Libyans Plead for American Help

(originally published in The Weekly Standard, May 1 2015
Midwifing democracy is not an Obama priority.
May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By ANN MARLOWE
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‘Why does the United States fight terror in Syria, Iraq, and Africa but not in Libya?” Idris al Magreibi, 40, a tall, lightly bearded member of Libya’s House of Representatives in Tobruk, was pacing the floor in the offices of the Libyan Mission to the United Nations as he raised the question. He spoke in Arabic, and a member of the mission served as interpreter.
From left: Tarek Alashtar, Idris al Magreibi, and Essa al Arabi

From left: Tarek Alashtar, Idris al Magreibi, and Essa al Arabi

Ann Marlowe

Magreibi and his colleagues Essa al Arabi, also 40, and Tarek Alashtar, 35, were among 12 Libyan legislators visiting Washington and New York last week in an effort to win American support for the internationally recognized Tobruk government. Its House of Representatives—elected in free and fair elections in June 2014 and known as the HoR—is now battling the Islamic State (ISIS), Ansar al Sharia, and a rival coalition of Islamist militias known as Fajr (Dawn) that seized Tripoli last August.

The three are bright, high-energy advocates for the kind of government the United States thought Libya would get after the 2011 revolution: committed to elections, representative democracy, the modern world, and resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme groups with a foothold in North Africa.

What they want from the United States is, most controversially, a further loosening of the already-relaxed U.N. arms ban on their government so that they can pursue the worthy objective of fighting ISIS and Ansar al Sharia. Many international observers worry that the weaponry would also be used against their Tripoli rivals. The Libyans point out, however, that Fajr is already supplying Ansar with arms.

The delegation also wants the United States to help train the Libyan National Army and police. (That was supposed to happen a couple of years ago but never got off the ground.) Two of the three I met—Arabi and Magreibi—as well as the HoR as a whole, asked for U.S. airstrikes on terror groups like ISIS and Ansar al Sharia, but none of the three wants U.S. boots on the ground.

The visitors can’t quite believe how little traction they are getting in Washington for requests they see as in America’s interest as well as theirs. Arabi, who represents a district in Benghazi still threatened by terrorists, noted, “A lot of people in Libya think that the United States is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.” This may be because American support for the HoR has been, in the words of Libyan civil society activist Ayat Mneina, at best “decorative.”

How did we get here? Libyans voted for their first national assembly in July 2012. This General National Congress proved a disaster—corrupt, incapable, and unwilling to relinquish authority to its successor body, the 188-seat HoR. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties did very poorly in the 2014 election and rejected its results.

During this period, militias were proliferating across the country. The General National Congress tried to pay them off. In Tripoli, rivalry between brigades from the mountain town of Zintan and the coastal city of Misrata erupted into open warfare for control of the airport.

In August, the Brotherhood struck back. Fajr took control of Tripoli airport, forcing the HoR to flee to Tobruk, on the coast near the Egyptian border. The Zintan militia retreated south into the Nafusa Mountains and has been engaged in a low-intensity conflict to regain territory ever since.

Now the HoR governs the eastern half of the country, some areas around Zintan, and part of the sparsely inhabited south. Its military is steadily gaining ground in an operation to recover control of western Libya. A few days after my interview, Fajr announced a truce with crucial tribes in the hinterland south of Tripoli, and at least one Misrata militia that had been fighting the Libyan National Army there agreed to pack up and go home.

In Tripoli, the rump General National Congress maintains a tenuous grip on power. Its radical Islamist prime minister, Omar al Hassi, was forced out a couple of weeks ago; he was once a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an al Qaeda ally.

Fajr isn’t quite the Taliban, but almost. Hassi was given to praising Ansar al Sharia, which is still supplied by Misrata militias and is the group that murdered U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens on September 12, 2012. Hassi also denied that the ISIS execution videos showing the murder of 21 Coptic Christians were real.

Fajr has vandalized or removed all of the figurative statues that once adorned Tripoli and routinely destroys Sufi shrines. Under its influence, the Tripoli government has segregated girls and boys even in primary school. That said, many Fajr supporters reject these actions, yet still believe their city’s interests are best served by Fajr. The Berber town of Zwara, for instance, supports Fajr because it opposes their traditional Arab enemies in surrounding towns.

Even as the militias fight, U.N.-brokered talks to form a unity government have been moving steadily forward. The idea is that both the prime minister and cabinet picked by the HoR and those chosen by the Tripoli contingent would resign, and a new slate acceptable to all would replace them.

As of this week, the U.N. proposal would designate the HoR the legitimate legislature—unacceptable to Fajr but an absolute requirement for members of the HoR. As Tarek Alashtar put it, “It’s okay to have a coalition government, but the will of the people is in the House of Representatives. If we don’t respect the people’s will, we leave it open in the future for any armed group to do the same.”

Like the Libyan population generally, the MPs I met with are young. According to the CIA World Factbook, 44 percent of Libyans are under 24, and 70 percent are under 35. As a result of widespread disgust with Qaddafi-era power brokers, Libya’s young voters tend to support young politicians. They’re more tech-savvy than their elders—they’ve graduated from faxes to computers—but with no experience of democracy, they are building the plane as they are flying it.

None of the three I met with has much political experience. Idris al Magreibi, whose district is in the oil port of Brega, has spent his adult life in construction and agribusiness. Though active in civil society groups after the revolution, he was content to leave politics to others. Then the GNC’s disastrous reign began. “I thought everything would go well, but the people in power had other agendas. They were not working on building a country or civil society. Instead they were working with [extremists] in Mali, Syria, and Iraq.”

Magreibi stressed that his constituents are comparatively well off. “Most of the people in Brega work for oil companies,” he said. “There are some shortages of bread and fuel, but necessities are 60-65 percent available.” It speaks volumes that this is considered a “good” situation in today’s Libya.

Essa al Arabi was formerly manager of medical affairs at the HIV Center in Benghazi. He got involved in the revolution, which started in Benghazi, early on. He sat out the first Libyan parliamentary elections in 2012 but decided to run in 2014 because he was disappointed in the quality of the GNC and alarmed by the rise of Ansar al Sharia and the epidemic of assassinations and kidnappings in Benghazi. At least 250 and possibly as many as 600 Libyans were assassinated by Ansar and other terror groups in Benghazi and Derna in 2014.

What happened that fall—a frontal assault on the militias by General Khalifa Haftar—is controversial among Libyans. Haftar held no regular army position post-Qaddafi until he was appointed commander in chief of the Libyan National Army in March 2015. He has still not completely rid Benghazi of Ansar, though the assassinations have stopped, and most of the city is now under army and police control.

The HoR was supposed to sit in Benghazi, but that city is still too dangerous, hence its present location in Tobruk, a small, boring town far from everywhere. Many representatives spend weekends in places like Cairo or Tunis with their families, especially if their districts are controlled by Fajr or threatened by ISIS and its allies.

Magreibi lives in his district, but Arabi can’t live in Benghazi. And Tarek Alashtar can’t even visit his district in Tripoli while it’s ruled by Fajr. His family lives a couple of hours away, across the Tunisian border. He communicates with his constituents in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli mainly by Facebook (huge in Libya) and phone, even though phone and Internet communications are monitored by Fajr, he says, as they were under Qaddafi.

The three politicians’ time in the United States was drawing to a close as we spoke, and they said they’d enjoyed their trip, especially Washington, which they preferred to New York (very congested by Libyan standards).

A few days later, I got a press release in Arabic from the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing satisfaction with the visit. It said that the delegation had met with officials at the White House, State Department, Treasury, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, USAID, and unnamed congressional leaders. The American authorities had shown “an understanding of the current situation in Libya, and reiterated [their] commitment to support the democratic process in Libya and to respect the will and choice of the Libyan people.”

By now, though, Americans know that under the Obama administration, this isn’t likely to translate into the support a fragile new democracy needs.

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