arizona or Greece and Turkey until their own nations can feed them, provide housing, schools, medical care and social stability. As long as the gap between the “haves and the have nots,” are as gigantic as the distance to Jupiter, the desperate masses will march, swim or take a boat, any boat, even limited to a door. Walls and warships do not symbolize hope, but national neurosis. Europe is trying to intercept those smuggling oil or weapons, and more often than not, its naval ships are saving migrants from drowning, much to the dismay of countries like Italy, governed by a right wing coalition.
JUGGLING OVER POWER AND ACCESS TO THE CENTRAL BANK
Two self-appointed governments, one in Tripoli, whose leader, Prime Minister Fayez Serraj (last December the weak politician was received by Donald Trump in the White House), the other regime is located in Benghazi. The United Nations backs Serraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, itself supported by four different militias, juggling for power and access to the Central bank, where they can buy US dollars for the official rate, which is five times cheaper than the street price paid by ordinary citizens. The rival “Interim Government,” is based in the eastern cities of Benghazi and al–Bayed. Some militias are supporting a third authority, the Government of National Salvation (GNS). In the East, the Libyan National Army (LNA) is considered the strongest power group, supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is, the New York Times reported, “the most powerful and polarizing figure in a fractured landscape.” Haftar, once an active CIA associate, rose to power with the help of foreign firepower and a canny ability to manipulate his allies, which are shifting their allegiance frequently. Warplanes by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt pummeled Haftar’s internal enemies and helped the Commander capture several oil terminals. Saudi Arabia assisted with the funding. Last December, the self-appointed Field Marshal hired a firm of Washington lobbyists to burnish his image as a potential future leader of his country, although he does not see a democratic Libya soon. In an interview with Jeune Afrique, Haftar declared in March, “Today’s Libya is not ripe for democracy. Perhaps future generations will succeed.”
WILLING TO SELL OUT TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER
Nevertheless, he travelled to Paris, willing to accept an invitation by Emmanuel Macron for a peace conference, a possible Libyan agreement on elections for parliament and the presidency. Suddenly the Field Marshal was supporting free elections, a “thinly veiled ploy to become ruler for life” (Foreign Affairs).
In September of last year, Brussels renewed sanctions, previously held over six months, for three influential Libyan politicians, who were seen as threatening peace, security, and stability of Libya. Yet, these men were appreciated in their communities, and heavily supported by militias. They are Khalifa Ghweil, Prime Minister of the National Salvation Government; Nuri Abu Sahmain, President of the self-declared General National Congress as well as Agila Saleh, President of the House of Representatives. Saleh, strangely enough was invited by Macron to his Libya conference held in July, despite sanctions imposed by the EU — a demonstration of what Realpolitik really means.
The oil-rich country is reduced to a battlefield of various militias, willing to sell out to the highest bidder. Cynicism rules, brutality replaces the law. The criminal justice system has all but collapsed, reports Human Rights Watch. Civilian and military courts in the east and south remain mostly shut, while elsewhere they operated at reduced capacity. Prison authorities, often only nominally under the authority of the ministries of interior, defense and justice of the two rival governments, continue to hold thousands of detainees in long-term arbitrary detention without charges. Militias that operate their own informal, and often secret, detention facilities also hold detainees in similar circumstances. According to the Tripoli based Judicial Police, the body responsible for managing prisons under the Justice Ministry of the United Nations backed by the Government of National Accord (GNA), 6,400 detainees were held in prisons in the east, west, and south of the country — only 25 percent of these prisoners had been sentenced for a crime.
The defense and interior ministries of both governments in Libya hold an unknown number of detainees, including high-ranking members of the Gaddafi regime, in addition to militia-run secret detention facilities. On May 26th, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, a militia allied with the GNA Interior Ministry, overran the al-Hadba Correctional Facility in Tripoli and transferred from there to another location in the capital Gaddafi-era officials detained there, including former intelligence chief Abdullah Sanussi, former Prime minister Abuzaid Dorda, and al-Saadi Gaddafi, a son of the tyrant. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, subject to an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity, was, apparently, released by the Abu Baker Al-Siddiq militia in Zintan, which had held him since 2011. The reason for the release in June 2017, his jailers swore, was not a gigantic baksheesh, but an amnesty law passed by Libya’s parliament. Since that date, no trace of the assumed war criminal, whose hidden funds will enable him to change his face into that of a Norwegian sailor, travelling the world with valid identity papers and visas delivered by legal authorities.
“AND THE COUNTRY FLEW APART”
“With Gaddafi gone, the west stood back and anarchy engulfed the country. The remnants of the state splintered,” analyzed author Dexter Filkins, in the New York Times article Why Libya Continues to Burn “the Qataris arming the Islamists, the Emiratis, Egyptians and Russians arming the more secular minded groups—and the country flew apart.” The US air force concentrated mainly (in more than 500 aerial attacks) on groups loyal to Islamic State, trying to use the power vacuum to establish bases outside the larger cities. The Russians are increasingly supporting the Tobruk-based “Council of Deputies” and cultivate relations with the Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who received VIP treatment on several trips to Moscow. Last year, the Libyan warlord was guest of honor on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. No secret or surprise: the Field Marshal also discussed weapon deliveries.
Clashes between militias and forces loyal to the governments (in Tripoli and Benghazi) decimated the economy and public services, stated Human Rights Watch in their 2018 report on Libya, including the public health service and law enforcement. Militias linked with various government authorities in east and west of the country and criminal gangs in 2017, kidnapped or forcibly disappeared scores of people for political gain, ransom or extortion. The strategic goal of the more powerful militias like the LNA is not only the control of Tripoli or Benghazi, but also the oil fields stretching out a 100-miles south of Benghazi and 250 miles westward towards Sierte. Centered in this crescent-like area is the oil terminals of Sidra and Ras-Lanuf located, the rusting crown jewels of Libya. From 2014 to 2016, they were blocked by warlord Ibrahim Jadhran, an estimated loss of 100 billion dollars for the civil war torn nation. In September 2016 the LNA forces of Field Marshal Haftar announced the liberation, but were dislocated in March of that following year –again by Ibrahim Jadhran, who teamed up with tribal allies, jihadists, internally displaced persons from Benghazi and mercenaries recruited in Chad. Five days after the defeat Haftar’s fighters began their counter offensive, Jadhran fled, and some of the Chadian mercenaries were captured. In March of 2017, the LNA ended its siege of nearly two years on the Benghazi neighborhood of Ganfouda, which fighters of the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council were controlling and defending. When the LNA forces entered the town they committed, as activists of the Human Rights Watch report states: “…what appeared to be war crimes, killings of civilians and summarily executions and desecrating the bodies of opposition fighters.” Two months later forces aligned with the GNA (Tripoli) including the Third Force “of Misurata, the Benghazi Defense Brigades and other local fighter units, attacked an LNA airbase at Brak al-Shati, in the south of the remnants of Libya, executing as many as 51 individuals, most of them LNA fighters
Suicide bombers, beheadings, executions, battles of the militias, kidnappings, did not seem the right atmosphere for a constructive get together in Paris, engaging in peace talk with some of the deadliest rivals. Emmanuel Macron did not shy away to unite his Libyan guests in ONE conference room to discuss elections of parliament and the Presidency. They talked and the representatives of their neighbors listened as did ambassadors and delegates of 20 nations. It would need a miracle for them to agree, but they reached consensus, they did. Yes, they would work together to find the framework for the elections, which would be prepared for December 10. The most powerful men of Libya, so it seemed, would push their agenda, peace was near: Khalifa Haftar, whose army controls most of the counties east, Fayez al Sarraj, prime minister of the Tripoli based, UN backed government, Khalid Mishri, the newly elected head of the High Council of State (which functions as advisory body to the Sarraj government) and Agvila Saleh Issa, the speaker of the Tobruk based House of Representatives.
A PLETORAH OF ARMED GROUPS
The rivals agreed to set election rules by mid-September and agreed on the dates. An ambitious task indeed. Two rival governments, even three or four, a plethora of armed groups, that pledge allegiance to either administration or none, ready for war crimes if intimidation is needed or a defeat in battle to be avoided. How do you achieve trust and unity, transfer hate and brutality into a democratic environment?
“Libya remains a fragmented polity with multiple potential spoilers,” stated the International Crisis Group, a Brussels based research organization. “These four individuals do not capture the ideological, tribal and political rifts that run through the country, and indeed have done much to deepen them” (Rubin, 2018).
Emmanuel Macron declared the agreement as “historic,” but added a sobering assessment: “You have here the presidents of institutions that do not recognize each other. Each one denied the existence of the institutions the others represented, and their legitimacy. That is the difficulty of Libya’s current situation over the past months.” The Libyan leaders agreeing in Paris, did not sign the document, and pretended they needed to discuss the consensus with their supporters back home.
Apparently, they did not like what they were offered, four months after Macron had declared the agreement was essential for “the security and stability of the Libyan people” rockets hit Tripoli, artillery was fired, and tanks took defensive positions around the capital, which, in reality is just a center of power, manipulated and controlled by corrupt and uncontrollable militias. The current round of violence Foreign Policy argued was “…tragically predictable. Western governments’ recent loose talk about holding elections is a major culprit for inflating passions after over a year of quiet.”
The Libyan constitution does not include the post of President — a referendum is needed to present the text of the new constitution to the citizens.
The ill-judged peace offensive, needlessly hasty and possibly just an attempt by the French President to reassert the importance of France in world affairs (besides protecting oil interests in Libya), was not the real reason for the bloodshed, but rather banal, possibly the arrogance of one militia commander based in Tripoli, who drew attention and anger by posing photos on Facebook flaunting his lavish lifestyle at a time when ordinary citizens are struggling to survive.
The “ostentatious displays” by Haitham Tajouri, noted Declan Walsh in a recent New York Times article, “helped fuel resentment among rival groups for seeking to share in the pie” (Walsh & Zway, 2018).
A militia known as Kaniyat from Tarhouna, 45 miles southeast of Tripoli, launched the assault on the town, engaging in artillery battles in the southern suburbs, denouncing its rivals based in Tripoli as the Islamic State of public money, promising to cleanse them from Libya. Rockets hit parts of Tripoli, hitting a hotel popular with foreigners, forcing the airport to close for a few days. The fighting was the worst in years, leaving at least 47 people dead and over 130 wounded. Four hundred prisoners escaped the Ain Zara prison, flooding into a city already traumatized by violent street fighting.
“IT IS THE MOST DEADLIEST WAR”
No institution can hold the remnants of this nation together, create stability and restore sanity. Not one militia is strong enough to conquer its rivals and impose law and order, introducing the philosophy and structures of democracy. One exception comes to mind, provoking debate and dialogue, often negative, at times constructive — Facebook. The platform is more than just a tool of advertisement and communication, “Facebook has turned into a weapon,” insists the New York Times, “a weapon used by all factions of society.” The platform is not just mirroring national disintegration, but it also acts as a multiplier. Armed groups use Facebook to find opponents or critics, some of whom later have been detained, killed, or forced into exile. Forged documents circulate widely, often with the goal of undermining Libya’s few surviving national institutions, notably its Central Bank. Illegal activity is rife on Facebook in Libya-military grade weapons being openly traded, human traffickers advertise their success in helping illegal immigrants reach Europe by sea, and they use their pages to drum up more business. Practically every armed group in Libya, and even some of their detention centers, have their own Facebook page.
“The most dangerous, dirty wars are now being waged on social media and some other media platforms,” observed Mahmoud Shammam, a former information minister, because of the “lying, falsifying, misleading and mixing of facts.” Electronic armies, the former Libyan civil servant insists, are “…owned by everyone and used by everyone without exception. It is the most deadliest of wars.” Gaddafi had forbidden his citizens to buy a fax machine or a printer without official permission. Today Facebook’s influence is “largely a product of Libya’ s dysfunction,” reported Declan Walsh and Suliman Ali Zway, since there is no central authority, and most TV outlets or newspapers are tied to armed groups, political factions or foreign powers — like Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, bitter enemies these days.
Since 181 million people use Facebook every month in the Middle East and North Africa, Libya’s armed groups are using the reach of the platform as a powerful tool of propaganda and repression. In Benghazi, which is dominated by Khalifa Haftar, a special online unit, affiliated with his militia, scours Facebook for signs of dissent or suspected Islamists. Some have been arrested and jailed, while others were forced to flee the city. There are similar pressures in other areas and towns. Other examples include Tripoli, where the Special Deterrence Force, a militia led by a conservative, religious commander, Abdulrauf Kara, patrols Facebook with a moralizing zeal reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s once feared religious police. Mr. Kara does not pretend to be Louis XIV, but his dedication to his faith turns him into a censor of his people’s own spirituality, claiming for himself, “la religion, c’est moi.” Hopefully, he will live as long as the Roi.