26 Aug 2014

Neither dawn nor dignity in Libya

Here’s the story so far: in 2011, Libyan revolutionaries overthrew the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi with a little help from the air forces of the US, France and Britain.

Roll on three years, and instead of installing a democratic government and building up a functioning state, the revolutionaries are fighting each other in Tripoli.¬†Libya’s recently elected House of Representatives has fled to the eastern city of Tobruk as the capital is so violent and dangerous.

Libya’s neighbours look on with growing distress – the borders are porous, the country is awash with weapons, and jihadi groups have forged links with al-Qaeda and Isis.

While western countries are pinning their hopes on mediation between rival political factions, the United Arab Emirates is reported to have taken the law into its own hands and bombarded Islamist positions in Tripoli on Saturday. Egypt denies involvement, but US sources say the UAE used Egyptian military bases.

The raids were ineffectual – militia from the port city of Misrata, allied with Islamists in what they call Operation Dawn, seized the airport a few hours later. But it revealed the regional ramifications of this messy struggle.

The UAE armed and funded the revolutionaries who overthew Gaddafi, especially those from the town of Zintan in Libya’s western Nafousa mountains. Qatar also armed and funded rebels, but it concentrated on brigades in the east who were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafi or extremist groups.

A building on fire, which witnesses say was hit by a rocket, burns after clashes between rival militias in the Sarraj district in Tripoli

A building on fire, which witnesses say was hit by a rocket, after clashes between rival militias in the Sarraj district in Tripoli, 23 August 2014

Religious and secular, west and east, UAE and Qatar, all came together against Gaddafi but now they have fallen apart.

The leader of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bn Zayed Al Nahyan, has long feared destabilisation by Islamists at home. In Libya he’s backing retired General Khalifa Heftar, who leads a coalition called Operation Dignity, fighting to prevent an Islamist takeover.

The Qatari government financed the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and has been accused of supporting jihadis in Syria. Many Libyans believe the Qataris still support Islamist factions in Libya.

Tomorrow the UN Security Council is likely to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya, a strengthening of the arms embargo, and the imposition of sanctions on those inciting violence. Britain is leading an attempt at mediation between the warring factions, hoping that politicians can persuade the armed groups to lay down their weapons.

Dignity and Dawn – Libya’s rival factions – have such elegant names. But as long as they keep fighting, pulling in neighbouring powers, Libyans have no chance of the new dawn nor the life of dignity the 2011 revolution promised.

Lindsey Hilsum’s book Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution was published by Faber and Faber in 2012

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum