Drew Smith

Interested in International Security, Terrorism and Geopolitics. Constantly on the look out for my next travel adventure.

Debunking the Islamist versus non-Islamist framing of the current chaos: extremism has little to do with Libya’s polarisation into two rival blocs

Three and a half years after NATO’s intervention created the space for the ouster of Col Muammar Gaddaffi, Libya is once again failing as a state and teeters on the brink of civil war. Long gone is the post-Gaddafi unity present when power was transferred to the General National Congress (GNC) after the country’s first democratic elections: Libya today is deeply divided and has two rival governments. With the rise of Islamic State dominating the international security agenda and the group now gaining momentum in Libya – already home to Islamic extremists such as Ansar al-Sharia (notorious for the Benghazi attack that killed U.S Ambassador Christopher Stevens) – it is perhaps unsurprising that the current conflict is frequently framed as being one of Islamists versus non-Islamists. This is certainly a narrative perpetuated by General Khalifa Haftar, military leader of the Libyan National Army, and the ‘Operation Dignity’ movement he is leading against “the scourge of jihadist Islam”. Given the barbaric video of twenty-one Egyptian Christians being beheaded by an Islamic State aligned group in Tripoli that has just surfaced, this is a framing that can be expected to accelerate.

Neat narratives about ‘a necessary resistance against terrorism’ and the capital, Tripoli, having become “occupied” by Islamists may prove effective propaganda for those aligned with Operation Dignity, but they don’t do Libya’s current state of affairs justice. Islamist elements have, and will continue to play an important role in both the localised and regional chaos, but it is important to disentangle religious zeal from the real driving force behind Libya’s polarisation:  a fundamental disagreement over lustration. Broadly speaking, lustration is a form of vetting citizens to discern whether or not they can hold public office on the basis of their relationship with a prior, delegitimised, and defeated regime. Libya Dawn, the part-Islamist militia alliance in control of much of Libya’s West, is steadfastly in favour of its application. The GNC was forced, under pressure from Libya Dawn, to pass the Political Isolation Law in May 2013 which barred anyone who had held a senior position under Gaddafi from holding office. Broad in scope, this highly divisive legislation applied automatically to officials from sectors such as education and health, not only security. General Haftar’s participation in the political process is a ‘red-line’ for Libya Dawn, uniting its Islamist and non-Islamist factions with a common enemy. Convincing them to abandon their prized lustration law, which the rival, internationally recognised government in Tobruk voted to abolish early in February, looks set to remain a sticking-point, not least because doing so would boost General Haftar’s  prospects of becoming Commander in Chief of Libya’s Armed Forces. Unsurprisingly, he is not expected to accept a settlement that he is excluded from either.

Libya’s Political Isolation Law starves the state of human capital and has, as in Iraq, served only to increase the inevitability of a return to violence by disaffecting swathes of battle-hardened men – many of whom had turned against the Gaddafi regime to fight for the forces of the revolution – in a country flooded with arms. The parallels with the de-Ba’athifation process in Iraq enforced in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority are obvious, however lessons from that disastrous policy have clearly not been heeded. This is in spite of the fact that its ramifications can still clearly be seen in the chaos engulfing Iraq today.  As under de-Ba’athification, lustration has created winners and losers. It is deeply polarising and bears responsibility for the societal schism that has emerged in Libya, restricting the prospect of genuine national reconciliation being achieved. It is important to recall that the Islamic State’s lightning expansion into Iraq from Syria last summer relied heavily on the expertise of Saddam-era Ba’athist officials, particularly in conquering Mosul. Themselves ostracised by successive post-Saddam administrations, former Ba’athists found themselves in a tacit alliance with their ideological opposites because they offered a means to right what they see as wrongs committed against them and their sect. Similarly, in Libya, lustration has greatly aided the rallying cry issued by General Haftar, himself technically disbarred under the lustration law for his role in Colonel Gaddafi’s 1969 coup, as Operation Dignity offers those adversely affected by the policy the opportunity to challenge the status quo. For them the campaign isn’t about ridding Libya of Islamists, it’s about standing to benefit from the national wealth under a future political settlement.

In spite of the significant progress reported from the negotiations in Geneva, the dialogue overseen by UN envoy Bernardino León will amount to little while this zero-sum political question lingers. Both sides understand that they are in a mutually-hurting stalemate, with little to no hope of achieving a decisive military victory. However neither has yet signalled a preparedness to abandon their chosen narrative – continuing to frame their rival as an existential threat to Libya’s future. Until such time that Libya Dawn accepts that its claim to be ‘saving the revolution from the old regime’ may be self-serving in the short-term, but is counter-productive to building an inclusive settlement thereafter, the prospects for national reconciliation will remain slim. This is further inhibited by the framing and misreading of the conflict as an Islamist government in Tripoli pitted against a non-Islamist government now in Tobruk, distorting as it does how current fissures are understood by outside actors and the international community. Libya’s polarisation into two rival camps has already created a vacuum that Islamic State aligned groups, who’ve successfully established three  (provinces) since November, have wasted no time in exploiting. Until the lustration question is resolved, the formation of a National Unity Government capable of building the capabilities to take on these groups – who pose the truly pernicious threat to Libyan sovereignty and regional stability – will not be forthcoming; no matter how encouraging the diplomatic narrative emanating from Geneva.



One comment on “Debunking the Islamist versus non-Islamist framing of the current chaos: extremism has little to do with Libya’s polarisation into two rival blocs

  1. Vratani
    February 13, 2015

    Really interesting Drew, as always so much more going on with historic political dynamics than we learn from most news coverage.

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