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Putting the lid back on the cauldron that is Libya will take a very long time indeed

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Putting the lid back on the cauldron that is Libya will take a very long time indeed

Things can only get worse in Libya. The Italian government is doing deals which deliver African migrants back into the hands of their brutal people traffickers. A major civil war seems to be in the offing. Or perhaps “Field-Marshall” Khalifa Haftar is ‘just’ making facts on the ground prior to pending UN negotiations between the different factions. Haftar’s gang of pick-up truck warriors are now at the gates of Tripoli. He has been bombing Tripoli suburbs. No airports are functioning. Libya suffers grievously from militia-ruled anarchy. And you begin to wonder if on balance another dictator would offer a less fearsome future.

Studying a huge portrait of Colonel Gadaffi in the foyer of a Tripoli hotel in 2007, I almost laughed  That seemed a bad idea in front of the sinister figures lounging around in armchairs simulating relaxation. How thoughtful of tyrants to look the part: brutal, dangerous and barking mad. Yet Muammar Gadaffi’s brand of tyranny during his reign of 42 years kept the lid on Libya, gluing together with fear or adulation three historic regions, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Gadaffi was killed on the 11 October during the Arab Spring uprising. The lid came off.

I went to Libya with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the Vatican’s official body for relations with other faiths. We were there to dialogue with the World Islamic Call Society (WICS) whose headquarters were tucked away in a middle-class suburb in south Tripoli. Dawa Islamiyya was Gadaffi’s answer to Saudi Arabia’s World Islamic League which exported ultra-conservative Wahabism and large amounts of money to be spent on training Muslim scholars and building mosques around the world. WICS’ major focus was Africa.

Dialogue, allegedly, was not the only thing WICS did. It had an annual budget of $45 Million, and, as I recently discovered, is now believed to have been laundering money to Gadaffi’s latest international political projects including destabilizing – Christian-led – African governments which he disliked. According to Reuters and the Quilliam Foundation, a London based anti-extremism think-tank, a clandestine unit within WICS, known as the World Islamic Popular Leadership, allegedly contained and worked with Gadaffi’s Intelligence Services. I wonder who knew then? I didn’t. Nor, I’m pretty sure, did the Vatican even if they might have had suspicions.

Once through the non-descript gates of WICS, our group which included a savvy Archbishop and Catholic scholars were on a sizeable campus. We were told that WICS was an international Muslim University and were shown huge rooms with wall-to-wall desk top computers and ranks of African students. The WICS Director was amiability itself. Uncertain polite applause followed my paper about Muslim-Christian relations in the UK. It looked like being a dull couple of days. Had we discovered that we were in the hub of one of Gadaffi’s many interesting covert operations, it might have proved more interesting.

I soon escaped and found a shop where I could buy some Attar of Roses. Behind the counter was a Brummie immigrant, perfume pipette at the ready. He had done well in Tripoli; delighted to speak English, he sang the praises of the city. It was hard to get away. A sadder experience was to see in a park near the Cathedral a considerable number of the people sleeping rough, mainly sub-saharan African migrants. The Cathedral was a migrant centre with masses in their different languages and lay workers trying to help. The bishop an Italian, Giovanni Martinelli, through sustained diplomacy had managed to keep the Catholic community safe. But the church in Benghazi had been attacked the day previously. The staff hid or would have been killed. I was told that Gadaffi had no real control over Benghazi. But elsewhere he afforded a degree of fragile religious tolerance that we had come to encourage.

Looking back, I wonder about the plight of the voluble Brummie from the perfume shop, and the dedicated Cathedral workers caring for overwhelming numbers of migrants. Despite the perseverance of the UN and the mediation of a number of different countries, including the UK’s contribution of experience gained from negotiating the Good Friday agreement, chaos reigns. And chaos is never kind to the poor. What you wonder after Iraq and Libya is worse? Living under tyranny or the consequences of a successful uprising and military intervention against it? Intervention or inaction?  

Without any civil society associations, public space is occupied by rival political factions and their militias. Without law there is only the authority of the gun and money. Only Tunisia validated the description “Arab Spring” though it is not without its problems, not least the hundreds of Tunisians that joined Da’esh. And Tunisia escaped any military intervention.

Like boiling water poured into a cup with old cracks, countries in violent transition and turmoil fall apart along their historical fault lines. The question is will the contents of the broken cup that is Libya come to include extremists that cross the Mediterranean. Italy was the major colonial player in the region and remains a negotiating partner with Libya a far as refugees and trafficked migrants are concerned. Cyrenaica with its capital Benghazi has always looked east to Egypt in times of trouble, and it is mainly President Sisi and Egypt, along with the UAE, and recently the Saudis, who are bankrolling and arming Haftar. Tripolitania in the north-west declared itself a Republic independent of Italy for four years after the end of the First World War. Fezzan in the south-west, under French military control 1943-1951, was and remains a wild region of desert transit, home to exiles, bandits and Bedouin and latterly oil wells. A fractured Libya contains a toxic mixture of militias and weapons unhelpfully supplied by parts of the Arab world.

After the Rwandan genocide, Canada promoted the Responsibility to Protect in the UN General Assembly. But Western intervention in Iraq and Libya, military might, bombing and Special Forces, without adequate plans and manpower to fill the vacuum left by a departing tyrant, show how virtuous intentions can have catastrophic consequences. Da’esh has already had one try at settling in. The peace-making perseverance that the UN manages to sustain in the face of failure is the only way forward.

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