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OpinionsLibyan Floods and Fault lines: An Expert’s View of Political Implications

Libyan Floods and Fault lines: An Expert’s View of Political Implications


What starts in Libya does not stay within, It reverberates beyond borders

By James M Dorsey

Libya has figured prominently in recent headlines. These days, it's floods that have devastated Eastern Libya and killed more than 5000 people, days after a catastrophic earthquake rocked Morocco like much else. Some 10,000 people are missing.

What starts in Libya doesn't stay in Libya. It reverberates far beyond the North African country's borders with two rival governments, both supported by external players.

Libya has been in turmoil since the 2011 popular Arab Revolt that toppled Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. Each of the rival governments is supported by external players. Eastern Libya is controlled by rebel leader Field, Marshall Khalifa Haftar, while western Libya is governed by an internationally recognised government in Tripoli.

The floods could not have occurred at a worse moment for Haftar. The short-lived mutiny in June by the Wagner Group has cast a shadow over Russian backing for the rebel leader.

Add to this, recent protests following a controversial meeting in Rome between the foreign ministers of Libya and Israel, raised the spectre of a disconnect between Middle East and governments and public opinion.

As the United States seeks to engineer the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Libya alongside Algeria, Syria, and Lebanon, may be the least likely candidate to normalise its relations with Israel, in part because of the influence of Islamists and militants in a country that is as much ruled by rival governments as it is by militia.

Overall, Libya may not be the most influential player in the Middle East, but the impact of what happens in Libya resonates across the region and beyond frequently impacting the domestic policies of countries like the United States, France and Italy. My guest today, Ethan Chorin, notes that Libya, if ignored, “may be marginal for policy formation, but it's poisonous when neglected.”

A former US diplomat, who served in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East East, is the author of ‘Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its to the Brink.'

Ethan skipped a dinner a decade ago with US Ambassador Christopher Stevens at the US Consulate in Benghazi. Stevens and three other Americans were killed that night in an attack by Islamic militants on the consulate.

Republicans in the United States targeted then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her handling of the attack, making it a major issue in the 2016 presidential election in which she lost to Donald Trump.

Ethan Chorin: Well, first of all, this is an unprecedented catastrophe in Libya, a natural catastrophe. I think the estimates at this point of how many people have been killed are pushing upwards of potentially 10,000 or more.  Derna, the city has been most devastated, was hit essentially by a tsunami. According to some reports, a three-metre high wall of water rushed onto the wadi area after the collapse of a dam that was built in the 1970s, and hadn't been properly repaired. So ,something like a third to a quarter of the city has just simply been wiped away. This is a desperate humanitarian issue, like the Morocco quake. I'm not sure about how much aid has actually been sent from Tripoli. There have been reports that in fact some aid has been turned back. Whether that's accurate or not, who knows, but I don't think that the Tripoli government has the capacity at this point to deal with this magnitude of a disaster.

James M. Dorsey: So, what does this mean politically. In other words, if you have basically two rival governments, neither of which can come to the aid of what is a disaster indeed, it's not just a tsunami, it's a breaking of two dams and the reports, as you clearly mentioned, that some 10,000 people have not been accounted for. What does this mean? What's the political fallout of that?

Ethan Chorin: Well, that's unclear. Certainly. I think there's more likely to be recriminations from the local population about the continuation of the feeling of neglect and conflict with the Western government. I don't see this as being something that could necessarily bring the country together in the immediate term unless there is, what we need right now, assistance on a massive scale. I think that the trend at this point is increasingly becoming a division between east and west, and the question is not so much political unity as how to distribute resources effectively. I've written a piece recently that argued that trying to force parties that are ideologically and otherwise oil and water is not going to end well.

I think there's a lot of blame to go all around. You could look at this as the natural result of a failed international intervention back in 2011, the political infighting, and endless reconstituted governments, et cetera, and a tradition whereby the East feels, rightly so in many ways, that the power centre in the west has ignored and starved them of resources.

This dam, there were two dams that failed one after the other, but the main larger one has not been repaired apparently since 2002.  I've heard that various parts and pumps related to the dam sensors had been essentially looted by, who knows exactly who. There were advanced concerns expressed locally that the dam might indeed break. And so clearly there's going to be some local recriminations as well.

But I see this as being, well, it's an opportunity for the international community to express some real concern about the state to do something tangible and practical. There are very specific needs at the moment for medicine, shelter. All of the roads, except one, have been severed. This is going to require an enormous effort, and disasters do tend to bring people together to some degree. In this case, whether it has some sort of a positive political impact on the country as a whole, I kind of doubt it. I think it will exacerbate ultimately the division between the eastern and western governments.

James M. Dorsey: And the problem of course with an international response is that you already have a massive need in Morocco, and it's going to be tough on the international community to address two of these crises of such magnitude simultaneously.

Ethan Chorin: Yes, Moroccan quake is an absolute disaster, obviously, and it took a while for the international media to pick up on what was going on in Eastern Libya, partly because communications have been out, and the attention has not been so much on Libya. Information is scarcer, but the scale of the disaster in Libya could exceed some of the worst estimates at this point. Dena is a town of officially 80,000 people. But the numbers are close to 110, 120,000, and conservative estimates suggest that at least 10 per cent of the population has just been washed out to sea.

All of this affects the rest of eastern Libya, and you have neighbouring countries. Greece is also dealing with some of the aftermath of this storm, and the Libyans were not prepared to cope with something like this.

James M. Dorsey: And all of this comes at a moment of uncertainty for Khalifa Haftar, particularly after the death of the Wagner group's Commander, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash in Russia last month. Russian deputy Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was quick to visit Haftar in Benghazi amid uncertainty about the future of the relationship. What kind of an impact does that have on Haftar's positioning, particularly in the wake of the flood, and the description that you just gave about previous warnings that the dams could break?

Ethan Chorin: Well, I don't see this as being linked. The Wagner group is in my account still very present in Benghazi. I think the Western government and Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh are experiencing their own pressures related to the fiasco of the leaking of a clandestine contact between the foreign ministers of the Western government of unity and the Israeli foreign minister in Rome, which also connects to, as does the Haftar Wagner situation to Libyan perceptions of what the Americans are thinking and how to manage that relationship. Clearly the Americans would like Libya to be as separate from Russia as possible.

But it had, as you also alluded to, a substantial, if not decisive effect, on the 2016 elections as well as America's sort of general increased risk aversion across the board in the region. And it does go back to 9/11. The attack in Benghazi was clearly, I mean this point has been sort of dodged for political reasons, the work of Al-Qaeda. There is quite a bit of evidence that suggests that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al-Qaeda head, and was aware of it and that it may have been linked to other attacks around the same time. (IPA Service)


By arrangement with

the Arabian Post


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