By Sophie Shevardnadze
It’s been seven years since Western powers toppled Gaddafi, leaving the country split and in tatters. Can unity in Libya ever be reached again? We talked to Mustafa Abushagur, the former deputy prime minister of Libya.
SS: ISIS were expelled from their Libyan stronghold Sirte a year ago, but just recently they’ve claimed the attack on the oil facility near Tripoli. The German Institute for International and Security Affairs says that the group is now more active and organised than a year ago. Should we be worried that the group will use Libya’s disarray to re-emerge and re-establish itself?
MA: The incident that you’ve mentioned on NOC (National Oil Company) in the last ten days or so is very unfortunate. There are always these individuals who belong to Daesh or somebody else who can attack the country because it’s unstable, and there are a lot of people who can commit a lot of crimes, and among them there are people who are saying they are part of Daesh.
I’m not saying there’s no Daesh present, I’m sure there is. But at least they are not the same they were a year or a year and a half ago when they had the whole city of Sirte under their control. They were fought by the Libyan people themselves.
They were expelled with the help of the international powers, especially the U.S. And this is the way to do it. We can fight against Daesh because their ideology is not accepted in Libya.
It’s completely rejected in Libya because people in Libya are very modest and moderate Muslims. They refuse this type of ideology. But, of course, when there’s instability and conditions like those that we have today than clearly some people will be influenced by this Daesh.
And I don’t think Daesh will be there, even in the whole world, in the coming years because nobody will be willing to accept what they are teaching.
But you will find people here and there who will be willing because of despair or any other reason to commit such crimes, to commit suicide and to kill innocent people who have nothing to do with them.
SS: Libya’s oil production has been surprisingly stable despite the armed conflict that is going on – it seems that the militias are willing to fight each other, but whoever is running the oil rigs makes sure they keep pumping no matter what’s happening. If a peaceful solution can be found to pumping oil, why can’t it become a broader political solution?
MA: Pumping oil is in the interests of the international community, it was made very clear that it has to be pumped continuously. And even at the same time the militias need money, and all income for the Libyan people comes from oil.
So it’s in their interests that Libya will be able to make money so that they will be able to have more than their share of that. So clearly if you look at that it’s an international interest to see oil continuously being pumped, no matter what’s the pressure on this, and militias understand that there’s something they shouldn’t touch.
Even though if some incidents happen here and there, and they would close some oil fields. This tells you that the international community can exert its will on these people. But if they don’t really care what Libyan people live through these militias will continue.
SS: That’s my next question. So many nations are willing to have their say on the Libya issue (not just the oil pumping part) – Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, Italy, you name it. Are they helping at all? Are they really interested in reconciliation in Libya?
MA: No, they are not helping.
SS: What are they doing then?
MA: They want to support this or that faction. And those factions are fighting each other in proxy wars for those countries. As we know there’s a conflict going on between the countries you’ve mentioned: the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, France, Italy and so on.
Unfortunately, those countries are also polarized and they come on different sides of factions that are fighting together. They are only fueling it, they are confusedly supporting them sometimes by their own military that hold one side against the other.
SS: All actors in the Libyan political standoff are in contact with Russia. Do you think Moscow can play a role in bringing the parties to the negotiating table, the same way it is doing in Syria, for example?
MA: Definitely Russia, the United States and England, who, when they talk to those people, show that they are interested in two things – the unified Libya and the stable Libya – and are willing to support it.
But they cannot support it by supplying weapons, they should stop doing that. And so Russia can play a positive role in helping to stabilise the country. But again, this requires a lot of nations willing to do that, who are interested to see it.
SS: I remember, Barack Obama once said that the biggest mistake of his presidency was a lack of planning for the aftermath of Gaddafi’s ouster. Norway has just admitted that it had no idea what it was doing when it send planes to bomb Libya. What about now, do you think the West has a clear-cut strategy on Libya today?
MA: I don’t think that Libya right now is a priority for most of these countries. I don’t think Libya is a priority for the United States, or Russia, or China, and the powers to be.
Unfortunately, Libya slipped down from being in priority for these countries. So they have no strategy for it. So that’s why smaller countries play a bigger role in Libya by de-stabilising it, instead of major powers of the world who could play a different role but are disengaged from it.
Over the last month or so there’s an indication that the U.S. has maybe tried to engage, but it’s not clear to me that they have a strategy of engagement in Libya.
SS: So is it fair to say that all these Western countries interfered, bombed Libya and just left? Is it a fair statement?
MA: No, the fair statement is that these countries came to help Libyan people during the 2011 revolution, and after the revolution success in the sense of toppling the regime, unfortunately, they disengaged and they left because they thought that the Libyan people could do that on their own. We clearly proved that we could not.
SS: So here’s a painful question probably for you as well, Mr. Abushagur, because you have been a staunch opponent of Gaddafi all your life. You were also Libya’s interim Deputy Prime Minister after Gaddafi was overthrown. But 7 years on, the tribal balance he managed to uphold is gone, the country is in turmoil, there’s a war. Was the overthrow really worth it? Should it have been done in a different way? I mean, with this Norway report that just came in and with other testimonies of people involved it seems that many in the West now regret helping to topple Gaddafi seeing how bad things got after his ouster…
MA: Personally I think what had been done in 2011 was the right thing to do. But I wish this engagement had continued to help Libyan people overcome this. Of course, now we’re paying for the legacy of Gaddafi.
If you look back at the revolution he led 17 thousand criminals and gave them weapons to go to the streets, most of those people are now militias.
No, I still believe that the revolution was the right thing to do because we lived for 40 years under an oppressive regime which didn’t value anything in the Libyan life or the human rights of the Libyans; he destroyed the country, he didn’t build anything with all the vast wealth of the country.
I know, the things have been bad over the last five-six years or so. But I’m hoping for the future that we overcome all this as Libyans; we will realise all these plots against us – we will have to overcome that.
And clearly I hope that we will realise that this is very important – we cherish freedom and clearly we want a democratic state, not an authoritarian state under the dictatorship.
SS: But if you take today’s results and the situation on the ground today would you call that revolution a success? I understand that the revolution brought down the dictatorship which was not about freedom, transparency, democracy, but you can hardly call what is happening now a democracy either. You yourself were kidnapped by some militia in the broad daylight, it’s not a very democratic thing… In the end, the revolution, some would argue has failed… Do you think it was a success?
MA: I think, it would probably need more time… Clearly, the revolution was a success in the sense that it brought down the regime. But we, Libyan people, so far have failed to move it from that to a real state.
Is there a democracy today? No, there’s no real democracy in the ideal sense, there are few elements of it, and unfortunately even these few elements of democracy contributed negatively.
I see that one of the major problems we’ve had over the last few years is by those who we elected, they don’t do anything to serve the people of Libya.
So I think, it is a struggle that we are going through as Libyans. I know, it’s very painful for all of us, it’s very painful for our people. But there’s a hope that we will overcome all those challenges, especially if the international community helps us.
SS: I was going to say thank you for sharing your thoughts on Libyan reality and the reality on the ground. It was great talking to you, good luck with everything. We were talking to Mustafa Abushagur, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Libya discussing the country’s troubled transition 7 years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.