Yet contrary to worries, the rival governments have found a way to work together. Humanitarian aid is arriving from abroad and international rescue teams have hit the ground running. Assistance is also arriving from across Libya, offered up by supporters of both administrations, which have worked well to get supplies where they need to go.
As for foreign donors, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), both of which have for years supported the east-based LNA, were especially timely and generous with their assistance. The UAE may have sent the most planes, carrying food and material for shelters, as well as teams specialised in underwater rescue.
The hClaudia Gazziniead of the recently established Derna emergency committee, Brigadier General Baset Bughreis, tells me that since the tragedy, “flights from the UAE bringing aid and technical teams have never stopped”. For its part, Egypt staged a remarkable show to announce the shipment of its aid: President Abdelfattah al-Sisi presided over a televised parade close to the Egyptian-Libyan border showcasing dozens of bulldozers, trucks and ambulances entering Libya.
But other countries have stepped up as well. Within a day of the flood, Türkiye and Italy (supporters of the Tripoli-based government) flew in the first members of their respective search-and-rescue teams and equipment. Days later, both dispatched ships carrying heavier equipment, including helicopters.
I came across rescue workers from Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Spain and Malta searching for survivors in the rubble. On 16 September, on the highway into Derna, I spotted a Russian cargo plane parked at al-Abraq airport, 40km to the city’s west. A local eyewitness told me that the aircraft had unloaded a team of around 40 rescuers and their equipment. I met one of these teams days later, taking a break under the remains of a partially collapsed building. They have found no survivors, they told me; rather, their work consists of helping dig out the dead.
The international relief effort defies traditional geopolitical divides. It is hardly surprising that old allies of Haftar’s, such as the UAE and Egypt, would step in to help. “It is in Egypt’s strategic interest to ensure that things stabilise here as soon as possible”, suggested a Western political analyst. But even some of the LNA’s former foes are now at the forefront of search-and-rescue operations.
Türkiye is perhaps the most striking example. Only a year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a Turkish naval vessel docking in eastern Libya, much less Turkish personnel deploying on the ground here. After all, barely three years have passed since Ankara intervened militarily in Libya to stop the Haftar-led advance on Tripoli. At one point in mid-2020, there was even a possibility that Ankara would launch a counteroffensive against Haftar-led forces in eastern Libya.
But Türkiye clearly does not want all of its eggs in one basket. Over the past year, it has been working hard to engage politically and build business ties with eastern Libya’s authorities and military, in parallel with its diplomatic overtures toward Egypt. The current rescue effort is contributing to strengthening those ties.
Brigadier General Bughreis suggested that Türkiye is one of the biggest providers of assistance in the Derna crisis, after the UAE and Egypt. Qatar, which also sided with Tripoli during the same Haftar-led offensive, likewise has sent aid to the east.
On the ground, Libya’s rival governments appear to have found a modus operandi to enable international help to reach Derna. According to a Western diplomat in Tripoli, foreign governments typically notify Tripoli of their intention to provide support.
Once Tripoli approves the deployment, Haftar’s people step in to arrange logistics, such as authorising the landing of planes and providing vehicles and lodging for personnel. Dabaiba subsequently sends a public thank-you note to the governments in question. I continue to hear rumours that Western assistance is being blocked, but I have found them to be unreliable, and the foreign representatives I speak to tend to have positive things to say. “We haven’t faced any difficulty in setting up operations here”, the head of the Italian assistance mission, Luigi D’Angelo, told me from a base just a stone’s throw from Derna’s devastated city centre
It is also heartening to see that ordinary Libyans do not seem hamstrung by political allegiances when it comes to helping the people of Derna. So many have volunteered. Trucks filled with humanitarian aid coming from faraway towns line the access roads to the city, from points of origin that defy political boundaries.
The Libyan Red Crescent has done a remarkable job in setting up temporary lodgings for the displaced and distributing aid. Libyan rescuers have been doing the bulk of the digging in search of survivors as well as the work pulling out the dead. Even boy scouts are taking part in the relief effort.
Still, it is unclear whether cooperation between the two governments goes beyond facilitating international aid. A former senior UN official who has stayed in contact with Libyan politicians in both camps assured me the two are working together, albeit “out of the public eye”. There are no reported sightings of members of the Tripoli government in Derna or its environs, and I have heard from a minister of the east-based government that they are not welcome here.
But, somewhat surprisingly, military and security officers from Tripoli apparently are. On 22 September, I ran into two military officers from western Libya. The day after, the Tripoli-based head of intelligence Husayn al-Aieb visited the disaster zone, flanked by his eastern counterpart Sulayman Abbar and Saddam Haftar, the field marshal’s son.
That foreign aid is arriving is good news, as is the fact that ordinary Libyans are setting aside political differences to help Derna in its time of need. But looking forward, two things concern me.
First, I fear that once the search-and-rescue efforts are called off and international attention turns to other crises, foreign capitals, especially Western ones, that have sent humanitarian aid and rescue missions to Derna will either stop engaging or substantially reduce their assistance. Some will stay: the UAE, Egypt and Russia, which have longstanding alliances with local authorities, will continue to assist at levels proportionate to their financial means.
Türkiye, which appears to be focused on consolidating its newfound relations with local leaders, will also remain on the ground. But most Western countries are likely to soon forget this disaster zone. I have already seen the Spanish and the Maltese teams leave during my stay.
It is too bad: the Western presence is important. From a humanitarian perspective, European capitals have expertise to offer and are just across the sea. As a geopolitical matter, it is curious that the European powers would want to cede ground to growing Arab, Turkish and Russian influence here.
Secondly, I worry that Libya’s rival governments might use this crisis in opportunistic ways. They could divert reconstruction funds, for instance, depriving those in need and souring donors on providing support. Or they could throw themselves into a bruising competition for control that detracts from the recovery effort.
There are already signs of turf wars (and corresponding disinformation campaigns) between the rivals over who should take charge of reconstruction efforts. Each of the two governments has announced its own plan to hold a “reconstruction conference”, in a bid to administer the Libyan and foreign funds earmarked for rebuilding.
One would like to believe that this crisis may finally wake up the country’s political elite to the need for it to heal its schisms and work together to face common challenges. Certainly, the cooperation that the governments, international donors and the Libyan public have shown since 11 September suggest this possibility.
But, thus far, it remains uncertain whether cooperation will endure, and the nascent competition over reconstruction monies already suggests that it may be premature to expect a meaningful break from the dispiriting trajectory of Libya’s modern history.