Four years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya descends further into chaos

Whilst media attention throughout 2015 has been focused on the Syrian War and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, another complex conflict has been unfolding largely un-noticed, just across the Mediterranean. When the brutal regime of Colonel Gaddafi fell in 2011, Libya was at the centre of international news headlines. Four years later however, the growing instability in the country has become a side-show to these ‘main events’.

After the gruesome death of Gaddafi at the hands of rebels in Sirte, the initial outlook for Libya was overwhelmingly positive. It was viewed in the West as a country ‘freed from authoritarianism and tyranny’, with the opportunity to rebuild itself as a modern democratic state. After the Arab Spring protests spread to Libya in March 2011, a NATO bombing campaign was remarkably successful in aiding the rebels in removing the remnants of the previous regime, leading to the capital Tripoli being captured in August, followed by the death of Libya’s former strongman two months later. These events were accompanied by scenes of celebration and a mood of optimism, as the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) took power and a period of relative stability ensued.

However, it did not last long. Four years later, Libya is a ‘failed state’ plagued by militias. With no effective government, authority or state structures, Libya is a dangerously divided and fractured society on the brink of returning to full-scale civil war.

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The Libyan Civil War broke out after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests spread across North Africa in early 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Libya currently has two competing governments. Firstly, there is the General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli, backed by the Libyan Dawn network of Islamist-inspired militia groups. Secondly, the rival western-backed government is effectively exiled in the Eastern city of Tobruk. Known as the ‘House of Representatives’ (HoR), it is internationally-recognized as Libya’s legitimate government and is more secular in nature. However, to view the situation in Libya through the paradigm of ‘two opposed governments’, would be a dramatic simplification of the reality. Libya is a country deeply divided along regional and tribal fault-lines, with a strongly disaffected population and growing risk of civil war.

These divisions can be seen most clearly through analysing the sheer number and diversity of armed groups currently operating in Libya. Irrespective of the protracted political crisis, it is these armed militias which dominate the day-to-day situation on the ground in the absence of any real authority.  Islamist militias such as the Libyan Dawn network are generally supportive of the GNC. However in reality, it is a broad coalition of various armed units and factions, with competing aims and desires. Alongside Libyan Dawn, many jihadist groups are present: including Islamic State (IS), Ansar al-Shariah and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. On the other side of this blurred divide are groups generally supportive of the Tobruk government, such as the armed forces and allied units led by General Khalifah Haftar, and powerful non-Islamist militias including Al-Zintan.

To add to the already-dangerous situation, Islamic State has begun to gain a foothold in Gaddafi’s former home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. IS has been able to take advantage of the power vacuum, recruiting locals alongside foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Whilst the country’s political leaders have been pre-occupied with the dispute between the two rival governments, IS has gradually introduced its extreme form of Islamic law in areas under its control, conducted massacres including the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in February 2015, and has threatened to exploit the exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean to smuggle fighters into Europe.

The contrast between the West’s enthusiasm to intervene in 2011, and their reluctance to discuss the situation in Libya over the last four years, has been considerable. A 2015 Report by Human Rights Watch draws attention to the recent escalation of conflict, which has caused widespread destruction of property, civilian deaths and injuries. An estimated 400,000 people are now internally displaced, whilst many foreign embassies and the NGO’s have evacuated their staff from the country. The Libya Body Count website has reported a total of 4,340 violent conflict-related deaths in Libya since January 2014; however in reality the total is likely to be far higher.

The continuing instability has created the perfect conditions for conflict to flourish. The lack of border security has resulted in the increased trafficking of humans and weapons, whilst the judicial system has broken down as militias frequently have attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses. The longer the current political impasse continues, the greater potential there is for the situation to deteriorate; and with the recent rejection of a UN-backed peace deal, there is little sign of progress.

Given Libya’s increasingly complex and volatile internal situation, characterized by division, violence and lawlessness; there is clear potential for the country to become ‘another Syria’.

However, to understand the current situation more fully, we must move beyond simply looking at these internal developments. We must also ask critical questions of western policy, exploring its weaknesses and exposing its contradictions. For example, the West was happy to help remove a human-rights abusing dictator in Libya; whilst at the time maintaining strong alliances with numerous other human-rights abusing, totalitarian dictatorships across the region. This raises questions about the ‘real’ aims of regime change, and exposes the selectivity and hypocrisy of western interventions.

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After leading Libya for more than 40 years – since 1969 – Colonel Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in Sirte, in October 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

So after the initial optimism that followed the removal of Gaddafi, what can we learn from the disintegration of Libya? Firstly, it is clear that the problem of ‘complex civil war’ also exists outside the borders of Syria. Whilst the media and western governments primarily focus on the Syrian conflict, the considerable worsening of the situation in Libya has been largely ignored. Secondly, the conflict in Libya must be understood within the wider context of the growth of Islamist militancy in unstable regions. Alongside the proliferation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, other extremist Islamist groups are on the rise: such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The motivations of these groups are closely linked; therefore there is a need for western governments and the mainstream media to shift the focus from primarily being on IS in Syria, and instead pay more attention to the wider context and ideological linkages between conflicts.

Finally, Libya is an example of the dangers of western intervention. Four years after the removal of Gaddafi, the original aims of the Arab Spring protestors and well-intentioned western leaders, lie in tatters. Optimistic demands for civil, political and economic rights have disappeared into a power vacuum characterized by growing divisions, sectarianism and increasing violence.  The example of Libya exposes the double-edged sword at the heart of Western foreign policy in the Middle East: tolerate human rights abuses and prop-up an authoritarian regime to preserve stability; or foster regime change with the hope of bringing democracy, at the risk of dire consequences. This seemingly impossible dilemma suggests that a third-way might be preferable: neither supporting nor intervening against authoritarian regimes; but developing a long-term strategy to tackle human rights abuses, whilst encouraging political reform from the inside.

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An Overview: The ‘New Media Environment’ and Conflict in the 21st Century

In the early 21st Century, a new type of global geopolitical conflict has emerged. Whereas the defining ‘old wars’ of the 20th Century were often fought between two clearly distinct sides, with states as the main protagonists (such as WWI, WWII and the Cold War); conflict since the turn of the millennium has seemed far more complex. These ‘new wars’, have blurred the boundaries between civil and inter-state conflict, involving many disparate actors with diverse and competing aims. The number of fighting units has increased dramatically: for example in the current conflict in Syria, there are estimated to be over 80 separate rebel groups, fighting the Assad regime, ISIS, and each other. To add to the already confusing picture, many external states have become involved in the conflict: the US-led coalition conducting air strikes, along with the further involvement of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These contemporary conflicts are driven by the conditions of globalization; enabled through new technologies of communication and aided by cross-border flows of weapons, people, information and ideas. The boundaries between war and organized crime have also become blurred: whereas previous wars were funded primarily by the nation-state, today’s conflicts are funded through private donors, resource exploitation and the smuggling of people and weapons. This new type of conflict is characterized by increasingly extreme levels of violence towards civilians, with groups aiming to spread fear and terror in order to achieve their political and ideological aims. In the Syrian civil war, as well as in many recent conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, this has been materialized through tactics including torture, beheadings, executions, destruction of heritage sites and the use of mass rape as a psychological weapon of war.

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Image Source: Christian Triebert

Across the same time period, media coverage of conflict has undergone dramatic and extraordinary changes. Whilst traditional ‘Old Media’ was based on a few-to-many model, with TV bulletins and newspapers being the primary modes of consumption; ‘New Media’ technologies have facilitated a de-centralized media environment based on the internet and multi-platform reporting. As a result of these changes, coverage of conflict has become almost immediate. Coverage is now exhaustive and event-driven, typified by the emergence of 24-hour news channels such as CNN, Fox, Sky News and Al Jazeera, along with the rapid growth and popularity of online news websites. This shift has been pushed even further in recent years, with the increased popularity of blogging and the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Another important trend has been the rapid expansion of ‘Citizen Journalism’. Civilians in the world’s conflict zones are now able to capture events first-hand on devices such as smartphones, and upload their content to social media. This allows the dissemination of witness accounts to a mass audience, in almost real time – further increasing the diversity of material available, and helping to ‘fill in the gaps’ in areas which are difficult for journalists to access. Such citizen-produced content has increasingly been used by mainstream news organizations in their reports, with news bulletins on Syria now being typified by shaky, grainy images and first-hand accounts from within the conflict zone.

The rapid changes which have taken place in the media over the last few decades have resulted in coverage of conflict becoming more immediate, in an event-driven media environment based around ‘breaking news’ and the use of dramatic, compelling footage. Images have become an increasingly important medium through which audiences visualise and understand contemporary conflict: increasing the reality of the situation and enabling viewers to gain a clearer picture of events on the ground. ‘Iconic images’ now play an increasingly important role in perceptions of conflict, as they act as a visual marker in the viewer’s mind: for example, the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Baghdad, George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, and the Abu Ghraib torture photographs have become symbolic of the Iraq war. In the current context, camera-phone images of Colonel Gaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets of Libya in 2011, and horrific images of ISIS beheading western hostages have become gruesome icons of the current upheaval in the Middle East. In this sense, images in the media have become a powerful weapon in shaping public perceptions of conflict.

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Image Source: Magharebia

So what is the result of this new age of conflict, combined with the corresponding explosion in media coverage? Firstly, the power of the media is obvious: it is the primary medium through which audiences make sense of the increasingly complex conflicts of the 21st Century. The media has significant power to highlight the devastating nature of conflict, influence mainstream public opinion, provoke emotive responses, and pressure governments in to taking action. However, dangers emerge as a result of the almost incomprehensible level of coverage: already-complex conflicts can seem even more confusing to viewers, and the real stories of conflict can be left untold. Coverage may be saturated; yet debate is often limited. Conflict is simplified and the dominant perspectives are left unquestioned, resulting in misunderstandings and misperceptions.

There is a desperate need for coverage to do more than just report on daily events as they happen. Media coverage must strive to ask the more difficult questions, acknowledge the complexities of conflict and explore the contradictions which underpin the dominant narratives. For example, the current war in Syria must be located within its historical, socio-economic and geopolitical context, with more critical and controversial questions being asked of actors on all sides of the argument (for example: ‘what has been the role of the Western arms industry in fuelling conflict in the Middle East?’, or ‘Is it morally defensible for western governments to trade with extremist regimes, at same time as being publicly committed to fighting extremism?’). Only once questions such as these enter the mainstream debate, will governments more-fully be held to account, and more in-depth understandings of modern-day geopolitical conflict become possible.