By Tom Westcott.
London, 10 October 2014:
Libya is now getting sparse international news coverage but a London event showed the huge interest that . . .[restrict]remains in trying unravel the political complexities and fully grasp the country’s current situation.
The sold-out discussion panel at London’s Frontline Club entitled ‘Is Libya a Failed State?’ was chaired by international editor for the UK’s Channel 4 News and author of Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, Lindsey Hilsum. She opened the evening by saying that, while Libya seemed to be falling apart by accident, it was also falling through the cracks in terms of news coverage.
She was joined by human rights activist, founder of online publication Al-Mostakbal, and former Congressman Hassan Al-Amin; Libyan writer and editor of El-Kaf online newspaper on Libyan affairs, Ghazi Gheblawi; filmmaker and TV producer Huda Abuzeid; and The Guardian’s Libya correspondent Chris Stephen.
As panel members thrashed through aspects of the current situation in Libya, with particular focus on Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk, they repeatedly returned to the 17 February 2011 Revolution.
“It is complicated and some commentators and analysts miss a lot of points and confuse people more,” Gheblawi said, adding that it was important to look back to the end of the revolution – a point when there were only two opposing groups in Libya, many of whom were not prepared to put down their weapons. The next phase in the deterioration of the country was the passing of the Political Isolation Law, he said. “Because of this law, lots of people doing good stuff were pushed out overnight.”
Amin said it was important to look still further back, to before the revolution. “Qaddafi never dealt with the backwardness of this society, especially in terms of education and healthcare.” As well as almost no functioning institutions, the country had inherited a culture of corruption and the warped values of the old regime, he said. “New leaders made so many mistakes from the beginning.”
Gheblawi echoed this, saying Libyan leadership since the revolution had been characterised by incompetence at all levels, something the international community had failed to grasp. Blame lay at the feet of successive leaders and institutions, he said, including the General National Congress (GNC) and the National Transitional Council (NTC) before it and which, despite making pleas for international support, had failed to articulate exactly what kind of help was needed.
“It’s a political failure – we removed the head of state but had nothing to replace him with,” added Abuzeid.
Amin was also heavily critical of the GNC, of which he was a member before death threats forced him to resign and return to Britain, where he had lived for decades in opposition to the Qaddafi regime.
“The problem with the GNC was that it never sorted out or understood the priorities of the interim period. Instead of dialogue and reconciliation, we went for the Political Isolation Law and then a law for Islamic banking,” Amin said. He also explained that, right from its outset, Congress was fragmented, as members split into different blocs and entities, some of which were supported by militias or militia commanders, adding: “The GNC lost its way completely.”
Trying to unpick where it had all gone wrong, the international support offered to Libya since the revolution was also criticised. “NATO did a great job and we were very grateful,” Amin said. “However, after the revolution, instead of coming in as one coherent alliance, they started going their own way, opening dialogues with militias, bypassing and undermining institutions and empowering militias.”
Gheblawi pointed out that members of the international community had even competed against one another since the revolution, vying for contracts. This extended to lucrative deals for training members of the Libyan Army, he said, which led to troops being trained in different countries with different mentalities.
Amin said it went both ways: the current situation was a result of Libya’s own failures as well those of the international community.
Focusing on current power struggles, Abuzeid said the term ‘Islamist’ was a loaded one, suggesting that perhaps a better way to talk about it was to categorise people into those who supported the democratic process and those who were unhappy if they didn’t like the results and would try and confuse and undermine it.
Stephen pointed out, however, that although categorising key players and groups in Libya was a serious dilemma for journalists writing about Libya, it was an inevitable consequence when trying to simplify things for an international audience.
However they were labelled, Amin said: “Players in Libya today are not state-builders.” He added that what the country really needed was new emerging leaders uncorrupted by the country’s past.
Despite the rather bleak picture of the problems currently facing Libya, along with admitting that mistakes had been made, the speakers were unanimously loath to perceive Libya as a failed state with no hope of reprieve.
Stephen was confident that the current government and parliament – the House of Representatives – would be a success. “The question is not whether Parliament [the HoR] wins but whether it stays as a parliament,” he said. “I think it’s too late for dialogue – I believe in all that stuff but there is a war and war has its own logic – France and the US may not want to get involved, but I think they will. Parliament can win and it realises it can.”
Amin said now was the time for the international community to rally behind parliament and work with it to produce a roadmap, one which included plans on how to disarm and disband militias. “The West should be clear on one thing – there is no way Libya will be divided. A united Libya is what everybody is aiming for,” he said, adding that Libya should be giving out another very clear message: “No matter how, no matter what, heavy weapons must be taken out of the equation.”
Abuzeid said it was unfair to refer to Libya as a failed state after only three years, pointing to work being done by Civil Society Organisations and young people on the ground, especially the Scouts. “The Libyan Scouts are amazing because they are one of the few organisations that work,” she said, describing how, after the recent unrest in Tripoli, groups of Scouts cycled around the capital, saying they did not want the streets to be empty.
Gheblawi also looked outside the current political mire, pointing to the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDA) as an example of an institution that was working successfully. “I think the constitution is going to happen and the CDA is the only institution functioning well without meddling,” he said. “They are doing a fine job so far.”
The panel fielded multiple questions from the audience until Hilsum called time on the panel. Afterwards, speakers and audience members continued animated discussions about Libya’s present situation and future potential.
“The thirst for understanding the chaotic situation was an eye-opener,” one member of the audience told the Libya Herald. “It’s clear that there is a demand for coverage which is not being satisfied.” [/restrict]