Reading the tea leaves of the Libya congressional hearings

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the NYT:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12 (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place).

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation.

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Libyan democracy hijacked

 Libyan democracy hijacked - Le Monde diplomatique - English edition:

Patrick Haimzadeh in Monde Diplomatique, on the post-election politics of Libya:

Many commentators pronounced Jibril the man of the moment. Confident of their skill in political science and the analysis of election results, they failed to grasp the complexity and fragmentation of the political landscape. A few weeks later, their predictions were confounded when the new General National Congress appointed as its president Mohammed Magarief, whose National Front party (self-professed moderate Islamist) had only won three seats at the election. On 12 September, the congress chose Mustafa Abu Shagur as prime minister over Jibril, by two votes.

Supported principally by the Islamists, Abu Shagur had been deputy prime minister in the previous ‘transitional’ government. The choice of Shagur demonstrates the difficulty in applying conventional party political models to Libya, where local or even tribal allegiances and rivalries often take precedence over the divide between ‘Islamists’ and ‘liberals’ that is the frame of reference normally used in the West.

Warned about those labels back in July.

✚ Tragedy in Libya

Tragedy in Libya

A good first take by Blake Hounshell of FP:

What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy's walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an "apology" for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing.

For me, the embassy assaults are a sobering reminder not only of the deep anger and dysfunction that plagues the broader Middle East, but of the enormous difficulty the United States has in dealing with this party of the world. The level of distrust and fury toward America is not the sort of thing you heal with a speech or two. And to make matters worse, there will always be groups that exploit things that have no connection whatsoever to U.S. government policy, like this anti-Islamic film.

There will always be such groups, but the dysfunction that these groups rely on is really deeply, deeply, sad and obviously dangerous. Not to mention dangerous. In Libya it was compounded by the fact that these groups have access to all sorts of weapons. Moral of the story: such groups should be very, very closely monitored, and the duty of host countries to provide effective riot control and protection to foreign missions taken very seriously. I understand that Libya is still in a chaotic situation, it is obvious the government there has scant security control. Egypt has a lot fewer excuses — things could have always easily ended up worse.

On terrorism in Libya

The car bombs that hit Tripoli on August 19 and following clashes with those believed responsible for them have highlighted the recurrent nature of such attacks in the new Libya — just yesterday, for instance, the car of an Egyptian diplomat in Benghazi was also bombed (no one was hurt). The government has blamed Qadhafi loyalists but it's unclear whether this is the case; there are other possible culprits. Having not followed this closely, I gained some clarity yesterday by reading an email sent by Geoff Porter, a North Africa specialist who frequently visits Libya, on the issue. He kindly agreed to let me post it here.

The three car bombs in Tripoli on Sunday 19 August merit a quick Libya update.

Although there were three bombs, the attacks in effect represent a single data point, so it is difficult to extrapolate a trend from them or plot a trajectory for security in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya. However, when placed in the broader context of security risks throughout the country, something in fact can be gleaned from them – namely that security threats in Libya are evolving away from utilitarian violence to terrorism, violence that is ideological and idealistic. This evolution presents new problems for the General National Congress (GNC) in its efforts to get Libya under control.

Libyan officials attributed the attacks to a group of men loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qadhafi. After the attacks, security sources reportedly arrested 32 members of the group, which they said is intent upon sowing discord in the country and is determined to discredit the GNC that was sworn in on 8 August.

The Tripoli bombings were preceded over the last several weeks by a string of assassinations in Benghazi. The assassinations targeted former members of Qadhafi’s intelligence services, all of whom were allegedly on a hit list that includes between 109 and 900 names. It is not known who carried out the attacks. Some speculate that an unspecified Islamist group was responsible. Others think that a local militia with particular grievances against the Qadhafi regime is behind the murders.

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Ashour on why Libya's Islamists lost

Omar Ashour as a new column up at Project Syndicate explaining Libyan Islamists' defeat at the hands of a wide-ranging ranging coalition of liberals, independents, conservatives, and, well, almost everyone who was not a self-described Islamist.

Nevertheless, the question remains: what happened to the Islamists? They spearheaded the opposition to Qaddafi, were advised by their Tunisian and Egyptian brethren, and larded their rhetoric with religious symbolism in a conservative Muslim country. For many, however, this was not enough.

A striking difference between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, on the one hand, and Libya’s Islamists on the other is the level of institutionalization and interaction with the masses. In Qaddafi’s four decades in power, Libya’s Islamists could not build local support networks; develop organizational structures, hierarchies, or institutions; or create a parallel system of clinics and social services, as their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan were able to do.

As a result, Libya’s Islamists could not unite in a coalition as large as that of Mahmoud Jibril, the former prime minister under the National Transitional Council, who heads the NFC. Instead, their votes were divided between several parties, six of which are significant.

But another reason for the strong “liberal” turnout is the “blood” factor. “I am not giving my family’s votes to the MB. Two of my cousins died because of them,” Mohamed Abdul Hakim, a voter from Benghazi, told me. He agrees that Islam should be the source for legislation, and his wife wears a niqab. Nonetheless, he voted liberal: his cousins were killed in a confrontation in the 1990’s, most likely between the Martyrs Movement (a small jihadist group operating in his neighborhood at the time) and Qaddafi’s forces.

But many average Libyans, including Hakim, do not distinguish between Islamist organizations and their histories. For them, all Islamists are “Ikhwan” (MB). The “stain” of direct involvement in armed action, coupled with fear of Taliban-like laws or a civil war like Algeria’s in the 1990’s harmed Islamists of all brands.

Also see: Analysis: Elections in Libya —the surprises | Libya Herald

Libya: What's happening to Al-Mahmoudi?

From POMED: Ex Libya PM Claims Tunisian Authorities Tortured Him

In a report released by Human Rights Watch on Friday, former Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, recently extradited back to Libya from Tunisia, claimed that he is being treated well in Libya, but that Tunisian authorities regularly tortured him prior to his extradition. Mahmoudi said guards beat him with “sticks, boots, and a plastic whip,” and alleged that he went on a hunger strike when authorities denied him access to his lawyer. Returning to Libya has been a marked improvement, Mahmoudi said, in contrast to statements by his lawyer last week, who alleged his client suffered broken ribs and a perforated lung at the hands of Libyan authorities. Human Rights Watch, however, could not verify that Mahmoudi was able to speak freely.

Should HRW perhaps confirm this before releasing highly inflamatory information? Or at least give an indication of which story it believes is more likely to be true?

The Libyan Rorschach

The Libyan Rorschach - By Sean Kane | The Middle East Channel

From the outside, the picture in Libya looks unremittingly bleak. A near daily chronicle of rampaging militias, conflict and chaos headlines coverage by the wire services. But perhaps a casualty of the closure of foreign bureaus and the lesser interest that exists when no U.S. boots are on the ground, some perspective is lacking from the often barebones news reports.

Eight months after the brutal death of Qaddafi marked the end of the civil conflict that followed Libya's popular uprising, support for the regime change appears to have if anything grown. Even if some of this backing falls into the "everyone loves a winner" category, a full 97 percent of Libyans surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was absolutely or somewhat right.

But is the mere fact of the revolution being broadly popular enough to make it right? Is it a sufficient platform to produce a secure and brighter future for Libya?

Good long piece worth reading. With regards to the lack of a deep sense of state and national identity in the history of Libya, take a look at my Is there a Libya?

Nic Pelham on Libya

I haven't been following very closely lately, but does not look good for the upcoming elections  —Nic Pelham writes Libya's Restive Revolutionaries for MERIP:

The government is clearly alive to the dangers that isolated attacks could mushroom into a broader insurgency, possibly uniting two sets of discontents -- thuwwar and former regime loyalists -- in a marriage of convenience against the new order. Libya’s vacuum provides ample space for fresh alliances. Unable to overcome the thuwwar, the NTC have recently sought to coopt them. Jettisoning such designations as outlaws, NTC chairman Mustafa ‘Abd al-Jalil has reportedly blamed the government for “not absorbing the revolutionaries.” The NTC has offered the thuwwar blanket amnesties for misconduct during the war, restored the handouts, sanctioned the intervention of composite militia forces in such trouble spots as Bani Walid, a former regime garrison town, and backed the creation of a Patriotism and Integrity Commission, Libya’s version of Iraq’s debaathification commission, designed to vet electoral candidates and government officials.

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Libya's militia problem revisited

Militia Checkpoint

IHS’ Richard Cochrane reports that despite some success the interim government has had ahead of the planned June 2012 national elections in bringing militias to heel — 8,000 militiamen are now “pledged” to become border guards — several obstacles remain to the NTC’s efforts to establish a secure state. A plan to distribute payments to militiamen and their families — essentially, a plan to secure legitimacy for the NTC in the fighters’ eyes — has been undermined by the NTC’s reliance on militias to manage the payments. The result of which, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, has been an uneven, unaccountable distribution of the money:

Names have been omitted from payment lists and others erroneously added, sparking angry protests, some of which have descended into violence. Local media has reported several incidences of militia groups plundering payment centres located in rival neighbourhoods, or in areas deemed to be insufficiently loyal to the spirit of the revolution.

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Sharks weren't the only predators the Qadhafis took a shine to

Bad toys for bad boys

Straight-up Bond villain extravagances via Hannibal Qadhafi, reports the Financial Times. The dictator’s son was building himself a cruise ship with a shark tank:

Replete with marble columns, gold-framed mirrors and huge statues, the Phoenicia was to have included a 120-tonne tank of seawater for two sand tiger sharks, two white sharks and two blacktip reef sharks. Four resident biologists would have tended to the animals. The sharks’ nutritional needs mandated a dedicated food store.

No word on how much the liner cost Libyans – Hannibal skimmed off the top of the country’s port incomes – but the Phoenicia is being refitted by Swiss maritime conglomerate MSC for regular passenger duty at a cost of over US$720 million. Apparently Hannibal had extremely tacky taste and interior renovations have been rather involved. Sadly for passengers and Roger Moore enthusiasts, the shark tank will go – though that’s at least good news for the sharks.

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Tuaregs, climate and guns in the Sahel

Strife in the Sahel: A perfect desert storm | The Economist:

"Low precipitation may seem normal near the Sahara. In fact, much of the Sahel normally gets enough rain to allow modest farming. But a rise in water temperatures in the nearby Gulf of Guinea has shifted the flow of rain clouds southwards, meteorologists say. Livestock have died in droves. Long-term overgrazing and fast population growth have made the problem worse.

Oxfam, an aid agency, warns of a humanitarian disaster, with more than 1m children facing severe malnutrition. Villagers in Chad already dig up ant hills to gather grain the ants have stored. But the worst-affected place is now Niger, a landlocked country of 15m people which, even in normal times, accounts for a sixth of global child deaths from malnutrition. Save the Children, another aid agency, says that the situation in Niger has worsened since September, when a lack of rain led to crop failures of up to 80%.

Misery has made the Sahel’s thousands of unemployed an easy target for recruiters from extremist groups. Their main base lies across Niger’s badly patrolled border with Algeria, where the Sahel becomes outright desert. A two-decade-old Islamist insurgency there has adopted the mantle of global jihad and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Having failed to dislodge the military regime along Algeria’s densely populated Mediterranean coast, these extremists are increasingly focused on the sandy hinterland.

In January they kidnapped a provincial governor near Niger’s border with Libya. They also hold at least 18 Europeans hostage. Several of these are in the custody of a new splinter group that announced itself in December. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is led by black Africans, rather than the Arabs who typically dominate jihadi circles. To set themselves apart they strive to be even more radical. Modern weapons flow to them from Libya. After the collapse of its government last summer, some former rebels have been selling off the contents of looted armouries."

Great rare piece on the complex range of factors that are making the Sahel more explosive than ever. If course the spread of weapons from Libya was something many warned about before the civil war there. But impact of climate change may be more serious in the long run.

Did Qadhafi finance Sarkozy's election campaign?

Bad investment

Back in the early days of Libya war, the reasons for France's rapid intervention were the subject of much discussion. One of the rumors that was floating was that Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, was eager to cover up the Qaddafi regime's close ties with his own party and business networks including the financing of Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2007.

The rumor has now come back with a vengeance and possibly, proof. The quality (anti-Sarkozy) website mediapart.fr has published an incendiary document suggesting that the campaign was financed through Saif Islam al-Qadhafi to the tune of €50 million. The document, which was leaked by government sources and had previously been part of the evidence in a case involving the relationship between Sarkozy's party and the arms dealer Ziad Takieddin, suggests an elaborate setup negotiated between the Qadhafis and Sarkozy's advisors. The money was laundered through a Panama-based shell company and the Swiss bank accounts of the sister of a prominent right-wing politician also close to Sarkozy, according to mediapart. Takieddin was also known to be a troubleshooter and fixer for the French Interior Ministry in seeking contracts for French companies that provide security services, including for Saudi Arabia.

In March 2011, just a few days before French jets struck Libyan army vehicles moving towards Benghazi, Saif al Islam gave an interview in which he demanded that France return the money used in the presidential campaign, threatening that he had details of bank accounts that could incriminate Sarkozy. This was ignored at the time, and dismissed as an attempt to embarrass the French. What is beyond dispute, though, is that the Sarkozy administration had close an fruitful ties with the Qaddafi regime, both formally and through back channels.

Although this remains to be confirmed, it appears consistent with widespread rumors going back to at least the 1970s of illicit financing of right-wing little parties and candidates by Arab and African dictators. Jacques Chirac for instance was commonly said to have received campaign baksheesh from Lebanon's Rafiq Hariri and Morocco's Hassan II. This latest affair is part of a growing scandal dossier involving Sarkozy party and his entourage — one that could become a major reason he loses his reelection bid in May.

A Responsibility to Define “Protect” in Libya

Libya, in the words of the Obama Administration, was “time-limited, scope-limited” engagement enacted under the responsibility to protect doctrine. After decades of dealing with Qadhafi’s nepotism and secret police, I hope that Libyans will be able to move towards a participatory democracy (and, I hope, we will see a continued airing out of all the zenga-zenga-ing the late Colonel engaged in with US lobbyists, oil majors and European defense contractors).

NATO went in hard by air, and then left the NTC in charge to ensure democratization and guarantee semblance of unity in the country. Some felt that the US had proven the efficacy of the “time-limited, scope-limited” interventionist model, even though some earlier incidents in Libya – such as reports of extrajudicial killings and the racially-motivated targeting of migrant workers – did emerge to sour the warm welcome that the NTC was enjoying in Western capitals. Further comments of this nature, Jadaliyya notes, have barely registered in the media, or, it seems, in the capitals of the states who helped put the NTC in power.

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Italy is back in business in Libya

The mourning period is over in Italy: Italy to help Libya protect borders, oil: Libya PM | Reuters

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Italy will help Libyan authorities protect the North African country's borders and oil facilities, Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib said on Saturday.

"The defence ministers (of Libya and Italy) signed a letter related to creating a system to control borders managed by Libya and provide training, especially for (protecting) oil installations," Keib told a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti.

"(The letter is) asserting Libyan sovereignty and that no Italian troops will be present," he said.

Monti is in Libya at the head of a diplomatic, economic and military delegation which is hoping to lay the groundwork for contracts for reconstruction projects worth billions of dollars over the next few years.

Projects include building major roads, expanding and rehabilitating airports and seaports and training the armed forces and police, which need new border security and reconnaissance equipment.

As the article notes, in 2008 Silvio Berlusconi agreed with Qadhafi to pay $5bn in compensation over 20 years for crimes committed during Italy's colonization of Libya, when it killed over a quarter of the population. It doesn't look like that payout is going to be honored from this deal, aside from some aid that will be well compensated by oil and infrastructure contracts. Shouldn't Libya expect prompt payment, like the blood money the victims of the Lockerbie bombing took a decade ago? 

[Thanks, PM, who adds: "Given the Italian-made weapons Qadhafi used against his people, I think the NTC should have driven a harder bargain."]

Update: Meanwhile – Protesters storm Libyan government HQ in Benghazi | Reuters

Hugh Roberts on Qadhafi and the Lybian intervention

Hugh Roberts, a great expert on North Africa (his book The Battleground, on Algeria, is a great read) is someone I've had fascinating talks about Libya over the last few months. He was very much against the intervention, disputes the urgency of the situation in Benghazi in late February, and makes the calculation that the intervention turned out much bloodier and costly for Libya than non-intervention — and has many hidden costs with regards to Libya's independence.

In a long article for the London Review of Books, he discusses all of this and revisits some personal favorites of mine: the lingering mystery over Lockerbie; Qadhafi's Africa policy, which had some positive aspects; and much more. Here's an excerpt, but do read the whole 12,500 word thing:

The situation that developed over the weekend following the initial unrest on 15 February suggested three possible scenarios: a rapid collapse of the regime as the popular uprising spread; the crushing of the revolt as the regime got its act together; or – in the absence of an early resolution – the onset of civil war. Had the revolt been crushed straightaway, the implications for the Arab Spring would have been serious, but not necessarily more damaging than events in Bahrain, Yemen or Syria; Arab public opinion, long used to the idea that Libya was a place apart, was insulated against the exemplary effect of events there. Had the revolt rapidly brought about the collapse of the regime, Libya might have tumbled into anarchy. An oil-rich Somalistan on the Mediterranean would have had destabilising repercussions for all its neighbours and prejudiced the prospects for democratic development in Tunisia in particular. A long civil war, while costly in terms of human life, might have given the rebellion time to cohere as a rival centre of state formation and thus prepared it for the task of establishing a functional Libyan state in the event of victory. And, even if defeated, such a rebellion would have undermined the premises of the Jamahiriyya and ensured its demise. None of these scenarios took place. A military intervention by the Western powers under the cloak of Nato and the authority of the United Nations happened instead. 

How should we evaluate this fourth scenario in terms of the democratic principles that have been invoked to justify the military intervention? There is no doubt that many Libyans consider Nato their saviour and that some of them genuinely aspire to a democratic future for their country. Even so I felt great alarm when intervention started to be suggested and remain opposed to it even now despite its apparent triumph, because I considered that the balance of democratic argument favoured an entirely different course of action.

In Italy, Eulogies for Qadhafi's Wealth Mismanagement Fund

"Want to bunga-bunga or should we just zenga-zenga?"

An item in the Wall Street Journal reminds us that the ties between Libya and Italy's elites are very, very deep, and, as benefiting the lives of the rich and famous, sometimes produce strange little stories that illustrate much larger forces at work - in this case, the economic future of Libya following the National Transitional Council (NTC) and NATO's military successes: 

ANTRODOCO, Italy - Maurizio Faina, mayor of this small Italian town, has for three years been planning the construction of a lavish spa here thanks to one deep-pocketed financial backer: Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Now that Col. Gadhafi is being ousted from power by his own people, "the whole plan is over, and it's sad," says the mayor, who had hoped to employ hundreds of people thanks to the €16 million ($22 million) resort.

Antrodroco's longing for Col. Gadhafi's largesse is a small, but significant, window into the vast economic ties between Italy and its former colony - a network that generated about $17 billion in annual trade before the conflict broke out.

Significantly, the spa deal began with a personal effort by Colonel Qadhafi (conduced alongside the Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi, who has cultivated close ties with the deposed leader) and was, according to Italian sources, being managed by the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), whose multibillion dollar assets were frozen several months ago. These assets include stakes in UniCredit, Italy’s largest bank (who largest foreign owner was, until recently, the Libyan government); Eni, the state energy company that produces the lion’s share (60%) of Libya’s oil exports; and Finmeccanica, a partly government-owned conglomerate with interests in Libya ranging from infrastructure to defense. The regime also had smaller stakes in various Italian sports, automotive, media and telecom interests – and was reported to be eying another, even larger, resort project in the Italian spa town of Fiuggi (so the Colonel would have a choice of resorts, presumably).

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