By Aly Abuzaakouk
It won’t have escaped the notice of any onlooking Libyan that when a conference was held on the future of our country in Italy, our former colonial occupier, there wasn’t a single Libyan flag in sight.
And that’s to say nothing of the invitation extended to the warlord “General” Haftar, whose brief presence in Palermo made a mockery of the peace process, his hosts and his many victims in eastern Libya.
But the West, despite its errors, still has a role to play. Libya can be saved. And in order for that to happen, democracy must be allowed to take hold and those who show contempt for it held to account.
I lived through the obscene regime of Qaddafi. While working at the University of Benghazi I, like so many others, was imprisoned and subjected to torture, and like so many others I hoped that the UN and NATO intervention in 2011 would help to facilitate creating the conditions in which a free and democratic Libya could rise.
But in the aftermath of the intervention, a power vacuum emerged, and was promptly filled, by members of Qaddafi’s own deep state.
Figures that had long supported Qaddafi emerged quietly from the shadows, sensing opportunity.
They were familiar to anyone involved in Libyan politics: Khalifa Haftar—a Qaddafi man. Mustafa Abduljalil—a Qaddafi man. Mahmud Jibril—a Qaddafi man, and many others.
What became clear was that the intervening Western powers may have done away with Qaddafi, but they also left a space in which his vile regime could live on by another name, a space in which the former ideologues who prospered during his rule could re-emerge.
Now, seven years on, vast swathes of the oil crescent, the country’s economic heartland, and eastern Libya are controlled by a man who does not believe in democracy or freedom, but in his own military rule at any cost.
Khalifa Haftar, a man I have known for more than 20 years, has the great cities of Benghazi and Derna under suffocating control.
He tells the world he is a freedom-fighter, bravely confronting the forces of extremist ISIS and ‘terrorism’. But it was the brave residents of Derna, not Haftar, who drove ISIS from their city it’s well documented that dozens of ISIS vehicles travelled for more than 800 kilometers through areas under Haftar’s control during their retreat to Sirte.
Haftar did not stop them once. In fact, it was the very next day that he besieged Derna, my wife’s home city, where hundreds of civilians have been killed, including children. And while Haftar postures as a freedom-fighter, he exhorts his so-called Libyan National Army to carry out ‘extrajudicial killings’.
When his forces took Benghazi, they were pictured executing and mutilating the bodies of opposition fighters. Those are men that Human Rights Watch has accused of committing war crimes; Derna and Benghazi remain besieged, bombed, their inhabitants taken to the brink of humanitarian disaster.
These crimes cannot be ignored. And yet the “general”, who turned CIA informant the moment he fell out of Qaddafi’s favor, finds himself on the receiving end of an invitation to sit with democratically elected heads of state and respected international institutions.
How can the people of Libya believe in such a conference, or their own democratically elected members of the State Council (former General National Congress) and members of the House of Representatives, when seated next to them is a murderer and thug, a rogue actor with no interest in peace?
The West must wake up. Haftar is no friend to them and he is no friend to Libya, and every shred of legitimacy he gets makes it more difficult to shine a light on what legal institutions in Libya say constitutes war crimes.
For four decades he has existed on the fringes of power; now he sees an opportunity to take it for himself. He claims to believe in free elections while his outlook and conduct says entirely the opposite.
The United States in particular has a lot to gain if it decides to make Libya a good example of a successful change.
After the lukewarm support for democracy that emanated from Western countries in Libya following Gaddafi’s removal, American leadership is needed to make such democratic transformation feasible.
Libya desperately needs the world’s democratic communities to stop Egypt, The UAE and other Middle Eastern powers continued interference in the political affairs.
The people of Libya are yearning for a peaceful transition to a democratic civil government that allows them enjoy the resources of their own country.
The U.S. played a pivotal role in the success of the Libyan revolution, it is high time to help them succeed now.
Democracy is the answer, and “General” Haftar stands in the way. There must be no more military rule in Libya: an executive and legislature bodies must be elected by the people through the legitimate process.
For the elections scheduled in 2019 to achieve anything, the House of Representatives must first approve a referendum on a draft constitution, which would underpin the results. And for that to happen, we need a guarantee of safety from international actors to render Haftar powerless.
Then, and only then, we can begin to hold elections in the areas with the greatest security, like Tripoli, and other areas after that.
It will be a slow and sometimes frustrating process. But, so long as we have support and firm reassurances from the West, and the criminal “General” Haftar is kept at bay, it will be one that allows democracy to bloom, to spread, and to take root throughout the country.
Aly Abuzaakouk is former Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Libyan Government that followed Gaddafi. Aly is the president of the Libyan American Public Affairs Council (LAPAC).