The Qatari-based tribal-owned network, al-Jazeera’s news broadcast on February 16 about Libya was revealing. It started with a report on the mayhem that has gripped Libya since the capture and brutal murder of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi on October 20, 2011. Without showing any footage of the brutality perpetrated by various militias against civilians, the network switched to an episode of 16 years ago to tell viewers how terrible Qaddafi’s rule was. The anchorwoman admitted that human rights organizations have expressed deep concern about the murder and kidnapping of civilians in Libya but she did not tell viewers that this situation had arisen as a direct result of Western intervention.
Western politicians, primarily from Britain, France and Italy, and their Arabian minions had blown hot and cold about Qaddafi’s air force bombing and killing civilians. He had done no such thing but that did not deter the Arab League from passing a resolution and asking the UN Security Council to impose a “no fly zone” over Libya. The Qaddafi regime immediately accepted the restriction but the West still went ahead with launching an aerial assault. Their intention was not to protect civilians since hundreds, if not thousands of civilians were killed in NATO bombing raids. Schools, residential neighborhoods, hospitals and storage depots were bombed and destroyed.
The enthusiasm with which Western politicians talked about “protecting” civilians from Qaddafi’s non-existent air force are today deafeningly silent about the mayhem their “liberation” of the country has unleashed. It would be unrealistic to expect they would lose any sleep over Libyans killing each other. Their interest is confined to Libyan oil and gold. Western multinationals have already signed lucrative deals. So long as the Libyan killings do not affect the flow of oil, the West would not be unduly bothered; so far there has been no investigation and nobody’s talking about what happened to Libya’s 144 tons of gold.
The proliferation of heavily armed militias terrorizing civilians is the new reality in Libya. This was to be expected in a tribal society but the militias are not merely tribal based; every city and village has its own multiple militias controlling and terrorizing different street corners. According to a Human Rights Watch researcher there are 250 separate militias in the coastal city of Misrata alone. Human rights as well as relief organizations have left the country because of lack of safety and security. Militias run their own prisons where torture and killings are rampant. People accused of being Qaddafi loyalists and arrested in the immediate aftermath of his murder, are the worst affected. This is especially true of dark-skinned Libyans from the south. They are accused of being “African mercenaries”. One wonders whether Libya is located on another planet! The Western-installed Libyan government, like its counterpart in Afghanistan, has no authority outside its plush offices. The government exists only in name.
People accused of being Qaddafi loyalists are being singled out and systematically murdered. This is true of tribes as well as diplomats and former government officials. The case of one diplomat, Omar Brebesh, is particularly gruesome. On January 19, the 62-year-old former diplomat who had served in Paris was called in for questioning by militiamen from Zintan. The next day, the family found his body at a hospital in Zintan.
This is what they saw. Omar Brebesh’s nose was broken, as were his ribs. Nails had to be pulled out from his toes. His skull was fractured, and his body bore signs of burns from cigarettes. Bashir, the 32-year-old doctor son of the diplomat and currently doing residency in neurology in Canada, who flew back to Tripoli after learning of his father’s death, said: “They’re putting themselves as the policeman, as the judge and as the executioner”. He went on: “Did they not have enough dignity to just shoot him in the head?” he asked. “It’s so monstrous. Did they enjoy hearing him scream?” He said he and his family feel totally isolated and abandoned. What was Omar Brebesh’s crime? That he had served as a diplomat in the Qaddafi regime?
The government or whatever passes for one, acknowledges that torture and detentions are going on. It also candidly admits that neither the police nor the Justice Ministry is up to the task of stopping these brutalities from taking place. “People are turning up dead in detention at an alarming rate,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who was compiling evidence of torture and killings in Libya in January. “If this was happening under any Arab dictatorship, there would be an outcry.” Bouckaert had enough decency to not only admit the crimes being perpetrated in Libya but also to expose the hypocrisy of Western governments. They must own up to the fact that they are complicit in the militias’ crimes because Western governments overthrew the Qaddafi regime and unleashed the hoodlums. Perhaps this is what is giving rise to second thoughts among many Syrians who while anxious to be rid of the Bashar al-Asad regime, do not wish to end up like the Libyans. Western-backed liberation comes with a very high price, and not merely in dollar terms.
Abdel-Rahim el-Keeb, appointed prime minister on November 28, 2011, remains powerless because he has no legitimacy. Equally important, he has no enforcement mechanism at his disposal. If he were the head of a powerful militia, he might have imposed his will on a few towns but people imported from abroad and told to head the government, have no roots in society. Libya is a militia-run patchwork of fiefdoms; every warlord is a law unto himself. The army, or whatever is left of it, is treated as little more than another militia. In any case, they have no motivation to take on the heavily armed thugs.
This has been evident in places like Bani Walid and Sirte, once Qaddafi strongholds, where people openly express disdain for the new regime. It was only in January that the regime sent machinery to Bani Walid to dig out bodies buried under the rubble of NATO-bombed buildings. Residents did not hide their anger at the fact that they could not even provide a decent burial for their loved ones. Clashes frequently erupt in Bani Walid, Sirte, the Nafusah Mountains, Tripoli, Benghazi as well as Misrata. Rival militias, all heavily armed, slug it out with guns, rockets, artillery or whatever weapons they have at their disposal. Some have commandeered tanks and are terrorizing people in areas under their control.
Amid all this mayhem, government officials optimistically talk about elections expected in May or June. They are, however, not sure whether elections would be possible amid all the violence and even if held, whether they would bring peace and stability. Elections could easily deepen regional and tribal divisions. As one official put it: “freedom is a problem.” Some state employees have not been paid for nearly a year. Ashour Shamis, advisor to the prime minister, acknowledges that the government has no idea how to channel enough money into the economy so that it would be felt in the streets. He could start by paying salaries to state employees.
Tripoli, the capital where some semblance of order has been restored with militia roadblocks removed, still remains gripped by confusion. Little or nothing gets done in government ministries. The new appointees in most ministries are those with connections with one or another militia head. They have little clue of what is required to be done in ministries. Their swagger is the direct result of the power that flows from the barrel of the gun. Petty bureaucrats retained from the old order continue to defer decisions to the top and the most frequent answer people get when they ask when their problem would be solved is, bukra (tomorrow). Bukra never comes.
The people of Libya are gradually waking up to the reality that being “liberated” by the West is even worse than being ruled by Qaddafi. This should give pause to those Syrians asking for Western intervention, to think and reflect.