Published: January 25, 2020
If the Libyan crisis exposes India’s diplomatic bankruptcy, it also confirms America’s criminal interventionism in the global order without bothering to learn anything about the history and culture of the societies it so wantonly disrupts and destroys. I wonder if Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, even realised at this week’s Berlin Conference on Libya that the entire elaborate affair was necessary only because the Obama administration encouraged and aided the catastrophic events that toppled and killed Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and plunged Libya into seemingly perpetual chaos. Iraq and Afghanistan suffered the same fate. Could Iran be next?
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and conference organiser, invited representatives of 12 nations and four global organisations, but not India, once close to the Gaddafi regime but probably uncomfortable with its successors. China, Egypt, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates – to say nothing of the major Western powers – were there to discuss ending what is called the Second Libyan Civil War. If it’s any consolation to India, the conference achieved nothing. Libya’s civil war between the Tripoli and Tobruk parties continues to rage, bringing misery to some eight million Libyans, endangering global oil supplies, threatening the world economy and dragging into the hostilities thousands of illegal African, Arab and even Pakistani immigrants for whom Libya is the point of departure for Europe. The UNHCR reports that migrants have to choose between indefinite imprisonment and taking part in the fighting.
This round of the civil war began in 2014 with the Libyan National Army (LNA) commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, 77, a dual Libyan-American citizen based in Tobruk who helped Gaddafi overthrow King Idris in 1969, challenging the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) established in Tripoli. The 10-member (five from each side) committee that the Berlin conference set up is unlikely to bring the two groups together. With regional interests at stake, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced only a few days before the summit that he was sending troops to Libya to support the GNA, controlled since 2016 by Fayez al-Sarraj who succeeded the 64-year-old Berber, Nouri Abusahmain. As chairman of the presidential council and prime minister, Mr al-Sarraj wants UN troops to protect him from the LNA which captured the port city of Sirte from GNA forces on January 6.
The crisis is blamed on Mr Abusahmain whom the General National Congress elected in June 2013. He seemed a compromise candidate acceptable to all sections of the congress when he won 96 out of 184 votes in the 2012 election which most Libyans considered fair and free. However, although his General National Congress won the popular vote, parliament was fragmented and a strong government didn’t emerge. The GNC itself comprised two major groupings as well as moderates, conservatives, Islamists, independents, representatives of revolutionary groups and others with militia links. Mr Abusahmain was an Islamist, albeit an independent one, but the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR) he formed in August 2013 was a terrorist organisation responsible for kidnapping the previous prime minister, Ali Zeidan, an alumnus of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a career diplomat who had served in India in the late 1970s. As president, Mr Abusahmain was suspected of channelling 900 million Libyan dinars ($720 million) to the LROR and other such outfits: he blocked inquiries into financial malpractices.
Differences among the parties and a chronically unstable security situation hampered the GNC's ability to make headway with a new constitution which was its primary task. Some GNC members were accused of a conflict of interests; others of using boycotts or threats of boycotts to gain sectarian ends. Yet others avoided debate on relevant issues by removing the topics from the congressional agenda. The GNC’s vote to declare Sharia law and establish a special committee to "review all existing laws to guarantee they comply with Islamic law”, imposition of gender segregation, making the hijab compulsory at universities and refusing to hold new elections when its electoral mandate expired in January 2014 aggravated friction and Field-Marshal Haftar launched a military offensive, Operation Dignity, against the Islamists in May 2014.
The Berlin conference hopes to build on a series of similar discussions in Paris, Palermo and Abu Dhabi, the 2015 Skhirat agreement, a mountain of UN and Security Council resolutions, and the “Three-Point-Plan” devised by Ghassan Salame, a Paris-based Lebanese academic, who was for a while Libya’s minister for culture, and backed by the United Nations Special Mission In Libya (UNSMIL).
Gaddafi was changing tack when he was killed. Border conflicts with Egypt and Chad in the 1970s and 1980s, support for foreign militants, and alleged responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing had isolated Libya globally. US, UK and Israeli hostility resulting in the US bombing Libya (killing one of Gaddafi’s children) and UN economic sanctions prompted him to shun Arab socialism after 1999, espouse pan-Africanism, encourage economic privatisation, abandon nuclear plans and seek reconciliation with the West.
But the manipulated Arab Spring caught up with him and with NATO intervening militarily on the side of the anti-Gaddafist National Transitional Council, he was overthrown, captured and brutally murdered. Given Libya’s 140 tribes, the civil war’s degeneration since then into ethnic clashes between Arab tribes like the Zintanis, Turkish descendants like the Misuratis, Berbers and Circassians was not unexpected.
Syed Shahabuddin, a former Indian ambassador to Libya, once recalled that when he called on Gaddafi, the latter hugged his local driver because they had fought together in the resistance. He saw Libya’s leader as a man of the people. When Pranab Mukherjee visited Libya in 2007 — the first high-powered visit since Indira Gandhi’s in 1984 — Gaddafi waxed eloquent about the sky being “the limit for cooperation between the two countries.” Matching his exuberance, Mr Mukherjee declared India’s “unlimited interest” in promoting “the historical friendship” and broadening ties “in the economic, commercial, cultural, and joint investment fields.” An Indian multi-product business delegation followed by the eighth session of the Indo-Libyan Joint Commission confirmed the promise of partnership in a range of fields.
Politically, India has sat on the fence since then. Its UN voting with the US and muted response to Gaddafi’s murder does not seem to have won many brownie points or identified India as, quoting Shahabuddin in another context, “a subedar owing allegiance to a global overlord”. Probably, India is still not regarded as a reliable ally. Whatever the reason, India knows that Germany would not have taken all this trouble in Berlin if Libya hadn’t boasted Africa’s largest oil reserves and the tenth largest worldwide. That is reason enough to take another look at India’s economic diplomacy.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist. source