Moderator: Michael O’hanlon

On February 24, the Brookings Institution hosted an event to discuss the civil war in Libya with Federica Saini Fasanotti and Karim Mezran .




The following is the (Q&A) portion of the transcript :

MR. O’HANLON: Thank you. Well, let’s take some questions from the audience.

Please, if you could wait for a microphone and give us your name before asking your questions. We’ll start with the gentleman here in the fourth row on the side, please. I’ll take a few and then come back to you.

Thatcher White: Could you talk a little bit about the interests of the various foreign interlopers in this dispute?

Scott Morgan: I’m a freelance security analyst covering West African issues. I would like you to comment on how the Haftar offensive is actually leading to the deteriorating security climate and how specifically Niger, Burkina and Mali, as we’re finding that some of the unintended benefits of his offensive is he’s driven some of the foreign fighters out of Libya.

BOB: My name is Bob from the Embassy of the Gambia. Actually I have two quick — the first one being what would be the likely outcome between Haftar, and international recognized government based in Tripoli? And the second one is so, we blame the West for the present day chaos in Libya?

MR. O’HANLON: Thank you. So, why don’t we come back, a number of questions on the table, don’t feel like you have to address each one, both of you. But why don’t we start with you, Federica?

MS. FASANOTTI: Well, the situation with the international actors is pretty clear. There are two — let’s say two sides. And they are more and more stronger. On one side, we have the support of the Emirates of Russia and of Egypt, as we said.

And plus, sometimes also, you know, the hand of Saudi Arabia. And on the other side, we have Qatar and Turkey.

Each of these countries have different interest in Libya. And they are economics, political and in many respects also, connected to the international prestige.

So, I think that they have really spoiled the chance in the possibility for Libya to have a real path for peace in this very moment.

They are the real spoilers in many respects, even though Libyans have many many mistakes in this process.

The other question was on Haftar and the war, how is it going, did I understood? I think that Haftar destroyed every possibility to solve the question in Libya, and then in the next years, let’s say not months and not weeks, of course.

And this kind of action, military action, also, disrupted as you said, the situation in the Sahel. So, the less you have control in the deserted part of Libya, which has no borders as we know, the most you will have problems with weapons, with terrorism and so on.

So, again, I think that the military operation of Haftar has been really a curse in many respects. Karim, do you want to add anything?

MR. MEZRAN: This situation, it looks clear. I really believe it’s extremely complex, because every one of the actors, each one of them having multiple allegiances and various behaviors.

We all have to be talking about the Egyptian changing their minds on Haftar, but the America pushing them in. The Russians are taking the place of the American.

There has been a lot of talk a lot of action, a lot of destruction. Italy has been on the side of Sirage but then it looked like it was endorsing Haftar, then went back.

There all of the French, there all the European Union. The big weight of the financial community has been really unbelievable.

And the consequences for the international system has not been understood yet. I was at a seminar in July and an eminent colleague of mine.

We were on the taxi going back. He told me, Karim, what do you think? Do you think that 20 years from now we will — the historians will look back at the day and say the 4th of April, the day Haftar attack against Tripoli when the Secretary General of the UN was there sanction at the beginning of the end, of the United Nations as a meaningful, powerful entity of the international community?

And I thought a lot about it, and I think yeah we will — the way the international community has behaved regarding Libya has consequence, it will have consequences much far beyond the mere events in Tripoli and Libya.

It will affect the international institutions, which have poorly performed. It will affect the region organizations. It will affect neighboring country. It will affect political institutions and states in Africa. And it is affecting what’s going on in Europe.

It is extremely complex. If you want — if you really want to have a deep understanding of what is going on and trying to draw some conclusion out of it.

MR. O’HANLON: I’m just going to add two points myself. And then we’ll see if there’s another round.

In a month, on March 23rd, we’re going to have another event with the Africa Security Initiative here with Professor Elise Howard from Georgetown, who’s written about the success of UN Peace Operations in Africa and elsewhere. And that’ll be a happier story.

But there is, of course, no UN peace observation or peacekeeping force inside of Libya today. That was one of the points we debated in our group, whether to recommend one. But we’re a long ways from having any kind of a peace to monitor or keep in any event.

So, I take your point about the UN taking a hit here. The UN has a lot of partial successes and sometimes big successes in other places. It’s, you know, these missions don’t have the muscle of a NATO operation, but they have had a better than 50/50 track record.

But of course, they’re not really being attempted now in Libya. So, just one observation.

One more observation and it speaks also, to the gentleman’s question at the end. I once heard it said about 10 years ago by a very eminent Middle East expert, and this might have been true when he said it.

But I’m sure it’s not true anymore. And actually I don’t even think it was true when he said it. That what happens in Libya stays in Libya. And I think it’s almost exactly the opposite.

Because as the questions underscored, we’ve seen foreign fighters from Libya, many of whom were further radicalized and who improved their tactic, so, to speak, during the broader wars of the Middle East, in Iraq and elsewhere in the 2000’s.

Then go southward, and they’re contributing to much of the instability in the broader Sahel region.

And we also, know that Libya is such a sparsely populated and open terrain country, that the flows can go in the other direction too. To the extent that Libya is not able to take care of its own borders we have the potential for large exodus from much of Africa into Europe.

And of course, this is going to only be exacerbated by growing populations in Africa and many of the changes with climate that are underway as well.

So, I think Libya is essentially a wide open two-directional swinging door with the movements of foreign fighters and refugees. And this is generally speaking of no real benefit to anyone, it can’t be healthy for the security of any of the region. I think it’s a dynamic we’ve seen quite a bit in the last 10 years only getting worse.

So, let’s see if we have time for one last round of questions before we come back to the panelists for their final words. We’ll start in the back. Yes, please.

Anwar Aleesha: I’m from the Libyan American Alliance. I have two quick questions. I think the first one is you rightly mentioned that Libya is very sparsely populated. The population itself is very small.

I’m curious about how the migration that has occurred since 2014, particularly from the east and the south to the west, how that’s shaping internal dynamics and particularly narratives there. That’s the first question.

And then the second question is to something Mr. Mezran said about the UN. And I’m curious if you could talk briefly about the relationship between the UN’s failure on Syria and the UN’s failure on Libya, and how those two things might together or differently, herald the end of whatever international order that we have?

Carl Gullivan: One Libya question on one Italy question. Under Gadhafi, Libya was one of the few countries that did not have a western style that based privately controlled central bank system, Gadhafi even held conferences about risk to the gold dinar coin circulating for oil transactions as money of North Africa.

So, my question is, what is the current status of the system of money and banking in Libya?

QUESTIONER: I have a question linking what’s going on now with the history. Gadhafi was very keen in using instrumental Omar Mukhtar, like in his relationship — in his relations with Italy. Like we all remember that every time he was visiting Berlusconi, he used to have the picture of Omar Mukhtar on his clothes.

So, my question is, is there, from both sides in Libya at the moment, the same attempt to use history to justify what they have been — what they are doing there?

I’ve seen some attempts from the Haftar side to justify their actions against the GNA, as the GNA being the client of the Italian colonialist power first and now of the Ottomans, like colonial like, patterns, etc.

So, I want to ask, from your point of view, whether this kind of attempt has been to a certain extent like structured, or it’s a couple of tweets every now and then from specific actors? Thank you.

John Allen: I work here. Two quick things. If — Mike on the back of that book, some folks have shown some interest in it. It might be interesting to reflect some of that.

The second thing is, and this is for anyone in the audience who would know, what the current state of US policy is with regard to Libya?

Well, that’s my question. You know, we have what I think would be the punitive U.S. support for the GNA, yet we have tweets going out on a regular basis, extolling the virtues of Haftar.

So, I leave that for the panel or someone perhaps from the State Department who would like to confess to being part of the State Department, to offer us some help on what the policy is.

MR. O’HANLON: Excellent. So, Karim, you want to start then we’ll give the last word to Federica.

MR. MEZRAN: Yes, the first question regarding the appropriation movement. I think it is massive, but still too early for us to assess the exact consequences. This is going to bring the political structure and the economic structure. There are a lot of internally displaced people that once pieces are certain can go back. But there is a lot of migrants who moved in who cannot leave and then they’re sitting there.

I have a friend who came from Ubari and he’s an old guy. And he told me already a year ago, that what was happening in the south was incredible demographic change.

He said, I don’t recognize most of the people in my city, most of the people in my neighborhood. And this is – there is not enough information to really understand the depth of the change.

How many migrants really came from — hundreds of various reasons came from different counties in the south instead of settled down there. And how many are moving up north?

I really believe that this will be one of the major issues that once, God willing, the war is finished and the states start to do rebuilding there — the gigantic issue would be to reorganize the population, redraw the borders, redraw the limits of city — of civic engagement.

And also, and something I will never be tired to saying this, the real winner of all of this are the organizations which are becoming extremely powerful in Libya.

And it went beyond any comparison I could make with the possible second world war situation in Calabria, or in Italy or in Sicily, where the mafia was destroyed by fascism started — it was rebuilt by the complacency of the Americans not to be utilized to subdue the population.

And they dominated the island and took the power for themselves.

Italy is 10 times more than that. They really control it. They have cash. They have weapons they have a structure, an organization that will be extremely difficult, much more difficult to defeat this criminal network or criminal organization then defeating terrorism, ISIS or al Qaeda or wherever taking its place.

Your question whether it is history invoked today? That’s an interesting question, which I really haven’t talked —

MS. FASANOTTI: Well, I think that it’s, you know, a tool as Gadhafi — sometimes Haftar, but of course, it’s not interesting in this moment moving anything against Italians. But yes, when Haftar has to give his comments on Italy, it is always that we were the colonizers and that we, you know, the GNA is our slave, and so, on. But it’s just a kind of offense.

I don’t think at the moment, as far as I know, that there is a real structured propaganda in this. We must always, sorry Karim, be attentive in, you know, the relationship with Libya, of course, because we have a huge and strong and rooted past in this.

And so, it’s very easy to fall down. And do you remember, for example, the event with the former ambassador, the Italian Ambassador Roni, when there was this scandal about the race, the car race and the picture about that. You know, it’s very easy to manipulate that.

MR. MEZRAN: But I don’t know whether you are asking that, because there is always a manipulation of history for political propaganda. And that, but there is an interpretation of history that is not to be discussed. And that is, for example, all of that happened in the East against the Turks, or the (inaudible) to the Turks, the Arabs. That interpretation of history is the real dangerous one.

The one that builds a total different understanding of the national identity. A total different understanding of how you can rebuild the national identity through an interpretation of a selected history that hides certain parts and then lights certain others.

And that is not yet well, developed. My fear is if this state of affairs continues to happen for another year or two, and you will begin to have a de facto partition of the country, which is different from federalism, dysentery, just the fact that parties, Haftar or whoever is going to hold this authority over certain part of the country, and the other one is — another part of the country, then you will see the slow development by the few intellectuals from each side to develop an understanding of history.

The imagined communities’ idea. How you rebuild the national — in order to strengthen your consensus, in order to develop your hegemony power in the international community, so, you have recognition and so, on.

And that is not been there yet. But I see the embryo of this potential creation over the narrative, historically based that could define the distinction within the country.

MR. O’HANLON: Thank you, Karim. Federica over to you for the last words.

MS. FASANOTTI: Yeah. Well, to answer to our president about the United States, I think that — we are in front of a kind of evolution of, you know, the United States diplomats and, you know, government about Libya.

So, at the beginning of the service of General Mattis, as Secretary of Defense, that was for sure the interest at least, you know, from some leadership — American leadership, about solving the question in Libya.

Because Libya has and is something much more than just Libya. But it has a huge strategic importance. So, Mattis is so, exactly this and he said I want to do something in order to solve and help to solve the problems in Libya.

Nowadays, it’s pretty disappointing, I’d say and there are many coal from Libyans, to –for the United States to act. Many in the last few days also. But the United States in this moment seems to be missing in action in many respects.

And plus, I would say something about the American Ambassador, can I?

When, you know, he goes and he meets first of all, as we know, last day General Haftar, in this way United States are giving importance to these men. And which is I don’t think a very good thing. I know that I cannot go to sit in Cyrenaica anymore at this point, but it’s okay.

MR. MEZRAN: Can I just say one thing regarding American policy. I really believe that to try to understand what — if there is a policy and what is the policy, we have to put United States into its bigger role.

Libya is — I always thought that Libya — the United States could tell the Iraqi — the Emirati and the Egyptians, back off. It has the leverage to it.

But if you inserted it within the wider geopolitical and strategy of the interstate, I’m afraid that Libya is not worth a fight with the Egyptians or struggle with the Emirati, or any other actor for that.

Libya is seen as a lesser important country by the American administration at this point. Not worth that kind of struggle, that kind of entanglements.

MR. O’HANLON: Let me just conclude by again thanking you all for being here and also, honoring Federica with a couple of quick blurbs, one from Jim Mattis. Packed with timeless lessons, no other account rivals this skillful dissection of Italian counterinsurgency and Africa. Dr. Fasanotti’s rigorously researched gem is now the standard, revealing as it does the human factors and strategies that dominate war.

And John Allen wrote, there has been almost no principal treatment of the Italian counterinsurgency experience in Africa until now. It is an experience rich with lessons which for a variety of reasons, mostly political, were lost to Italians and the wider community of students of military history and the work of Dr. Fasanotti is therefore of particular importance.

So, please consider purchasing and getting signed your copy today. And thank you again for coming. Please join me in thanking these two. (Applause)


Michael O’hanlon – Senior Fellow and Director of Research, The Brookings Institution.

Karim Mezran – Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.

Federica Saint Fasanotti – Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution.



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