By Anas El Gomati
World leaders met in Berlin on January 20 to enforce an arms embargo and ceasefire to end the long-running civil war in Libya.
A little over two months later, the fighting restarted and intensified as the world’s attention turned to the global fight against coronavirus.
In Libya, the Government of National Accord (GNA) announced emergency measures and restrictions in recent weeks, urging citizens to self-isolate to stop the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, residents in Tripoli described the resumption of Khalifa Hafter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) offensive on Tripoli and resulting fear as the “worst since 2011,” with the attackers shelling homes, killing six civilians, and injuring six more.
The fighting in Tripoli is progressively getting worse, with water being cut to 3 million residents in Tripoli who can no longer wash their hands at home, not to mention the 149,000 who have lost their homes to the conflict, the conflict in recent weeks threatening to explode into a new war that could have profound consequences for Libya, North Africa, and their neighbors in Southern Europe, only a few kilometers away.
Foreign Interference, International Ambivalence
Libya has become a theater for a conflict that is driven and controlled by outside forces. On the ground, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters have joined the GNA’s ranks to defend Tripoli against Emirati-hired Sudanese mercenaries and Russia’s infamous Wagner group who have led an offensive on Tripoli since April 4, 2019. In the sky it is no different.
Turkey has recently introduced an air defense system and introduced drones to deter attacks on Tripoli from Emirati-operated drones backing the LAAF as the two foreign countries battle for supremacy in Libya’s airspace.
Despite Turkey’s role in leveling the playing field, and reducing the impact of the Emirati offensive on civilian lives in Tripoli, the levers to start and stop the war are almost entirely outside of Libya.
The principal military backers of both sides are under no direct pressure from the international community or Libyans to make compromises or concessions to end the war due to the Coronavirus.
Why is Libya Ill-Prepared to Face the Crisis?
Libya’s public health system is in a state of crisis that predates the Coronavirus. Tripoli, the capital and most densely populated region in the country, largely avoided the violence of the NATO intervention in 2011 as Qaddafi fled rather than fight and contest the capital, leaving a public health system and city in neglect but intact.
The April 2019 LAAF offensive to take Tripoli by force has changed that. The LAAF have launched airstrikes on Tripoli’s hospitals, killing doctors and paramedics and destroying ambulances throughout the year-long campaign.
The GNA have distributed 75 million dinars to municipal councils across the country, including territory controlled by the LAAF, to fund the fight against coronavirus across Libya.
Nevertheless, the LAAF have continued their offensive on Tripoli, and LAAF affiliated officials have cut the water to 3 million residents in Tripoli, in addition to the LAAF shelling the homes of civilians and the Covid-19 center in Tripoli.
But without a ceasefire and with continued LAAF targeting of Libya’s public health system, the government’s effort against the virus is taking one step forward and two leaps back.
Responsible Media, Responsive Citizens
South Korea has received praise for its successful policies in tackling the spread of the virus, central to which has been honest reporting of information by government media and avid cooperation by a well-informed and trusting public.
In contrast, whereas Libyans of all political stripes desperately need to trust the authenticity of their news sources and work together with their government to tackle the virus, their media institutions have been weaponized and serve to fuel conflict.
As a result, Libyans are accustomed to receiving a varied diet of disinformation from both factions, whose competing media institutions and news agencies misrepresent facts and fuel distrust in order to sustain and legitimize the conflict.
Not only do Libyans mistrust the public information sources they need to understand theirs and the government’s roles to combat the virus, but also their respective authorities are fundamentally hostile towards them.
For example, in Eastern Libya, the LAAF chief of staff and self-appointed head of the region’s COVID-19 committee has announced that the military authorities will pursue anyone, at home or abroad, who criticizes the LAAF’s preparation to fight the pandemic.
This chilling announcement followed the arrest of a doctor in Benghazi who vocally criticized the state of the city’s hospitals.
As long as information is used as a weapon, and citizens are treated as a threat by authorities, the pandemic is likely to worsen.
What are the Risks if the Fighting Doesn’t Stop?
Libya connects Africa with Europe’s southern neighborhood, lying less than 300 kilometers from southern-most Italy.
There are at least 149,000 displaced people in Tripoli as a result of the LAAF’s offensive, and an additional 648,000 migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers from neighboring countries and Sub-Saharan Africa living in temporary accommodation or appalling conditions in both GNA- and LAA-controlled territory.
Bombs do not discriminate, and many of these most vulnerable people are the first to be harmed or flee during conflict, as seen when 53 refugees were killed by an LAAF airstrike in July 2019.
The intensifying conflict around Tripoli and looming threat of coronavirus spreading could act as “push factors,” forcing the most vulnerable communities in Libya—through fear of violence and virus alike—to cross the Mediterranean into Europe as the peak summer migration season gets closer.
The EU’s “Irini” naval operation—criticized by the Danish Refugee Council for being “carefully designed to not save lives”—it does not conduct search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
This could portend a catastrophic loss of life from boats that sink off the Libyan coast.
Meanwhile, those migrants who do arrive safely in Southern Italy will inevitably be seen as potential carriers of a “second wave” of the virus into Southern Europe, and thus met with fear and hostility by a Europe that is in mourning.
The U.S. and Europe can no longer afford to be ambivalent to the international meddling that sustains the conflict in Libya, or view it as a distant problem that can be brushed under the carpet at a time of pandemic.
Attempts to return back to authoritarian rule at the barrel of a gun held by Russian and Emirati mercenaries and will exacerbate the spread of the virus.
U.S. diplomacy has the track record and military strength to bring the offensive to an end, and enforce redlines in a conflict where the rules have been missing for far too long.
Main Photo: Libya Citizens along the Libyan-Tunisian border. Photo courtesy of the EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations Department via Flickr Commons.
Anas El Gomati is the Founder and General Director of the Sadeq Institute, the first public policy think tank established in Tripoli, Libya. The Sadeq Institute is a member of the Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding.