25th Sep 2023

Voice from Libya: No one is winning

  • Boy celebrates fall of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi almost 10 years ago (Photo: Ben Sutherland)

Whether it is the West, Turkey, or Russia who think they are winning in Libya, Libyan people are the losers, according to one Libyan woman, speaking to EUobserver from Tripoli on Tuesday (9 June).

"Libyans in the west [of Libya] are bitter," Hala Bugaighis, who is the founder of a Libyan women's rights NGO called Jusoor, said.

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  • Hala Bugaighis is a lawyer and founder of women's rights NGO Jusoor (Photo:

"There's so much emotion involved, so many civilians died ... there's so much hate," she said.

"Before, people saw the war as a competition between rival governments, but now they see it as an invasion of east against west," she added.

"There's a rip in the social fabric ... some people are even saying that separation [of Libya into two states] is the only solution, which is tragic," she said.

Bugaighis spoke to this website shortly after the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) broke a 15-month siege of the capital city by Khalifa Haftar, a warlord from eastern Libya, which killed over 2,300 people.

She has lived in Tripoli since the civil war began in 2014, after an uprising backed by Western air-strikes toppled Libya's former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, a few years earlier.

Few would say the West was doing well in handling the conflict since then.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, last week, called for new peace talks in line with the "Berlin process," an EU-backed accord.

But France's voice rang hollow, given that French special forces have been arming Haftar and fighting on his side for years.

France first backed him in the wake of the Paris attacks in 2015, because "Haftar convinced Le Drian he had intelligence critical to combatting terrorists in Libya," Deborah Jones, who was US ambassador to Libya at the time, told EUobserver.

But with Haftar now in retreat, "France looks like it backed the wrong pony," Jones said.

France also looks like part of a strikingly un-European coalition, because Haftar's army contains ex-Gaddafi fighters, Kremlin-linked mercenaries, Syrian-regime loyalists, Chad's rebels-for-hire, and Sudanese militias with egregious human rights records.

Italy, the other main EU protagonist in Libya, is playing an equally double game.

On the one hand, it gives noisy political support to the GNA, the only EU and UN-recognised authority in Libya.

But, at the same time, it is selling two state-of-the-art warships to another one of Haftar's allies, Egypt.

And the French and Italian actions have made it impossible for the EU to get involved in a united way.

"The situation is absolutely awful. No wonder it's hard for the Libyans to understand European foreign policy," Luigi Binelli-Mantelli, the former commander-in-chief of Italy's armed forces, told EUobserver also on Tuesday.

Libyan people no longer looked to France, Italy, or the EU for leadership, Bugaighis noted.

"The EU cares only about its own interests, like migration. It has no role to play in the bigger equation - it's sad, but that's how normal Libyans see it," she said.

Europe's "Berlin process" was emblematic of the problem, she added, because the accord, agreed in Germany in January, brought together 12 foreign nations - but no Libyan voices.

"The Berlin process is a disgrace ... it's just about how they [foreign powers] want to divide up their shares [of Libya]," she said.

Other players

The US was still popularly seen as a superpower capable of enforcing peace, Bugaighis said.

But in reality, US military operations in Libya are, these days, limited to special forces hunting for lonely cells of Islamist radicals.

And there was "little hope" of more than that, with US domestic and transatlantic politics currently in disarray, Jones, the former American ambassador, said.

For some analysts, that made Turkey and Russia look like winners.

The Turkish military helped the GNA to drive Haftar out of Tripoli and the GNA granted Turkey new maritime boundaries in return.

"The new maritime zone allows Turkey to completely cut off Italy and Greece from important oil and gas reserves that were recently discovered in the eastern Mediterranean," Italy's Binelli-Mantelli said.

Meanwhile, Russia, using a private military firm called Wagner, has built a new air-base in Libya, which already hosts 14 warplanes, and which it can use to dog Nato in future, whether Haftar lives or dies.

"[Russian president Vladimir] Putin must be pinching himself when he wakes up each morning to make sure he isn't still dreaming," Moncef Kartas, a former UN weapons inspector in Libya, told EUobserver, referring to what the EU and US were letting the Kremlin do.

"Europe's southern borders, which are fundamental to its security, have been unbelievably neglected," Kartas said.

The next act in Libya's "tragedy" could be even worse if one of those Russian jets accidentally killed soldiers from Nato members the US or Turkey.

"Libya is getting more complicated and risky, not only for the Mediterranean area, but for all of Europe," Binelli-Mantelli said.

Only losers

And in the long-term, Turkey and Russia's victories also stood on shaky ground.

People in west Libya were grateful for Turkish support, but, deep down, Turkish soldiers still felt like "former occupiers" to most Libyans, Bugaighis said, referring to bygone centuries of Ottoman Empire rule in the region.

"The Russians are just mercenaries fighting for money, so they don't have an important role [in Libya's future]," she added.

The West helped create the mess by leaving a vacuum after Gaddafi fell, she noted.

"Libyans had never experienced democracy before, so it was really new, and they [the EU and US] just left us alone, in the dark," she said.

"It's not fair to say Libya, or the Arab world, is unsuited for democracy," she added.

"I was here [in Tripoli] in 2011 and there was a real belief in change back then, there was real momentum, before things went wrong," she said.

A UN-led peace process might help Libya to pause the killing after six years of war, Bugaighis told this website.

But neither the UN, the EU, or any foreign power had shown real interest in the core issue for stability, she said.

"There will be no peace without a fully inclusive reconciliation process and no reconciliation without transitional justice," Bugaighis, who is a lawyer, said.

"In Libya, since 2011, there has been no accountability whatsoever. Everybody just got away with everything they did - you can't build a country on that," she said.

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