Britain’s top diplomat can’t wait to turn Libya into Dubai — pity about the ‘dead bodies’

Libya is a country straining under weight of fighting ISIS, economic strife and its own political turmoil -- its beaches are not vacation-ready

A civilian fighter holding the Libyan flag stands in front of damaged buildings in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S., Europe and U.N. have all pinned their hopes for resolving Libya's chaos and blocking the Islamic State group's growth there on a newly announced unity government. Headed by a little known Libyan technocrat, Fayez Serraj, it is supposed to replace the two rival administrations - one based in the capital Tripoli, the other based in the eastern city of Tobruk- that have been battling each other. CREDIT: Mohammed el-Shaiky/AP Photo.
A civilian fighter holding the Libyan flag stands in front of damaged buildings in Benghazi, Libya. The U.S., Europe and U.N. have all pinned their hopes for resolving Libya's chaos and blocking the Islamic State group's growth there on a newly announced unity government. Headed by a little known Libyan technocrat, Fayez Serraj, it is supposed to replace the two rival administrations - one based in the capital Tripoli, the other based in the eastern city of Tobruk- that have been battling each other. CREDIT: Mohammed el-Shaiky/AP Photo.

In another one of his signature speeches, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday turned his attention to Libya – a war-torn North African nation mired in a fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), political chaos, and a severe financial crisis. But no matter for Johnson — the Libyan city of Sirte could be the next top tourist destination, he said, if only they “clear the dead bodies away”:

“I look at Libya, it’s an incredible country. Bone-white sands, beautiful sea, Caesar’s Palace, obviously, you know, the real one,” Johnson said at a Conservative conference fringe event. “Incredible place. It’s got a real potential and brilliant young people who want to do all sorts of tech. There’s a group of U.K business people, actually, some wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte on the coast, near where [Moammar] Gaddafi was captured and executed as some of you may have seen. They have got a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai. The only thing they have got to do is clear the dead bodies away.”

By Wednesday morning, there were calls for Johnson’s resignation over the comments, which came just days after he tried to recite a colonial poem in Myanmar. On the surface, it that appears Johnson’s latest comments were beyond the pale for his fellow Conservatives, but actually, they’re in line with how Europe, and the West in general, see Libya: a place almost ripe for plunder and an ideal place to park African migrants no one seems to want.

A country of roughly 6.2 million, Libya —  which is on President Donald Trump’s “Muslim” travel ban list —  is where the European Union is trying to hide its brutally flawed immigration policies. The E.U. is funding militia groups in the country to turn migrant boats around, forcing roughly 1 million predominantly-African migrants and refugees hoping to reach Europe into detention centers across Libya —  centers where rights groups and the United Nations have documented abuses. There are reports that clashes between militia groups is now putting that deal, and the migrants, in jeopardy. Just last week, Reuters reported that hundreds of ISIS fighters have set desert camps outside the city of Sirte — the very place where Johnson longs to go for a relaxing vacation. Those beautiful beaches are also where 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS in 2015. But the fact that civilians are still being killed and injured there did not seem to factor into the calculation of Britain’s top diplomat.

The United States is hardly better — the Trump administration has had little to say about Libya, other than saying that the United States has “no role in Libya.”


“I think the United States right now has enough roles. We’re in a role everywhere,” Trump told a press conference on April 20. To his administration, Libya, a country Trump’s former advisor Sebastian Gorka suggested partitioning on a napkin, is largely a place the administration supports airstrikes on ISIS targets or a talking point for Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi e-mail “scandal” — tied to the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy there in 2012 and used to damage her presidential campaign.

Trump is even closer to Johnson in viewing Libya in terms of investment than his policy lets on. Back in 2012, his biggest concern about Libya was oil.

“The west has decided that it can’t wait for Libya to mature and for institutions to be formed to gain a monopoly on the use of force, for DDR to be imposed (disarmament, demobilization and reintegration),” said Sami Zaptia, a Libyan journalist and publisher of the Libya Herald. “They’ve decided, ‘What are our main priorities? First,  fighting ISIS, second, fighting illegal migration. We need a government that will invite us to come and bomb ISIS, we need a government that will cooperate with us to fight illegal migration’ … and that’s what the Italians and the EU really want.”

Libya completely run by militia

While the United States is part of the counterterrorism effort in Libya and there are some U.N. assistance programs in place, life is tough in the country. Today, there are three governments competing for power. In the west, there’s the central government in Tripoli, which is struggling for legitimacy and recognition; in the east, in Tobruk, there’s a rival government set up by members of parliament elected in 2014 and led by General Khalifa Haftar. Then there’s the U.N. brokered “unity government,” the Government of National Accord, recognized by pretty much no one – certainly not the parliament.


What little infrastructure was left behind after Gaddafi — who was killed almost six years ago on October 20th — has been further busted, and conditions are so unsafe that civil society groups scarcely exist, let alone function. The press too, taking its first free breaths starting in 2012, has all but collapsed with yet another political upheaval in 2014, which Zaptia’s publication called a “coup” in his publication. That’s when the death threats started.

“They told us to stop referring to them as militias, that we’d better recognize the government as a legitimate government, or else,” said Zaptia. “They threatened us, and Libya Herald, it’s foreign staff, myself and my British wife, were forced to flee, and the Libyan journalists who stayed were forced to resign.” The Libya Herald, however, continues to publish —  something that comes with risks.

“We recruited new stringers since then, unknown to the government. They go to press conferences but don’t introduce themselves as working for the Libya Herald,” said Zaptia, who lives in the U.K. while other editors are based in Tunisia. The local stringers do not publish under their own names. The Herald is one of the few places outsiders can find what life is like in Libya with stories of how people are dealing with crippling power cuts and cash shortages.

“The power cuts are still ongoing, as if we’re in 2011, frankly. There’s been no improvement in the supply of power. Although the General Electricity Company of Libya forecasts every day how many hours there will be power cuts, it’s always 30 percent or 50 percent more than what they say. So when the temperature spikes – you know, 38, 39, 40, 45,[Celcius] we can have ten to twelve-hour power cuts,” said Zaptia.

Then there’s the cash shortage, which Zaptia said is indicative of two things: financial and economical mismanagement by the authorities as well as political failings. Just how bad Libya’s economy is is hard to quantify, as, according to the Index of Economic Freedom, “Official government compilations of economic data are inadequate, and data reported by many of the international sources relied upon for Index grading remain incomplete.” The World Bank offers this grim analysis: “It is estimated that GDP lost half of its pre-revolution level. Budget revenues and exports proceeds reached the lowest amounts on record because of low oil production and prices.” Things could improve, the World Bank assumes, if “a new functioning government is endorsed this year.” So far, that’s not happening, and the result has been somewhat chaotic.


In eastern Libya, people have begun printing their own cash in Russia, because the money simply isn’t making its way there. But getting cash still can be an ordeal, Zaptia said, describing what his relatives go through just withdraw money from their accounts. The militia post themselves outside banks, he said, pretending to guard them, when in fact, they’re on the take — there’s always a long queue, and the price for getting in that queue is paying off the men with guns.

“The militia guy walks up to you and says, ‘Hey, how much are you withdrawing? Give me 10 percent on the way out,'” said Zaptia. This has resulted in people losing faith in banks and “stashing money under their mattresses.” But dealing with armed groups roaming the country has been part of life in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi.

“The militia has completely taken over the running of Libya. The government does not have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. You saw how Mr. Zeidan was kidnapped,” he said, referring the kidnapping of former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan at a Tripoli hotel in August.

Zahra’ Langhi, founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace —  who also had to flee the country after Salwa Bugaighis, the co-founder of her organization was murdered — spoke to the utter lack of stability in Libya.

“We don’t have a functioning state that can address the needs of society and protect the lives of civilians. The central government is too weak and has no control on the ground… In the towns we have militias, most of them are radical Islamist militias, in other areas there are criminal militias, and in the east you have the LNA [Libyan National Army] in control,” she said, adding, “Even this army is not a professional army. It is has civilian forces and militia within in it.”

Langhi doesn’t lay the blame for everything going wrong in Libya at the feet of the West. “We did not set our priorities right,” she said. “We should not have had elections before addressing the security issue. I think another aspect is that…after the fall of Gaddafi, there has been a collapse of the state, and so going to elections, and polling now for another election next March means we are not learning the lessons,” said Langhi.

Still, she said the West, and the United States in particular, is dropping the ball on Libya.

“The EU leadership so far in Libya has not been successful at all. That’s why we actually [had a]… conference in Washington DC a few months ago, after the election of the new administration. We really had hoped that with the new administration we’d get new cooperation and new foreign leadership, but up to this moment, it is quite disappointing to see that there is no agenda for an American foreign policy in Libya.”

Country in a “simmering gridlock”

Needless to say, clearing the dead bodies and turning Sirte into a tourist destination probably is a naive policy recommendation — given the scope of Libya’s problems. What Libya needs most are some concrete steps on how to tackle its myriad of issues.

Although the stability and security of Libya are crucial to European and U.S. interests, Fredric Wehrey, senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told ThinkProgress that what’s missing is a plan — “an expansive view” — of how to get there.

A fighter of the Libyan forces affiliated to the Tripoli government is helped by comrades after being shot by a sniper, in Sirte, Libya, Oct. 2, 2016 CREDIT: Manu Brabo/AP Photo
A fighter of the Libyan forces affiliated to the Tripoli government is helped by comrades after being shot by a sniper, in Sirte, Libya, Oct. 2, 2016 CREDIT: Manu Brabo/AP Photo

“That was a big criticism of the 2011 intervention, in that you had the U.N. arms embargo, but there were states that were sending arms and advisors and money and that the [weapons] embargo, since the revolution has been violated repeatedly by regional states so Libya is awash in weapons, that is a huge problem,” said Wehrey.

Things have changed in Libya since then. 2012 was a heady, optimistic time for the country, as it was holding its first ever democratic elections, allowing women to run for its national assembly, all while shaking off the yolk of heavy censorship on virtually every platform.

Wehrey has been to Libya several times since 2012, a time when he says most people had “a sense of euphoria,” and he paints a pretty grim picture of daily life: an economy ravaged by cash shortages, power cuts, inflation and unemployment. Schools are mostly shutdown. He describes how cancer patients — at least those with some means — are having to jump in the same boats as migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean for medical treatment in Europe.

“It’s pretty desperate,” said Wehrey, adding that things are unstable, even in the capital. “In Tripoli, it’s pretty bad. There you have a huge threat of kidnapping, for ransom, so people don’t go out at night. It’s really dangerous. There are criminal gangs there, currency smuggling, drug smuggling.”

Describing the tension between the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk as “a simmering gridlock,” Wehrey said the only thing stopping Libya from tilting into a brutal civil war is that, “There’s a balance of weakness now, where neither side has any real predominance to best the other.” Haftar, he said, just doesn’t have the means to take his forces to Tripoli.

“Open warfare in the capital? I don’t think so, but this could get bloodier, it’s really hard to say. You’ve had these outbreaks of fighting over oil facilities…the other thing is the economic projections for Libya’s collapse —  they’re burning through their reserves. Oil production is up, and I think some of the projections are pretty dire, given the low oil prices,” said Wehrey.

The only way out, he said, is for the international community to broker an agreement between the governments, “and lend American diplomatic leadership to the U.N and European effort. We do have an important role to play in the effort. … We have a role also to influence regional states to play a more constructive role,  particularly Egypt and the Gulf, because we have those relationships. This is an international and regional problems,” he said.

“It would be a mistake” he said, to let Libya “slip down the wrung of priorities.”