In 2011, during the “Arab Spring,” an American-led coalition overthrew the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Libya under Gaddafi had been a society with several potential conflicts kept under control by the dictatorship. People of Arab descent clashed with people of Berber or Turkish descent. The American attack took the lid off this cauldron. Many tribes and towns raised “brigades” of troops to help topple the hated regime. Few of those militias disbanded once victory had been won. Instead, Libya found itself fragmented even while it sought a path to national reunification. The groups quarreled over power and shares of oil revenue.

Things got worse over the next several years. By August 2014, Libyan towns and tribes were choosing sides in a looming civil war.[1] Thus, the mountain town of Zintan recruited many former Gaddafi troops to their militia and declared against radical Islamism, while the coastal town of Misurata allied with the Islamists. As an object lesson to the rest of the country, order had broken down in the capital city of Tripoli, fighting had ravaged the city, electrical power was often interrupted, gasoline often unavailable, and municipal services had collapsed.[2]

In 2012, one Islamist group, Ansar al-Shariah, participated in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi. Two years later, the group had grown more powerful. Bombings and assassinations had demonstrated its power. Other militias forged alliances with the Islamists.

In May 2014, a former general named Khalifa Hifter managed to gather some forces. He declared war on the Islamists. General Hifter didn’t bother to distinguish between “moderates” and “radical.” His attacks around Benghazi tightened the bonds between Ansar al-Shariah and the other Islamist groups. Hifter’s attacks added to the polarization of the country between those who opposed Ansar al-Shariah and those who supported the radical Islamists. That polarization had the potential to spread the fighting in Benghazi to the rest of the country.

Among his other acts, General Hifter had closed the existing parliament and ordered new elections. The new parliament was to convene in Tobruk, an eastern city close to the Egyptian border and within Hifter’s territory. It will surprise no one that the Islamists, who had been well-represented in the old parliament, declined to go to Tobruk. Instead, they announced that the old parliament would meet in the western city of Tripoli (close to the Tunisian border and within the territory controlled by Misurata). Rival parliaments in a country full of armed men is bad.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both grown alarmed over the Islamists-next-door in Yemen and Libya. The United Arab Emirates, an ally of Saudi Arabia, plays host to a satellite network that broadcasts anti-Islamic material to Libya. Qatar, which has supported Islamic causes elsewhere in the Middle East (See: Your Mind Is In the Qatar) runs a rival network broadcasting to the Islamists. At some point, the Egyptian Army may have to choose between intervention and just trying to seal off the almost 700 mile-long border with Libya.

Back in August 2014, things looked to be sliding out of control. Observers foresaw a likely choice between the restoration of a dictator and letting the place slide into a cauldron of Islamist extremism. Especially in the latter case, Libya’s fate would have wide repercussion in North Africa and the Middle East. The recent Islamist attack on a museum in Tunisia and the nominal adherence of the Libyan Islamists to ISIS add to the urgency.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt is likely to feel grateful to the United States for having caused this problem in the first place.

[1] David D. Kirkpatrick, “Strife in Libya Could Presage Long Civil War,” NYT, 25 August 2014.

[2] In a curiosity unexplained by the author, “bicycles, once unheard of, are increasingly common.” Un-noticed by the rest of the world, someone is importing bicycles into Libya.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s