A Rush for the Exits in Libya

by Wayne White

The withdrawal of American and most other foreign missions from Libya has left its people more alone than ever before. Legitimate political authority and much of the economy has been seriously damaged. Despite temporary successes, none of the militias or Libyan army units flailing away at each other have scored enough gains to alter the overall situation. The international community should attempt to coax the leading players in this mess to assemble at a foreign venue where enough differences might be hashed out to dampen the raging violence and chaos.

The July 26 American withdrawal from Tripoli was part of a host of countries pulling out their embassy staffs, foreign workers, and other nationals. France followed suit on July 30 extracting its ambassador, several dozen French expatriates, and some British nationals. Spain abandoned its embassy on the 31st, and China evacuated hundreds of its workers to Egypt. The Greek Navy pulled out its diplomats and over 100 other foreigners today.

The escalation in clashes involving militia, renegade, and government forces is not the only driver. Doing any sort of work or business in Libya has become too risky.  Kidnappings, murders, or combat-related deaths of foreigners spiked in 2014. On July 26, 23 Egyptian workers died when a militia rocket destroyed their Tripoli quarters. Unknown gunmen attacked and attempted to hijack a British convoy heading for the Tunisian border with some embassy staff on the 27th. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario rushed to Libya on July 31 to organize the departure of 13,000 Philippine workers after one worker was beheaded and a nurse gang-raped.

Over 100 Libyans have been killed and 400 wounded in Tripoli in recent weeks, most in the vicinity of the embattled airport where Libyan airliners are smoking hulks, the main terminal is shattered, and fuel tanks continued to burn through the 31st because of fighting involving artillery and rockets. Fighters have closed off approaches to southern Tripoli with earthen barricades. The main adversaries are the Islamist “Central Shield” militia from Libya’s 3rd largest city, Misrata (supporting Islamists in parliament), and the rugged nationalist militias from the mountainous Zintan area south of Tripoli (backing parliamentary secularists and renegade anti-extremist General Hiftar).

Had Tripoli not descended into such intense violence recently, the focus would have stayed on Benghazi where General Khalifa Hiftar (or Haftar) has continued his “Operation Dignity” against extremist Muslim militias, especially Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL). Hiftar has the support of more moderate militias, the Libyan Army’s Special Forces, the Libyan Air Force, and many police. Although suspect in some quarters because of his past CIA and distant Qadhafi regime connections, Hiftar was hailed by many Libyans as a potential savior from Islamic militancy.

More recently, however, Operation Dignity has run into trouble. Just in the past few days, ASL, with allied militants from the Benghazi Shura Council, downed a Libyan Air Force fighter jet, overran a Special Forces base, and today blew up Benghazi’s police headquarters seizing stocks of weapons at several facilities as they pushed back Hiftar’s forces.

With less protection than diplomats or other foreigners from fighting in their midst, and other violent crimes against Libyans now more common, Tunisia announced that up to 6,000 Libyans have been crossing the border per day this week to escape Libya’s dangerous lawlessness. Mustafa Abushagur, briefly Libya’s first post-Qadhafi prime minister and newly elected member of parliament, was kidnapped on July 29.

Typically, Libyans targeted for crimes are more affluent, skilled, politically active, or relatively Western-oriented. These people comprise most of Libya’s professionals and highly trained workers. As they flee, the country’s ability to function in terms of medical services, education, technical services, etc. erodes.

Governance Vacuum

Acting Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who has recently been in eastern Libya, has been trying (unsuccessfully) to separate various warring parties. Meanwhile, in order to elect a new prime minister, Libya’s General National Congress (GNC), discredited and with its mandate expired, is set to pass the torch to the recently elected House of Representatives (HOR) on August 4. This was supposed to be a notable step toward a permanent legislature.

Islamists narrowly held the upper hand in the GNC, but not in the new HOR. With Tripoli in turmoil, the formal handover had shifted to Benghazi. But with fighting also raging there, it may have to be moved to the smaller city of Tobruk between Benghazi and the Egyptian border. Little has been heard of a commission appointed a couple of months ago to draft a final constitution.

Clearly, efforts to establish a measure of enduring central authority have all but foundered. Earlier this year, the GNC gamely set about to move the ball forward with elections (which came off with some difficulty) and a schedule for transition, despite considerable strife at that time. Now goals challenging enough a few months ago could be put on hold or become irrelevant in the face of more conflict, even societal implosion. In addition to previous indicators of collapse like crippled oil exports and iffy governance with alternative nodes of power often in confrontation, even shipping currency to the country’s banks is now crippled, strangling commerce, trade, and over normality.

Can New Diplomatic Ground Be Broken?

On the scene, foreign missions could achieve very little while hunkered down with violence flaring all round them. However, their departure, although symbolic of Libya’s failures, need not halt international efforts to assist.

In fact, outside engagement might make a difference. That would mean summoning under the aegis of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as many major Libyan players as possible. Under the circumstances, this should be daringly comprehensive, involving not only recognized officials, but also militia leaders, eastern federalist leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, and General Hiftar.

A few of the non-official actors in particular may never have come face to face before. Several extremist militias probably would not show up, especially ASL. However, that could make such an exercise more likely to succeed. With Islamist extremists already a common enemy among most of the rest (including quite a few relatively more moderate Islamists), putting aside or resolving differences in order to face such a dangerous foe more successfully could emerge as such a conference’s most compelling incentive for progress.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. It is interesting to reflect on how we came to this pass.
    From memory, Obama was a reluctant participant, as was the UK, with the French taking on the lead role in this fiasco of an operation to remove Gaddafi.
    Should not the French be tasked with setting right the problem they have largely caused?

  2. @John – – France indeed played the key role in bringing about western military intervention in Libya. Sarkozy’s pal, Bernard-Henri Levy, was the most important propagandist on the ground in Benghazi. Obama was reluctant to intervene, for very good reasons.

  3. And, Levy, naturally is a Zionist sympathiser.
    In 1956 the French were all for attacking Egypt with the Israelis and the British, and still wanted to stay there even after Britain decided to withdraw (under US pressure).
    My understanding is that the French have supported Israel’s nuclear programme in the past and they are also instrumental in developing submarine capability for them too.
    Let the French sort out the Libya mess they largely created on behalf of their Tel Aviv masters.

  4. @John – – Let’s remember that France tried to prevent the illegal and idiotic UN invasion of Iraq in 2003. Jacques Chirac knew what disasters likely would ensue.

    And we should recall how well Sarkozy dealt with the crisis in Georgia in 2008 (war with Russia).

  5. And, given the disastrous policies Nasser pursued, perhaps it is a shame Britain and France did not overthrow him. (Eisenhower prevented it.)

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