Why Libya matters
Covering an area of almost 1.8 million square kilometres, Libya is a vast, unignorable presence in the atlases of the world with a population of just more than 6 million people and oil reserves that are exceeded by only nine other countries. At the moment, however, it is, to all intents and purposes, a vacuum: a great country that is waiting to happen.
The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, which began with a revolution instigated by his own people in 2011, and subsequently supported by the Western powers, was supposed to mark the beginning of an exciting chapter in Libya’s history. The country’s period of being considered a pariah would end.
Sadly, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare that’s so bad some Libyans are starting to feel nostalgic for their murderous former dictator.
The initial collective government that was established quickly began to show fissures. Soon power-hungry warlords began to take control of vast regions of land as the international community — its diplomats as well as its businesses — beat a hasty retreat.
The Libya they left behind is a failed state in all but name. Two governments now exist, each with limited sovereignty. Some cities, such as Zintan and Misrata, are ruled entirely by local councils and militias; others are ruled by either of the parallel governments while still others have fallen under the control of the terrorist militias of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The forces that civilised communities rely upon to keep the peace — their police and their militaries — have all but given up. International flights have been largely abandoned. Human rights abuses — random executions — are taking place on a scale that is incalculable.
Libya’s pain is being referred beyond its borders. In the first quarter of 2014, the number of illegal migrants from the Libyan coastline reached 25,650, resulting in the deaths of 2,447 people. In 2015, the number increased to 180,000, 10,000 of whom made their way across Europe to enter the United Kingdom. People smugglers and others who capitalise on human misery have been quick to take advantage of Libya’s porous borders.
Even more alarmingly, ISIS has managed relatively effortlessly to take control of two big cities in Libya. Their first conquest was Derna, a coastal city with a functioning port, and, in 2015, the group took control of Sirte, another coastal city with a port, an airfield and substantial oil and gas exporting facilities. It was once, ironically, the hometown of Qaddafi and what used to be his citadel of power.
If others have been slow to see the potential of Libya, ISIS has not. In 2015, it was reported that ISIS had lured hundreds of British citizens to join their fight in Iraq, Syria and then Libya. ISIS has facilities that can help it to lure and recruit still more people, not only from the United Kingdom but from all over the world.
The danger of such a huge land mass just the other side of the Mediterranean being controlled by terrorists ought by now to be obvious to Europe. British former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, to his credit perhaps, raised it as an issue during the UK election campaign but Libya’s travails seldom, if ever, make the front pages. To too many opinion formers, it seems to be about quarrels in a far-away country between people of whom they know nothing.
The tragedy is that Libya has so much to offer that is good. It is a country that is crying out for development and infrastructure and its oil resources should be making its people among the most prosperous in the world. It ought to be a natural ally of the United Kingdom.
Unlike the rest of Maghreb countries, Libya is the only non-francophone country and regards English as its second language after Arabic. The United Kingdom is hugely respected by ordinary Libyans as a place of learning and investment. Qaddafi himself attended a language school in — of all places — Bournemouth.
Libya’s links to civilisation become more tenuous, however, with each passing day. It is time for action and not just words to put the country back on the right track.