All the empathy and all of Libya's oil riches cannot fix the hole in the heart of its body politic
The Libyan Red Crescent says the death toll in the flooded city of Derna is at least 11,300 and a further 10,000 people are missing.
You know who else is missing in action? A guy named Faiez Al-Serraj. He’s supposed to be Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, a rickety contraption with a grand name. It was put together in 2015 by the so-called international community in a UN-sponsored deal for a supposed “unity government”. Mr Al-Serraj’s role is supposed to be roughly equivalent to that of prime minister. Have you heard him say anything, or even better, heard of him doing anything since Derna was all but drowned?
It’s pointless, of course to focus all the blame on Mr Al-Serraj.
One of Libya’s main problems in the past 12 years is that foreign powers have used it to play games of their own.
In the east, where Derna lies, the UAE and Russia hold sway. They support Libya’s pro-Moscow military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who seems to spend most of his time plotting to become more powerful. As recently as late August, there were news reports that “Russian military officials including Moscow’s deputy defense minister arrived in Libya…” The Arab News said: “Haftar, who backs the country’s eastern administration, is close to Russia’s private Wagner mercenary group, whose troops guard military and oil infrastructure in the country.” The report quoted the defence ministry in Moscow: “This is the first official visit of a Russian military delegation to Libya”.
Then there’s the invisible, inaudible Mr Al-Serraj. He’s part of the Tripoli government, in the west of Libya, which represents the other end of the foreign equation. That outfit was cobbled together by Western powers, as part of their efforts to exert control over Libya.
It was to be a doomed attempt and we are seeing the results. For the past eight years, Mr Al-Serraj has been in office but not in power. And Libya has had an embarrassment of riches – two governments but little or no governance.
The consequences are painfully on view for the whole world to see. When a major Mediterranean storm brought torrential rains, it caused the failure of two large dams built a half-century ago by a Yugoslav company near the coastal city of Derna. This led to sudden flooding and whole neighbourhoods were washed into the sea. As The Washington Post has reported, experts had already warned that the dams might fail as they were in a state of disrepair. “Between 2011 and 2014, there were already concerns about the state of Libyan infrastructure,” Mary Fitzgerald, a Libya expert at the Middle East Institute, told the paper. “And then Libya went through a six-year civil conflict from 2014 to 2020 and a lot of infrastructure was damaged during that conflict. In the three years since, you have a situation of rival government, which has yet again complicated political dynamics. Political elites, whether in Tripoli or eastern Libya, haven’t prioritized the huge infrastructural challenges Libya faces.”
This is of a piece with a UN official’s doleful comment that Libya could have “avoided most of the human casualties” if “proper services”, for instance emergency warnings, had been in place.
In the aftermath of that tragedy, Libya’s two squabbling governments (paywall) have put on a rare and remarkable display of unity by co-ordinating their relief efforts.
But all the empathy and all of Libya’s oil riches cannot fix the hole in the heart of the Libyan body politic. The country has been beset by crises since the 2011 violent overthrow and killing of long-ruling dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
Lest we forget, that was an agenda pushed by the West.
We’ll next look at how Libya’s government in the western part of the country was fixed by the West.