- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
On July 26, the United States suspended operations at its embassy in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and evacuated its diplomats and staff to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort. The evacuation was due to the ongoing clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones assured Libyans that despite the relocation to temporary offices in Malta, the embassy is still working nonstop to find a peaceful resolution to the current clashes. But Libyans don’t see this as a good sign. Many feel the U.S. evacuation is a win for the extremists and militias that are inflicting extensive damage to Libya’s infrastructure, and whose actions threaten to destroy the country’s democratic processes altogether.
Ordinary people on the streets, who were supposed to be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, said the holidays were the worst they have ever experienced in Libya. The ongoing fighting in Tripoli and Benghazi and the U.S. evacuation dominated all conversations. Many seem to agree that the U.S. evacuation is a sign that mediation efforts have failed and that the situation is likely to get worse. After the United States left, many turned their hopes to Britain, which was leading the international community’s efforts to mediate between the warring factions to find a way to stop hostilities. But over the weekend, Britain also evacuated nonessential staff to Tunisia, transported over a hundred British nationals to Malta, and temporarily closed its embassy. Even Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Libya, has "reluctantly" decided to leave, due to deteriorating security conditions. (The photo above shows a French embassy employee embracing a friend after being evacuated from Libya on Aug. 1.)
In the last two days, a coalition of extremist militias in Benghazi called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries overran an army base used by the Special Forces unit in Benghazi. One of the coalition’s leaders, Mohamed al-Zahawi, promptly declared victory over Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his men, who have been fervently defending eastern Libya against Islamist militias. Zahawi apparently went on Ansar al-Sharia’s local radio show, Tawhid, to declare Benghazi an "Islamic Emirate." They have, of course, declared this victory prematurely — the war in Benghazi is far from over. Haftar was quick to deny Ansar al-Sharia’s claims that they have gained full control of Libya’s second city. "Claims that Ansar al-Sharia militants have full control of Benghazi are nothing but lies," he said during a TV interview. Indeed, his forces were quick to lead an air and ground offensive against Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.
Many people I spoke to feel that the West abandoned Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi, leaving the country in the hands of heavily armed militias. One Benghazi resident, a 24-year-old male who works for a warehouse for one of the city’s leading supermarkets, which was bombed during the fighting, commented: "This is the worst I have seen Benghazi, even worse than the day Qaddafi’s forces were on the outskirts of [the city] in 2011 at the start of the uprising."
Tripoli’s residents seem to share this sentiment. Hundreds are being killed and many more injured, vital infrastructure is being destroyed, and the democratic process is under real threat, as the militias are attempting to prevent the newly elected House of Representatives from convening. Many are asking what Libya’s friends in the West intend to do to help.
So far, the governments of the United States, Britain, and other European countries have insisted that the solution to Libya’s problems is political. The West has issued countless statements on this mythical political solution in the last few weeks — but that has not stopped the warring factions from indiscriminately shelling Tripoli International Airport, destroying the city’s gas and fuel tanks, and endangering civilian populations with their indiscriminate shelling.
No dialogue to find a political solution can take place while these violent clashes continue. The sound of guns and bombings is louder than everything else. The only break happened when the militias paused to watch the U.S. Air Force’s F-16s fly over Tripoli as they evacuated the embassy staff. One Tripoli resident jokingly remarked, "If only the F-16s were around a little longer, we could have had a better night’s sleep." Many in Libya believe the United States and the West could be doing much more to quell the conflict. They could, for example, push for a U.N. Security Council resolution that would allow the use of targeted airstrikes against the armed factions. The U.S. embassy’s evacuation is a worrying sign for Libya’s democratic transition, but the United States can still work with its allies to push for meaningful intervention that would help put Libya’s transition back on track.
Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, summarized it perfectly in his recent op-ed for the New York Times: The West must combine threats, intervention, and mediation to stop the fighting that has already killed hundreds in the country. Simply waiting for a "political solution" is not enough.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.