The United Nations is evacuating dozens of staff from its mission in Libya as fighting in the North African country escalates to levels not seen since 2011, when a popular revolution pushed dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi from power. As rogue military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces ramp up their campaign against extremist militias, Libyans caught in the crossfire are worried that the country’s nascent democracy might not survive the steadily increasing violence.
“They will return if the security situation improves,” said Samir Ghattas, spokesman for the UN Support Mission in Libya, said of the employees leaving the country. The U.N. has been desperately trying to bring Libya’s warring factions to the negotiating table in order to help convene a national dialogue to address crippling terrorist attacks and political paralysis that continue to plague the nation.
The dialogue is meant to compliment work being done by a constitutional assembly that has been working since April to meet an August deadline for drafting a new constitution. If this draft is approved through a public referendum, and Libyans band together to elect a permanent legislature, the hope is that the government will finally attain the legitimacy it sorely lacks. But the situation on the ground is not promising. While conservatives and the Washington political sphere have obsessively focused on the 2012 terrorist attack that hit an American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya itself has edged closer and closer towards imploding.
Over the past several months, the U.N. special mission and the Libyans working to hold the national dialogue have faced no shortage of obstacles. Following a botched coup attempt in February, renegade General Khalifa Haftar pulled together fellow Gaddafi-era military officials and rebels from the east and west to launch an armed campaign against “terrorists” and “corrupt” officials in mid-May. The offensive, dubbed “Operation Dignity,” targets Libya’s hardline Islamist militias which Haftar blames for hijacking the country’s incipient parliament. The general’s message appeals to many Libyans fed up with the nation’s chronic state of lawlessness. Over the past year, political gridlock has paralyzed the interim government, even as warring militias kidnapped the Prime Minister, abducted foreign diplomats, and cut off the oil ports that keep the country’s economy afloat.
On the other hand, opponents of the general say he is bent on making a power grab and installing himself as Libya’s next strongman. For years, Haftar served as a top commander under Gaddafi, and only joined the opposition after he fell out of favor with the former dictator. Many speculate that a personal grudge drove him to return to Libya in 2011 to help oust Gaddafi from power, and rumors that Haftar worked closely with the C.I.A. during his nearly two decades of exile in America have also prompted some Libyans to doubt his motivations.
Opponents and supporters alike are starting to compare Haftar to Egypt’s Abdel al-Sisi, another former military chief who led his forces to overthrow an elected Islamist president last year. “The most disturbing picture is this introduction of a narrative of a war on terror, that the space for actual opposition is closing and all Islamists of all stripes are being tarred as extremists or jihadists or al-Qaeda,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Maclean’s. The debate over whether Haftar is an opportunist dead-set on leading a coup or the bearer of a last ditch solution to Libya’s crippling security dilemma has sparked massive protests and placed a roadblock in the path of the national dialogue. Now, with Libya running out of time to find a peaceful way forward, the alternative could mean a messy and divisive conflict engulfing the whole country.
The fact that seemingly all factions within Libya are heaping criticism on the U.N.’s efforts to launch the national dialogue suggested the divides that fragment Libyan society run deep. Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who served on the United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya, believes this fragmentation is to blame for the stalemate blocking Libya’s national dialogue. “Libya has the figments of a functioning political system, but that system is horribly dysfunctional and is being torn apart by a lack of consensus,” Katulis said in an interview with Think Progress. “It’s hard to execute a national dialogue when there are such sharp divisions, and even questions of whether the different factions want to maintain some kind of national cohesion,” he added.
Katulis traces the roots of Libya’s current crisis to a history scarred by years of dictatorship. “The sense of national unity and purpose had been decimated by decades and decades of dictatorship, and it was held together through vicious rule,” he said. “What we’re seeing there, and what we’re seeing in Iraq and other places in the Middle East, is what brutal totalitarian rule does to societies. It actually distorts the possibility for politics once they’re gone,” Katulis explained. “It creates all sorts of dysfunctions that make it almost impossible for an outsider to come in and say you should do X, Y and Z, here’s how you do it, here’s the game plan.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.