As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Arab uprisings, with all its manifestations and aftermaths, the debate on the outcomes of those historic events are becoming more crucial and polarising.
Nothing is more indicative of this polarisation than in the case of the Libyan uprising with its consequences: civil war, foreign intervention, and the many crises that followed the toppling of the Gaddafi regime in the North African country.
The legacy of any tyrannical regime can take many decades to be resolved. The clear threat by Gaddafi in 2011 to commit mass slaughter in Benghazi and other Libyan towns was not the only reason to trigger revolt and the eventual military intervention which successfully led to uprooting his regime but it’s his long legacy of terrorism and violence that won him more enemies than friends. It’s this legacy and the subsequent failure of the international community and local leaders after Gaddafi to draw strategic plans to rebuild and support the newly established state institutions, that led to the current situation of instability, violence and the rise of brutal terrorist groups threatening Libya and the whole region.
The two most polarising issues that are haunting the European and international corridors of power in the aftermath of regime change in Libya and the ongoing political vacuum, are the security threat caused by the rise of terrorist groups in the country and the migrant crisis across the mediterranean leading to tragic scenes of death and misery of countless innocent people either by murderous terrorists or people smugglers.
It is fair to say that these two issues are direct consequence of the fall of a dictatorial regime that kept an iron lid, not only on freedoms and the prospects of democracy in Libya, but also on illegal migration and fundamentalist terrorism in the region through its collaboration with Western countries to control both global problems.
It might also be hypothetically accepted in hindsight that Libya and the region could have been better off sticking with the devil that they knew instead of all the possible and unpredictable scenarios we are going through today.
The problem with these arguments is their lack of understanding of Libya, its people, history and culture. Most commentators who base their analysis on these arguments suffer from a case of collective amnesia. I have noticed that many in their desperate attempt to atone the ‘sins’ of their governments for intervening in Libya, become defeated apologists of dictators and despots in the region.
It is necessary in this context to be reminded that during his four decades of ruling Libya, Gaddafi was infamous in funding, planning and executing terrorist attacks all over the world, making Libya a destination for different terrorist organisations for training and launching attacks on neighbouring countries and across the Mediterranean.
In the decade preceding the fall of the regime, illegal migration was a wild card that was used by Gaddafi many times to put pressure on Europe. Gaddafi exploited hundreds of African migrants seeking refuge from poverty and war in the their countries, keeping a blind eye on people traffickers while occasionally boasting that he can ‘flood’ Europe with migrants whenever he wanted.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on the situation of migration from the shores of Libya, citing more than 185,000 migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the decade before the Libyan uprising in 2011.
According to the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders (Frontex) the Central Mediteranean route used by migrants to reach the shores of Europe has been active since the early 2000’s.
Frontex reports that in 2008 alone “nearly 40,000 migrants were detected, mostly near Lampedusa and Malta. These were mainly nationals from Tunisia, Nigeria, Somalia and Eritrea.” The numbers didn’t fall until Gaddafi through using the migration card stuck a bilateral agreement with Italy to in 2009 to stop the flow of migrants through the country.
The agreement led to dire consequences to the lives of migrants who were arriving to Libya to cross the sea to Europe. According to a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) the African boat migrants and asylum seekers intercepted by the Italian Navy were “forcibly returned to Libya, where many were detained in inhuman and degrading conditions and abused.”
Although it would be argued that the magnitude of the migration crisis after the fall of the regime far exceeds by many folds the situation before 2011, which can’t be denied, it is also important to note that the seeds of the crisis were sown for many years under Gaddafi.
Gaddafi apologists in Libya and in the west are cultivating a myth of peace and harmony before 2011, they are in many ways forgetting that it was the Gaddafi regime that caused systematically through tyranny a culture of terrorism and violence.
The legacy of dictatorship in Libya was a direct cause to the current chaotic situation in the country, it is a legacy that won’t be absolved or reformed by claiming that the international intervention to topple him and his diabolical regime could have been avoided.
There is a tendency in Europe today as it is facing complex crises, some internal and others external, to abandon its progressive principles and fall victim to a regressive revisionist and defeatist stance that will accept dealing with “rehabilitated” dictators and corrupt regimes on the other side of the Mediterranean.
We must admit that dictatorship, war, military intervention and the lack of strategic planning for a successful transitional period were all factors leading to the current situation in Libya, but our objective should be to dig deep in the roots of crises and their complex nature and not to fall into the hands of despots that sow the seeds of terrorism, war and misery in their countries while pretending to provide security, peace and prosperity to the world.
* An edited version of this article has been translated into Norwegian and published in Norway’s VG (Verdens Gang) newspaper.