How Derna Tragedy Epitomizes Libya’s Misfortune – OpEd


By Osama Al-Sharif

Last week’s deadly deluge that hit the eastern Libyan port city of Derna, killing thousands and leaving many more homeless, was brought about by a natural disaster that caught Libyans unawares. But while the uncommon Mediterranean hurricane that hit eastern Libya did the initial damage, it also detonated a silent bomb — the collapse of two crumbling dams south of Derna, which ultimately destroyed half the city and did most of the killing.

Derna has become a symbol of what post-Qaddafi Libya has become: a broken country and a failed state. It has gone through more than a decade of turmoil and bloodshed since the collapse of the regime. It became a base for paramilitary militias embroiled in tribal and religious wars against their fellow countrymen. Later, it became a stronghold for various extremist groups, including Daesh in 2014. It was a base for the group until it was driven out by a coalition of Libyan forces in 2015.

Today, Derna is under the control of the transitional government of eastern Libya based in Sirte, which owes its allegiance to the self-styled Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Now 79, he was once Qaddafi’s most trusted soldier before they parted ways following the Chad war disaster. Later, Haftar conspired against his mentor, only to fail and be whisked away by the CIA to America, where he became a citizen. Following the 2011 uprising, Haftar returned to Libya, where he would expel the extremists from the east and take control of Benghazi. His ambition to rule as the country’s strongman was derailed when his army, aptly called the Libyan National Army, was repulsed on the outskirts of Tripoli in the west after Turkiye’s intervention.

He took control of Derna after a long and bitter siege. But Haftar was never able to put together a working government in the east, despite the backing of a number of Arab countries and the Russians. There were many warnings over the sad state of the two Derna dams, even in the days before Storm Daniel arrived. These warnings were not heeded.

Now, Haftar and his aides want to take credit for the rescue and recovery operations in Derna while skirting responsibility. But most people in this city that was once home to 120,000 point the finger at the ruler of Benghazi.

Haftar has resisted pressure to hold presidential and legislative elections under a law that would have favored others, especially the former ruler’s son Saif Al-Islam Qaddafi. Haftar has control over the parliament in Tobruk, which withdrew confidence from the Tripoli-based administration of interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in September 2021, thus creating an impasse.

Under UN auspices, presidential and parliamentary elections were set to occur in Libya on Dec. 24, 2021. However, three days before the vote, the High National Elections Commission dissolved Libya’s electoral committees and announced the indefinite postponement of these elections. The postponement resulted from disagreements about holding elections and a failure to reach a consensus regarding the electoral framework.

One thing that Haftar has been saying is that he is fighting religious extremists, including those supporting the government in Tripoli. This is one reason why he is getting support from outside the country.

That is not to say that the UN-recognized government, based in Tripoli, is doing much better. Bitter rivalries and personal agendas have derailed attempts to unify the country and hold presidential and legislative elections. Successive governments have failed to establish control over the entire country and faced opposition from rival factions based in other parts of Libya. More than once, fighting between armed militias with opposing loyalties has broken out in Tripoli, bringing life in the capital to a halt.

In addition, while being recognized as the legitimate government, it has failed to build strong state institutions in Tripoli, including the police and judiciary. Weakening it further is the fact that control over the oil fields, the oil crescent and ports in the northeastern part of the country along the coast of the Gulf of Sidra has been contested many times. The region has been under the control of various factions and entities, making it difficult for the Tripoli government to gain access to oil sales.

And with turmoil, chaos and foreign meddling comes corruption. A number of neutral sources have accused the Tripoli government of corruption, with politicians and officials accused of embezzlement and misuse of public funds. Foreign powers, such as Turkiye, Russia, Egypt and others, have played a significant role in the conflict in Libya, providing support to rival factions and prolonging the crisis.

What it all boils down to is the fact that this oil-rich country of no more than 7 million inhabitants, strategically located in North Africa and close to European shores, which is rich in oil and gas, has not been able to recover from the 2011 uprising — and the ensuing civil war — and the ominous decision by NATO to step in.

The Derna debacle, which is apocalyptic in proportion, is a stark reminder of the deep political and social divisions that have torn the country apart. The sad fact is that the absence of a central government that can take responsibility for the entire country and embark on a comprehensive plan to rebuild afflicted cities and towns and maintain a dilapidated infrastructure, while nursing social scars, means that Libya’s road to rehabilitation will not materialize anytime soon.

Partition is not the answer, nor is maintaining the current status quo. Libyan leaders must come to their senses and find the middle ground to overcome their differences and save their country from the next natural or human-made disaster. The Derna catastrophe could have been averted if a strong national unity government was in charge. This is the message that both Tripoli and Benghazi must accept.

The current political impasse must end and foreign players must stop meddling. That may be wishful thinking at this stage. But Libyan patriots must be reminded: Type “failed states” into Google today and Libya, along with Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen, will be the top hits. Libya should not be on the list for many reasons and the Libyan people do not deserve for their country to be there.

Until divisions are bridged and a stable, inclusive government is established, Libya will continue to be at risk of further violence and instability.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. X: @plato010

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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