CAIRO — For weeks, rival Libyan militias had been pounding one another’s positions with artillery, mortar rounds and rockets in a desperate fight to control the international airport in the capital, Tripoli. Then suddenly, early Saturday morning, the fighting just stopped.
The pause came as United States military warplanes circled overhead, providing air cover for a predawn evacuation of the American Embassy’s staff. Apparently fearing the planes, the militias held their fire just long enough for the ambassador and her staff to reach the Tunisian border — a reminder to Libyans of how even their most powerful allies were incapable of putting out their incendiary feuds.
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American officials said the evacuation was a temporary measure after fighting drew too close to the embassy. But, coming so soon after the withdrawal of other diplomatic missions, including the United Nations, the moment appeared to signal a defeat — for Libyans who had convinced themselves that the country would band together to save the revolution, and for the country’s Western allies, who sometimes acted as if Libya’s stability would take care of itself.
“No one in Libya can win,” said Mahmoud Okok, 33, a civil engineer who lived near the airport and the United States Embassy, and who abandoned his apartment because of the shelling. A cousin who also lived near the airport was killed when a rocket landed on his home. Now Mr. Okok was moving, with his wife and young son, overseas.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “I have lost hope in Libyans.”
Three years ago, the United States and its NATO allies used air power to propel the Libyan rebels to a sweeping victory over Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, bombing government troops so that rebels could advance on cities, and even the colonel himself, when he tried to flee.
But after the revolt, as Libya’s government struggled and violence spread, the Obama administration and its allies failed in their efforts to help Libyans achieve either democracy or security. Now, with diplomats escaping and neighborhoods becoming battlefields, Libyans have been left to wonder whether there is anyone left to broker the endless fights.
The country is coming undone. Relentless factional fighting in Tripoli and in the eastern city of Benghazi has left dozens of people dead. Well-known political activists have been killed, diplomats have been kidnapped, and ordinary citizens fear bandits on the roads.
Water and electricity shutdowns have become more frequent than at any time since the chaos after Colonel Qaddafi’s fall, and fuel has disappeared from Tripoli’s gas stations. On Sunday, several Western nations advised their citizens to leave immediately. Gunmen attacked a convoy of British diplomats.
Like Mr. Okok, many are leaving, mostly over land: The battle for the airport has left it a gutted symbol of a disintegrating state. Lost in the rubble of the airport was the sense of collective purpose that seemed to unite Libyans not so long ago, during the revolt.
“If you’re willing to destroy your airport — that idea of national sovereignty, that we’re all in this together, then the issue of national identity is simply not as important as everyone thought it would be,” said Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor at Dartmouth College and an expert on Libya who has visited regularly since the revolution.
Everyone seems stunned at the ferocity of the country’s arguments: divisions of ideology and identity that mask deeper struggles, over authority and wealth. Violence that was once sporadic now seems impossible to stop. Libya’s fighters, evenly matched with apparently limitless supplies of weapons and ammunition, appear unlikely to stand down on their own.
This time, the fighting in Tripoli seems at least partly fueled by the campaign of a general named Khalifa Hifter, who vowed in May to rid the country of Islamist militias. He and his self-proclaimed national army have focused their fight in Benghazi, where daily battles with the militias have settled into a deadly stalemate.
Mr. Hifter has won support from Libyans who fear the growing assertiveness of extremists, especially in eastern Libya. But his campaign has also stirred new divisions, and violence, across the country. Militias from the coastal city of Misurata that oppose Mr. Hifter have been clashing for weeks around the Tripoli airport with fighters from the mountain city of Zintan, who support him.
And the United States has sent mixed signals about Mr. Hifter’s efforts, warning about the violence while conceding that he was pursuing militiamen it considered terrorists.
After the 2011 revolution, Libya’s foreign allies had “a very light footprint” as the transition got underway, said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya researcher with the nonprofit International Crisis Group. The country seemed to be holding together better than many people had expected. “There was a consensus that this was a Libyan-led transition” — as well as a general feeling that a turbulent transition would be smoothed out by elections.
“There was some naïveté in that approach,” Ms. Gazzini said.
Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship had left a country bereft of institutions, or consensus political figures, that might ease the transition. The NATO intervention left its own troubling legacy, stirring fights over resources provided by foreign patrons. Libyans seemed focused on creating the institutions that “the West was interested in seeing them create,” said Professor Vandewalle, including elections and a political system. “It was hollow,” he said.
In the absence of a strong government, a monstrous shadow state was emerging, centered on the power of militias made up of men who fought Colonel Qaddafi and never put down their arms.
They became security units, paid by the government and aligned with political factions or local tribal interests. “There were parallel chains of command,” Ms. Gazzini said. “Parallel security units became a problem from Day 1. Maybe the international community didn’t see the consequences of this.”
And even if Libya’s foreign allies had wanted to push harder to reorganize the security apparatus, they had little leverage, Ms. Gazzini said. Libya, an oil-rich state, did not need money or other financial incentives that had worked in other post-conflict countries, she said.
There were tragic distractions. In September 2012, militants attacked the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, killing the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans. As a political controversy over the attack churned in Washington, the Obama administration’s focus shifted to the safety of its diplomats and to finding the ambassador’s killers.
Outwardly, American engagement with Libya was restricted after that to carefully planned forays by heavily armed convoys, coming and going from an embassy compound that resembled a fortress. American officials remained active, including with efforts to train an army as well as to strengthen civil society institutions, said Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. At the same time, “a very guarded force protection posture hindered access,” he said.
The failures of Libya’s politicians also left a vacuum. A quarreling Parliament became a lightning rod for ideological fights between Islamists and non-Islamists. Militia leaders extended their control, including one who blockaded Libya’s main oil ports.
Libyan mediators and a group of high-level envoys, including from the United States and Britain, have been unable to stop the fighting in Libya’s two largest cities. Two weeks ago, the United Nations withdrew from the country — promising, as the Americans have, that the move was only temporary.
“The battles are taking place much more openly than they were,” Professor Vandewalle said. “This is a threshold moment in Libyan politics. What we’re seeing more than ever before is a struggle over the soul of Libya.”
There are reasons to hope that the country will pull itself back from the brink. For all its violence, it has not descended into the kind of bloodletting seen in Iraq and Syria. A new Parliament that is supposed to be seated soon also could unite the country.
Some, though, have given up, blaming Libya’s militiamen for the country’s troubles, but also saying foreign allies failed to pay close enough attention.
“They knew all this would happen and could be avoided,” said Salma el-Bargathi, 28, who lives in Benghazi and is leaving the country over worries about extremists. “They knew that Libya couldn’t do anything without them.”
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The West cannot help them, anymore than it can help Syria. Tribal/clan society + Islam = constant fighting.