BEIRUT, Lebanon — It wasn’t meant to be this way. In the heady days after the NATO-supported Libyan revolution of 2011 many democracy activists thought everything and anything was possible. Libya would become refreshingly modern and develop into the Arab Spring’s biggest success story. But as I talked to one of these old friends on the phone this week, the background noise of earth-shaking explosions and the crackle of automatic gunfire suggested how dire the situation is becoming in the Libyan capital three years after the toppling of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
The activist on the phone explained that Tripoli has become a free-fire zone between competing militias broadly divided along a pro- or anti-Islamist axis. He said the violence now is worse than during the fight against Gaddafi. And he asked that I not use his name for security reasons.
Another activist, Ahlam Ben Tabon, said, “We get five or six hours of bombing and gunfire a day.” She added: “The situation is very bad. We are running low on food and medicines.”
Neither offered excuses for Libya’s descent into all-out militia warfare. Like most Libyans I have spoken to in recent weeks they acknowledge that Libyans themselves are to blame for squandering the Western-backed opportunity handed them when Gaddafi fell. Some of those who worked hardest to help them have been driven from the country or, like U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, paid with their lives when the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi was burned in September 2012. Over the last few days the Americans, the British, and others have shuttered their embassies.
But, now, without major help from outside, these people hoping against hope for a modern democratic country say Libyans will be unable to bring order to the anarchy and that a failed state with an al Qaeda presence will present an aggressive threat just a short boat ride from the southern shores of Europe.
The words they’re hearing from Washington are not encouraging. The crises in Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Syria all trump the chaos in Tripoli and Benghazi. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni. “Libya’s challenges can really only be solved by Libyans themselves,” said Kerry. His promise to stand by Libya at “this very critical time,” when heard from among the rattle of gunfire and the thud of artillery, rang very hollow indeed.
“Why don’t they see the danger in all of this? The world must help us. This is not our fight alone. We are fighting terrorism,” says Ahlam Ben Tabon.
Like other democracy activists, especially those who have been campaigning for women’s rights, the danger comes not only from the general violence gripping the country but also from gangs targeting them specifically. Ahlam escaped two kidnapping attempts last week—only evading the would-be abductors on one occasion after a chase and crashing her car. “I am under constant threat,” she says. Some activists have shut down Facebook forums and stopped other online activity, saying that to be active now invites attack.
For all of the danger, Ahlam—who smuggled medicines and ammunition to rebels during the uprising—is not planning on leaving the capital. “I will remain in Tripoli,” she says. “We must help the people who have lost their homes. I cannot go out and leave people who need help.”
Kidnappings and assassinations of politicians, rights activists and journalists have increased dramatically. In June one of Libya’s most prominent human rights campaigners, Salwa Bugaighis, was stabbed and shot in the head by gunmen who stormed her house in Benghazi. Her death came on the day of the country’s general election for a new assembly that met this week in the town of Tobruk.
More than 3,000 people have fled their homes near Tripoli’s international airport, which has seen heavy clashes for three weeks between Islamist militias from the town of Misrata and fighters from an alliance led by commanders from the western mountain town of Zintan who are backing renegade general and one-time CIA asset Khalifa Haftar.
Contingents from the general’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army have been engaged in fierce firefights in Benghazi with Ansar al-Sharia, one of the jihadist-inspired groups blamed for the 2012 razing of the U.S. diplomatic compound where Ambassador Stevens died. The 65-year-old general, a former top Gaddafi-era military commander, has pledged to rid Libya of Islamist hard-liners.
So far there are no signs of that happening—neither side seems to have the strength to deliver a knockout blow and in Benghazi Ansar al-Sharia in recent days appears to have had the upper hand in clashes. It is intent on declaring an Islamic “emirate,” apparently mimicking the “caliphate” set up by jihadists in Syria and Iraq.
Tripoli, meanwhile, has suffered its terrifying descent into chaos. The capital is barely functioning and gripped by panic. Food shops, when they open, are running out of supplies and there are long lines at the bakeries that supply the staple food for Libyan society, although many districts have not seen bread for days. Fuel is almost impossible to be had.
“The electricity blackouts are just awful—they can last from four hours to 22 hours and the heat and fumes from fires is making things worse,” says Nisra, another activist. “People have been complaining of breathing problems but because there is no petrol they can’t get to hospitals, and pharmacies are closed.” Hospitals have put a call out for volunteers—many nurses are Filipinos and they have stopped working after one of them was gang-raped last week. “Medicines are not easy to find and baby milk also is running low,” says Nisra.
A Libyan-American woman, Halima, who fled the Hay Andalus district this week with her husband and two children, said they had no choice but to try to escape after two houses near their home were hit by rockets. “We had to get out. We couldn’t stay there any longer. We left at 7 o’clock in the morning. Everything is closed, the banks, the government ministries, supermarkets, everything. We didn’t have electricity for 16 hours a day and we couldn’t get fuel for our generator. The day we left there was no bread. I have never seen it that bad in my district. I was there during the entire uprising and we didn’t leave the country. This time around the fighting has really hit home in Tripoli—before there were NATO airstrikes targeting barracks and Gaddafi’s compound, but now gunfights are widespread and random.”
The slow march toward Libya’s implosion was telegraphed long in advance. In fact just weeks into the life of the country’s first post-Gaddafi legislature, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress failed to come up with any credible plan to disarm revolutionary militias or to stop new militias from forming.
For months squabbling lawmakers, who couldn’t conduct everyday business with even a modicum of competence, failed to organize basic services like clearing up of the trash piled across the capital. They never responded to the advice of international agencies urging them to start quickly a process of political reconciliation, reform the dysfunctional ministries and form a national army, as opposed to relying on the militias—some ideological, some town-based—to maintain law and order. The abject failures of governance allowed the militias to flourish and encouraged towns that thought they owned the revolution to ignore the central government.
In the hours and days after the Benghazi attack I talked several times with Libya’s then-Prime Minister Mustafa Abushugar and GNC President Mohamed Magariaf and their aides only to be offered ever-changing, conflicting and contradictory accounts—they had no idea what really took place, which goes some way to explain the confusion in Washington, D.C., and the nonsense about a protest spinning out of control.
Each setback—from the razing of the American compound in Benghazi to the bombing of the French embassy, from ethnic disputes in the south to clashes between militias and dozens of assassinations—were dismissed by the feeble government as growing pains for the fledgling democracy. Now, with Libya failing, the jihadist presence has begun filling the vacuum. Al Qaeda camps are well established in the south and east of the country, according to Libyan and U.S. intelligence sources.
Of course there was a starry-eyed impracticality to the whole notion that Libya would glide from the utter madness of Gaddafi to a functioning, democratic state. The activists sharing their passionate ideas for reform at meetings in Tripoli were endearing, but increasingly utopian and running ahead of the culture of a pious Sunni Muslim country where religious observance underpins every social norm. As they talked of empowering women, Libya’s aged Grand Mufti was issuing fatwas demanding women teachers be veiled when instructing boys—and secretly marrying a teenager himself. But the excuse that it would take time to undo what Gaddafi had done increasingly became just that—an excuse, a dodging of personal responsibility.
When former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan tried to call the militias’ bluff after they blockaded government buildings by calling on the people to come out in support of him, just a few hundred answered his call and turned up to protest in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square. Looking back, one sees that was the final nail in the coffin of Libyan democracy.
The numbers of the dead and injured in the last few days of fighting are unknown. According to Libya’s health ministry, 214 have been killed in Tripoli and Benghazi in the last few weeks, with nearly a thousand injured. The ministry bases its figures on reports from hospitals but local reporters doubt the numbers are accurate, arguing that many of the dead and wounded aren’t being taken to hospitals because of intense fighting or lack of transport. On Monday more than 100 missiles were reported to have fallen on the Tripoli district of Janzour alone.
Activists say the numbers of dead are bound to rise and ask what is the difference between civilians being killed by Gaddafi—deaths that encouraged the West to intervene—and now.
The difference, of course, is that those were days of hope in the Arab world, and these are not.