Lessons from Libya

In 2010 Libya had by far the highest Gross Domestic Product and highest average life expectancy in Africa along with a poverty rate lower than that of the Netherlands. Now, fast forward 5 years on. Libya is nothing more than a failed state, with a failing economy, an ongoing civil war, an unprecedented fall in oil production levels, and arguably the world’s largest source of black market of weapons. The turning point in this narrative is the NATO Intervention. So then the obvious question becomes how did it get to such a stage? and why did a ‘humanitarian intervention’ bring about such chaos and uncertainty?

How did the initial conflict escalate?

The most important factor contributing the the escalation was the mainstream narrative of the conflict was flawed.

Anyone who was at the time following the Libyan conflict of 2011 would remember the constant rhetoric of the “prevention of a genocide” , or a possible second Rwanda. From CNN to BBC ,a certain narrative was constructed in which Gaddafi’s security forces were attacking civilians who were peacefully protesting. This narrative then developed into the people of Libya being forced into a military conflict due to the actions of the Dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Such portrayal was dominant from Western governments and mainstream media outlets, eventually leading to a support of the rebel opposition.

Analysing an alternative narrative is very vital, as it not only reveals possibly biases that were present within the generally accepted ‘truth’, but it also reveals the context behind the narrative and the possible functions it might have served. According to reports from the United Nations, and Amnesty International ,the violence was initiated by the protesters, and that the protests were not peaceful, but rather hijacked by multiple militias with different ideological backgrounds. The reports also highlighted the flawed mainstream reporting on the ‘foreseen genocide’ by the Gaddafi forces.

The concept of genealogy affirms that all knowledge is situated in a particular time and place, and constrained to function with particular concepts and categories of knowledge. What this means is that a single particular events can be interpreted in many different ways through different perspectives. Perspectives then not only represent a lense to analyse the conflict, but rather become carriers of meanings and representations.  All representations are based within a certain context. Representations are the foundation by which the status of reality is conferred to events.

The root of the problem found in Libya stems from the NATO intervention of 2011. The intervention was one that took place under the precedence of humanitarian intervention and the prevention of a genocide. Two precedents claims that are very controversial in light of the events that occurred prior to the intervention and are deeply entrenched in the western narrative of the Arab Spring. As Alan Kuperman highlighted in his article “lessons from Libya: how not to intervene”, the failure of the post-intervention Libya is largely due to the way in which a false and flawed narrative was perpetuated about the Libyan conflict of February 2011, which lead to actions taken by Western states that greatly magnified the problem.

Libyan army clashing with Islamist gunmen outside Benghazi

Libyan army clashing with Islamist gunmen outside Benghazi

Why and How did the intervention bring about a failed state?

The Libyan conflict was understood in the context of the Arab Spring, a largely peaceful revolution in which long standing dictators were displaced by peaceful means. In Egypt and Tunisia, such a narrative is more applicable than in Libya. In the case of Libya, a rebellion of militias was forced into the narrative of the Arab Spring, this moulding of the conflict into a ‘peaceful revolution’ brought two major flawed representations into the forefront of the political debate that had a lasting effect.

The first flawed representation was that the rebels were homogeneous in purpose and goal. This assumption proved most costly. Professor Vijay Prashad argues that Libyan cities are like a collection of archipelagos, each city was separated by huge swaths of desert that isolated them from each other. When NATO forces decided to support the rebels logistically than militarily, they did not take into consideration the possible long term effect of arming multiple militias who are of no relation, and who pursue different goals. By arming and supporting multiple different militias NATO paved the way for an unstable society, as after Gaddafi’s assassination and the instalment of the Transitional government, none of the militias gave up their weapons, but rather held on to the territories they originated from.

The second was that the people wanted Gaddafi out and it was his brutal repression of such actions that resulted in the conflict. This flawed reporting played into the Arab Spring narrative. A people’s revolt for democracy might have been what began the initial protests, but from very early on the protests were hijacked by organised armed militias.

What now?

The crisis in Libya can be understood as a tragedy that had little to do with Libya, and all to do with the limitations of international relations and diplomacy. From falling victim to the biases etched in the narratives held by the West, the Libyan people now face a civil war between four different De facto governments. One thing that I believe is vital for the re-stabilization of Libya, is that whatever the solution maybe, it must come from within Libya. The burden of the crisis is carried by the Libyan people, therefore it will be their perspective and shared narrative that must pave the way forward.


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