Flip-Flops and Kalashnikovs

Tom Stevenson reports from Libya

‘Honourable was the swift and timely aid offered to them in their struggle by the West,’ the Times said of the Libyan rebels who rose up against Gaddafi during the Arab Spring in 2011; Western military intervention on behalf of the rebellion was ‘a good deed in a weary world’. Today, more than five years after Gaddafi’s fall in October 2011, Libya has been relegated to that class of countries (Afghanistan, Somalia) from which we hear occasional news of US drone strikes but little else. Gaddafi’s overthrow was quickly followed by a national implosion. The historical divide between Tripolitania in the west and the cities of Cyrenaica to the east reopened; disparate bands of militias hacked up the country; arms dealers enjoyed a surge in business unmatched since the collapse of the Soviet Union; paramilitary forces took control of the oil infrastructure. By 2014 two competing governments had emerged, neither of which was in a position to govern. Algerian and Tunisian jihadists found a haven free from French-trained counter-insurgency units. Islamic State established its most powerful satellite in Gaddafi’s ancestral seat of Sirte, where it named the city’s mosque after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and carried out public executions for witchcraft. Feuds which had lain dormant or been actively discouraged in Gaddafi’s time resurfaced and still persist, with varying degrees of severity, between at least a dozen tribal groups and rival towns. The small town of Tawergha, for example, devastated in 2011 by rebel forces from its large industrial neighbour Misrata, remains an empty ruin, its former residents scattered in four refugee camps around the country.

Western-led regime change has produced a catastrophic breakdown: 400,000 people are internally displaced out of a population of six million; more than a million have fled abroad. Many layers of conflict – tribal, regional, ethnic, religious, for and against the old regime – are now superimposed, one on top of another. Libya is now a country of several governments and none, where rival entities with grand titles – the Government of National Accord, the Government of National Salvation, the House of Representatives – fight for the right to claim authority over a state that no longer exists. The real forces in Tripoli are the militias that roam the city. In the country as a whole, there are two increasingly hostile power blocs: one consisting of old army units under an ageing general in the east, the other an alliance of the tribal merchant elites of the city-state of Misrata in the west. Both blocs have their eyes fixed on Libya’s capital in anticipation of another round of brutal fighting.

Tripoli itself has an unmistakable air of decay. The cranes above the grey edifice of what was supposed to become the Intercontinental Hotel haven’t moved in six years. The crumbling, unfinished tower blocks on the edge of town loom beside the remains of others burned out or bombed in the war. Many still bear slogans from the time of the revolt. There are oases of wealth, tidy streets that could be in some dull part of urban France, but turn a corner and you encounter others as squalid as anything in the poorest quarters of Niamey. Countless posters of martyrs plastered onto roadside billboards in the heady afterglow of victory are faded now, nearly to white.

In the shabbier areas of Tripoli long lines of people queue for bread each night. For the last six months markets which were once regulated by the state have been closed and the price of food has tripled. Even in affluent areas many of the streets are either unpaved or so broken and covered in mud that they look unpaved. Roads and drainage systems are in disrepair. Even a shower of rain leaves narrower streets flooded and beaches dozens of cars along the ring road. At present power cuts last 14 hours a day, but in mid-January the whole country from the Tunisian border to Benghazi was without power for more than 24 hours after a militia stopped up the gas pipeline to the al-Harsha powerplant west of Tripoli. Outside the nearby city of Khoms I saw more than a hundred people queueing in single file along a desolate road to refill small gas cylinders. Every morning hundreds of people queue, usually in vain, in the hope of withdrawing the equivalent of $50 from their banks, which are desperate for hard currency. Those with access to euros or dollars are better off with the black market pedlars, who stand in suspicious-looking huddles in Essaah Square in the Medina, up beyond the gold merchants and the cafés with Italian names.

Wealthier people talk of migration (‘Believe me, if someone has a way out they take it’) and admit to a sense of regret (‘It’s a mess that will take decades to fix’; ‘Gaddafi was no angel, but …’). I spoke to a bomb disposal expert who had taken many risks as an underground activist in 2011, hanging ‘Free Libya’ flags by night and later joining the uprising. Now he was riddled with guilt. ‘They were different times, but when I look back I ask myself: if I had stayed home, would Gaddafi have stayed in power, and would all of this never have happened?’

The only police in Tripoli are traffic cops. They don’t even flinch when a gun is fired at the other end of the street. At the Interior Ministry’s administrative headquarters the front gate was guarded by a lone man wearing a T-shirt and beret and carrying a Kalashnikov. Told that I was there to meet the director of protocol he asked, ‘Who is the director of protocol?’ – not as a challenge but with genuine curiosity. Inside, two deserted storeys up, a captain in a smart grey wool coat sat behind a big desk in a corner office watching John Travolta in Be Cool. At least he had turned up for work; much of the Libyan police force now exists only on paper. A colonel in the internal intelligence service told me that he, and every other high-ranking officer he knows, shows up once a week to pick up his paycheck – Libya’s oil has ensured a trickle of money to the Interior Ministry even through the worst of the fighting – and spends the rest of the time at home. ‘It’s too dangerous: there’s no security whatsoever. There’s no police, no army, no discipline, just flip-flops and Kalashnikovs,’ he said, before listing the names of convicted criminals who had been released during the 2011 uprisings and were now active in the militias.

The superficial appearance of order in Tripoli depends on a fragile understanding between the four militia bosses who run the city. Haitham Tajouri, a former prison guard who drafted in many of his former charges, controls the largest militia. The Salafist sheikh Abdulraouf Kara’s Special Deterrence Force (Radaa) has a sprawling base at the airport to the east of the city. The Nawasi brigade, headed by Mustafa Gadour, an old associate of Kara, is quartered in a former riding school. Abdul Ghani al-Kikli (also known by the nom de guerre ‘Ghneiwa’) is based in the Abu Sleem area, just south of the disused zoo. These militias have formed a tentative alliance against armed outsiders trying to muscle in on Tripoli. Underneath the big four are many smaller groups. Tripoli University, for example, is under the ‘protection’ of the Saadawi militia; the west of the city is Fursan militia territory; the remnants of al-Qaida-linked militias control the Nasr forest behind the Rixos Hotel, along with a string of other jihadist groups, including the Muqatilah (commonly known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group), which operates across the whole city.

The streets are mostly clear of the arbitrary checkpoints that crop up in Libya’s more stable neighbourhoods. You can move around Tripoli without much trouble, but militiamen of various persuasions are everywhere, wearing fake Barbour jackets over US navy combat trousers and carrying rifles. In the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall the National Transitional Council, which took charge with the backing of the Western powers, was compelled to dip into the state coffers – ample at the time – to pay off the militiamen who had done the spadework for the rebellion. The kinds of salary they were offering produced a dramatic increase in the number of ‘revolutionaries’. The majority of militiamen today are young men, often high on tramadol, who signed up after the fall of the regime for the sake of a gun and a new pair of trousers. The militias seized government offices and took over the businesses and villas of notables, going on to colonise the shells of the Defence and Interior Ministries and draw state salaries. Most of the larger militias are nominally under the command of government ministries but in practice take orders from no one.

Some of the militia leaders claim they uphold order in lieu of the police out of a sense of civic duty, but it doesn’t take long to see how they really work. Haitham Tajouri’s men spend much of their time steaming around in armoured vehicles and four-by-fours with rocket-launchers bolted to their flatbeds. On the Gurgi Street roundabout Radaa and Nawasi fighters are regularly posted in Toyotas mounted with anti-aircraft guns or huge machine guns ripped off combat helicopters. I saw one of Radaa’s men wearing a tan jelabiya and white taqiyah casually sitting in the driver’s seat of a vehicle that had been modified to carry what looked like a 16-foot naval artillery cannon – all the better for deterring pickpockets, no doubt. The cannon formed the rearguard of a column of Radaa’s Canadian Terradyne armoured vehicles, which was returning from a drugs bust in the residential district of Gergarish. The bust had gone wrong and turned into a street fight with a Nigerian criminal gang. Driving through the area afterwards you could see buildings with their fronts ripped away; there was a strong smell of gunpowder and something like flint.

Sheikh Kara’s Radaa force in particular moves around the city with a conquering air. In January I visited their base at the rear of the airport, where one of the militia’s commanders told me at length of Radaa’s popularity and general saintliness. ‘We conduct operations to find escaped convicts and counter drugs and alcohol trafficking because the police are too weak to do so and because the spread of crime and drugs is very dangerous,’ he said. It was hard to take him seriously, especially given Radaa’s alliance with Tajouri, who is universally known as a foul-mouthed, blasphemous cocaine-snorter. ‘There are Africans on our soil feeding our children drugs and alcohol,’ he went on. ‘They are illegal immigrants in many cases and they run brothels and spread lethal diseases.’ Anti-African sentiment has become widespread since the uprising, when black Libyan towns and tribes were accused of siding with the loyalist forces and rumours spread that Gaddafi employed African mercenaries. During the bust in Gergarish, Radaa rounded up seven hundred sub-Saharan Africans. Most of them were bussed to immigration detention centres, but sixty were kept behind in the Radaa’s own private prisons.

Countless people are held in militia prisons across Libya; Radaa alone holds more than two thousand. They are said to be dismal places but I wasn’t permitted to see one. Instead I was shown a rehabilitation centre – another contract extorted from the Justice Ministry – which had a carpentry shop, a spotless bakery, a small assembly line for making doors and a Quranic school. Unlike many militias, Radaa is not driven chiefly by self-enrichment: Kara’s Salafism – a non-jihadist variety – is relatively apolitical, pious and conservative, and Radaa is respected since it represents a semblance of order. A commander at the base said they would disband if a real state emerged, but there’s no one who could make them.

Most of the other Libyan militias don’t pretend to have an ideology; they appear trapped in the logic of armed revolt, eternal revolutionaries, but they don’t really need a pretext for going about their business of smuggling, extortion, murder and kidnapping. (I never went two days in Tripoli without meeting someone whose neighbour or friend had been kidnapped, not at some point over the last few years but that very morning.) Nuri, a former militiaman I met recently on the outskirts of Tripoli, said car-jackings were the latest craze: even clapped-out cars are appropriated for hit-and-run jobs. He lamented the lack of order and was particularly scathing about his former comrades in Quwwat al-Mutaharika, the militia he left at the start of the last battle for Tripoli in 2014. He said they had descended into thuggery and hoped General Khalifa Haftar would come from the east and lay down the law.

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Khalifa Haftar is a Gaddafi-era general turned CIA asset who reappeared in Libya after twenty years in exile in Virginia to take part in the revolt in 2011. He then returned to the US, but cropped up again in February 2014, when he delivered a traditional coup-style broadcast on national television, claiming to have seized power on behalf of the ‘Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Libya’, the precise wording used by Egypt’s junta. His claim was laughed off in the following days when nothing seemed to happen. But Haftar stuck at it and by July, with the former heads of the air force, navy, air defence forces and military police at his side, he had succeeded in starting a war in Tripoli. Militias and army units under his command – he remained at a distance – fought Tripoli’s militia bosses, and forces from nearby Misrata, for control of the capital, destroying Tripoli International Airport in the mêlée. He failed to win power, but his Libyan National Army, which is made up of old army brigades, tribal militias and scriptural Salafists, survived. Haftar claims to have fifty thousand men under his command, a figure that’s difficult to verify but if accurate would make the LNA the most powerful single force in the country.

Haftar’s line is that ‘Libyans had no idea what democracy meant’; the country, he says, needs a military man in charge. The CIA appears to have cut him off some time ago, but for 18 months he openly appealed for Western backing. Western diplomats told me he was considered ‘a strongman who just isn’t strong enough’ and ‘a less charismatic Gaddafi’ (though French intelligence is now working with him and Boris Johnson has been pushing for Britain to revisit the matter). Spurned by the US, he has turned to Russia for backing and was recently photographed in Moscow wearing a ushanka. A classic war on terror rhetorician, he has been taking on Islamic State, non-IS jihadists, and anyone else who stands up to him in Cyrenaica from his base in the eastern city of Marj. His followers now control much of Benghazi and the Gulf of Sirte oilfields. Allegations that he has targeted civilians and ordered extra-judicial killings have done little to discourage support for him among those who hope that he can push through a solution.

If and when Haftar moves on Tripoli the strongest resistance will come from Misrata. Two hours by road from the capital, Misrata is, in effect, a well-organised city state; it is also an industrial-commercial hub, with the country’s major iron and steel complex and a range of businesses. Misrata’s industrial and merchant elites have a major stake in Tripoli: it is their consumer base. The city’s detractors, Haftar among them, claim that its leaders are too close to the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and too hungry for power. Misrata’s militias comprise forty thousand well-armed men, a loose coalition of mainstream Islamists, Salafists and pragmatists who do not always see eye to eye. Despite its divisions this is probably the most coherent bloc in the country, and the old merchant families who dominate the city have made it clear that they have no interest in living under Haftar.

The Misratans can properly claim to have risked much in the rebellion against Gaddafi and did well in the battle against Islamic State in Sirte, where they lost hundreds of men but were beaten by Haftar to the surrounding oilfields. Italian intelligence is working ever more closely with Misratan forces (the partly state-owned Italian multinational ENI has extensive oil interests in Libya), just as Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are increasing their support for Haftar. International involvement is doing nothing to lower tensions. An airstrike by Haftar’s LNA on 3 January badly injured the chief of the Misratan Military Council, Ibrahim Beit al-Mal, as he visited a southern airbase in Jufra. Mohamed al-Ghasri, the main military spokesman for the Misratan forces, claimed two weeks later that a ‘war in the south is imminent’ and that the Misratans are already clashing with Haftar’s soldiers in the surrounding desert.

The remnants of the Government of National Accord, meanwhile, are desperately clinging to power. Formed by the UN under the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, it was intended to reconcile the two governments that had emerged by 2014: the Government of National Salvation in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives government based a thousand kilometres away in the eastern cities of Tobruq and Bayda (for a time its ‘parliament’ met on a Greek cruise ship in the port of Tobruq). Uniting Libya under a single government was seen as a first step to rebuilding the country, but in the event the GNA simply became the third government in a triad of pretenders.

From the outset it was plagued by accusations that it was a sham, installed by the West to legitimise a new military intervention: the first request the US made to the GNA was that it authorise US airstrikes on IS in Sirte. The impression that it was a tool of the West gained ground when the GNA’s Presidential Council arrived in Tripoli – three months late and already two members down after internal squabbling – having been ferried from Tunis by the Italian navy. (By then the previous UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, had been found bartering the authority of his office to the UAE for a highly paid directorship, which he took, and moved to Abu Dhabi.) During its first months in Tripoli the GNA had to hold its meetings in the naval base where it had disembarked. It now has control of the Presidential Council building, a glass construction put up on the site of a medical clinic that Gaddafi demolished in 2006 when he discovered its staff had celebrated Saddam’s hanging.

Half of the windows of the council headquarters have been shot out, and when I went there in January it was surrounded by a moat of dirty water. Inside I met Ahmed Maiteeq, the urbane deputy prime minister. Days earlier one of the council’s remaining deputies, Fathi Majburi, had burst into a meeting between the Presidential Council’s prime minister, Fayez Serraj, and UN officials, accompanied by armed bodyguards. A third member of the council, Moussa Kouni, had resigned the week before. Maiteeq insisted that the GNA’s inability to govern was the fault of the two other pretender governments, and that they were orchestrating the power outages and hard-currency shortages in the banks in an attempt to undermine it. Haftar, he said, was merely a militiaman with propaganda skills who posed no serious threat. All the militias would be reabsorbed into an official security hierarchy and many problems would simply dissolve now that the GNA had its own budget. The 2017 budget is certainly an improvement: before it was agreed in December, the Central Bank had supplied only enough funding to the GNA to allow it to keep the lights on. ‘Always when you have a new state there are problems,’ Maiteeq said, ‘but can you imagine what it would be like without the GNA? What would the future of the country be then?’

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This is crackpot optimism. There is no state, and although the GNA claims that it rid Sirte of Islamic State, its only contribution to that effort was to sign off on US airstrikes. On 3 February, the GNA set up a Turkey-style EU migrant deal for Libya in exchange for €200 million; Médecins sans frontières correctly described the announcement as ‘delusional’ and the GNA has no authority to make the deal stick. The GNA can stay in Tripoli only with the backing of the Misratan militias operating in the city and because it has made pay-offs to other militia bosses, including Tajouri. One high-ranking official in the Interior Ministry, now technically under the control of the GNA, told me he had been in the room when GNA officials agreed to slip Tajouri millions of dollars in return for his co-operation. The current UN envoy, Martin Kobler, agrees with Maiteeq that the only alternative to the Libyan Political Agreement is chaos, but the two already co-exist. It’s difficult to find anyone who takes the GNA seriously. Invoking its UN backing, as it does, makes matters worse. Anything associated with the UN is vilified in Tripoli. In any case the Libyan Political Agreement, a two-year arrangement, expires at the end of this year and there is no sign of a plan for its replacement. There are capable officials untarnished by the suspicion of foreign influence, like the mayor, Abdulrauf Beitelmal, and his chief of staff, Salem Mokadmy, who are trying to clean up the city centre and could govern the country if the opportunity arose, but they can only work in the lee of the militias. The presence of men with rocket launchers tearing around the main junction in front of the town hall makes it difficult to maintain the roads and collect the rubbish.

The Western powers are half-heartedly attempting to prop up the UN-backed authorities, but that’s not all they’re up to. US drones regularly fly over the country and the US ticks names off its kill lists with the help of F15s based in Britain. Contingents of US, Italian and British special forces operate in Libya under scant cover. They fought side by side with the Misratan militias against Islamic State in the battle for Sirte last year. The Italian army has even set up what it calls a field hospital in Misrata but it is really a military base: it has just 12 beds but three hundred army officers. By the same token the support of Russia, Egypt and France is emboldening Haftar. The landscape is so fractured and messy that British and Italian special forces have ended up on what looks increasingly like the opposite side to their French counterparts without realising how it happened. Yet again the Western powers are stoking a civil war they don’t understand and for which they haven’t planned.

For the capital of a supposedly post-revolutionary country, Tripoli is woefully short of political vision. ‘Here it was only ever “Let’s get rid of Gaddafi” – there was no idea beyond that,’ one activist told me. Public discussion is minimal, stale and usually reducible to factional posturing; there is a deep, apolitical emptiness. What kind of society Libya should be and how the country might be run are questions that cannot be formulated, let alone discussed. The main priorities are personal security, food and warmth, and the struggle to secure them encourages narrow factionalism. Lawlessness has its benefits – there is no oppressive regime – but they’re wearing thin. Tripoli is no longer the capital of an authoritarian state. There is no fear of being overheard by an informant or of imminent arrest by the secret police. Instead there is the worry of not knowing who controls which streets on any given day, the constant threat of kidnap, rumours of an impending fight, and the knowledge that violence could break out at any moment.