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.

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