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 World to the Brink.’
Ethan skipped a dinner a decade ago with US Ambassador Christopher Stevens at the US Consulate in Benghazi. Mr. 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, welcome to the Turbulent World. It’s great to have you on the show. Hello,
Ethan Chorin (03:41):
Yes, it’s great to be here. Thank you very much for having me. It’s a Turbulent World indeed.
James M. Dorsey (03:47):
Absolutely. I’m tempted to kick off with the attack on the consulate a decade ago, but let’s start with the floods that swept Eastern Libya in recent days. The internationally recognised government in Tripoli that has fought military battles with Haftar, who is backed by countries like Russia and the United Arab Emirates, has rushed emergency aid to the region. Is this likely to be a one-off or could it reshape Libya’s political landscape? How much of this could be determined by who controls rescue and reconstruction efforts as well as the flow of aid?
Ethan Chorin (04:26):
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 (05:48):
So, what does this mean politically. With 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 (06:16):
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, international 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.
James M. Dorsey (07:38):
I want to come back to the future and whether or not unity is possible, but let’s stick for just one moment with something you just said about the fallout of the flood. So, people in Eastern Libya who are in desperate need of assistance are not getting it. Who are they going to blame in the first place? Is that going to be the government or Haftar’s government in Benghazi and in Tobruk, or is that going to be the government, the internationally recognised government in Tripoli?
Ethan Chorin (08:20):
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 (10:27):
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 (10:44):
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 (11:48):
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 Defence 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 (12:27):
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 national 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.
James M. Dorsey (13:37):
Maybe this is a good moment to take a step back and you can tell us how Libya after the 2011 popular revolt that toppled Moammar Qaddafi got to where it is today. Or, maybe, we even have to go back further in time to the 2001, September 11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
Ethan Chorin (14:01):
Yes. This is a tough question to answer, and it’s a critical one. I just wrote a book about the antecedents and consequences of the Benghazi attack in 2012 on US foreign policy and domestic politics. That subject has become so taboo that essentially you can’t touch it without getting an immediate partisan regurgitation on either side.
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.
The mechanics of that are complicated, and a couple of other authors have gone into this in some detail. But clearly the Benghazi attack and the situation in Libya has been conditioned by the 9/11 attacks and the US response to them, which passes through the US relationship with a past relationship with radical Islamists, who were both clients and enemies at various times over the last two to three decades. General Haftar, or field Far Marshall Haftar, has also been both a client and somewhat ostracised by the US and the international community. So, what we’re seeing today in Libya is a product of a series of co-optations and attempts to contain a situation that at one point was manageable, but now has become so complicated, so convoluted, that one can’t see how it can be put together in any way that affords it a political legitimacy required for durability without reverting to outright dictatorship or autocracy. The only real approach that I can see, is to approach this from a bottom-up reconstruction posture rather than a top down dictation by international dictate that this is the government that Libyans need. And the elections currently are a real problem because none of the major figures in power right now have any real interest in elections because they’re polling miserably on all sides. So, nobody wants to let go of power and the divisions are bitter.
James M. Dorsey (17:28):
We;ll come back to that a little bit later. Just for clarity reasons, when you say the United States at one point worked with radical Islamists, I assume you’re talking about Afghanistan and the anti-Soviet jihad.
Ethan Chorin (17:48):
Well, that was the first point of contact. And then there was the 2003 rapprochement between the US and Libya, which involved basically rehabilitating Qaddafi in order to largely fit the narrative of democracy promotion and some sort of positive knock-on effect from the Iraq war when things were going horribly there. The US wanted all sorts of things from Qaddafi, but one of them was a model reform process in which we were not particularly invested, but both Qaddafi and the United States to some degree, well, Qaddafi certainly realised that his major enemies were the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, which had been trying to kill him since the early nineties, and that he had this major radical Islamist issue and opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, primarily located in the east. So, in any case, in order to essentially help prop up the Qaddafi government and advance the cause of the War on Terror, the United States and the UK, and help from other countries, went and essentially kidnapped and rendered the senior membership of the Libya Islamic Fighting Group, which was at the time allied with Al-Qaeda back to Libya for what was termed a review process, rajaat. The goal was to get them to publicly renounce their association with Al-Qaeda and commit to democratic processes.
So, they went from essentially being occasional allies against Qaddafi to then enemies of the state, to then potential allies, essentially preserving a fragile status quo under Qaddafi. And nobody at the time predicted the Arab Spring, which essentially opened up the field. All players, and certainly the Islamist parties and organisations, were far more prepared to negotiate that process and benefit from it than any so-called, not secular, but non religiously focused ideological party. So, essentially the attack on the Benghazi mission was really, I believe, a part of a broader effort to destabilise a country that was rapidly destabilising given the political vacuum that was created by the US NATO international intervention.
We essentially left the country, we encouraged democracy promotion, but did very little to try to engage in state building. So, essentially we replicated the mistake of Iraq, thinking we, the United States, that the Europeans were going to come in and pick up the pieces. But they, of course operate, on political cycles as well, and did not have the capacity or the political will to help put Libya back together again. So, you have a huge, missed opportunity there. As an aside, I felt that the revolution was very positive, even though I did not agree with the mission creep, as Secretary of Defence Gates predicted. The toppling of Qaddafi and the way that he was, I think, the Libyan people deserve a much better, much better government than they had at that point. There was an opportunity to actually help remake the country, but the needs were very specific and very deep, and they simply were not addressed.
James M. Dorsey (22:28):
Indeed, that seems to be a repeating pattern in US policy or in West European policy too, of not following through.
Ethan Chorin (22:38):
But as you mentioned before, the consequences were enormous, and I don’t actually think that the American public or the public at large in Europe, for example, understands just how catastrophic bungling Libya has been. Look at coups and Mali and Niger armed movements from across the Sahel into the Sinai and support for radical groups in Syria. It basically shaped and conditioned the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy away from tricky problems that would enable the American right to essentially take free fall potshots at that. So, everything became extremely cautious, and I think that has become a real liability with respect to US policy.
James M. Dorsey (23:39):
I’d like you to expand on that. If I understood you correctly, you are implicitly saying that the destabilisation of Libya contributed to the destabilisation of West Africa, if you wish. We’ve seen about seven coups in three years across the region, most recently in Niger and in Gabon. Tell us a little bit more how Libya and the destabilisation of Libya played into that.
Ethan Chorin (24:20):
Well, of course there’s a whole dynamic in Libya’s south with respect to the Touareg and the tribes who have political connections in all of those countries.
James M. Dorsey (24:37):
The Touareg is a tribe that crosses a number of borders in the region.
Ethan Chorin (24:43):
So, there are longstanding ities along the border there, and, of course, many of these states have been facing in the Sahel long protracted warfare against Islamists of various flavours, and most obviously the decade long Algerian war, et cetera. But with the intervention, essentially Libya became a looting ground for weapons that essentially supercharged all of these conflicts as various groups fled Libya into these countries and essentially helped create opposition groups or empowered opposition groups, the perturbations of which are many. But essentially, I don’t think there’s any real doubt that the Libyan situation, the political implosion of Libya , or the ouster of Qaddafi became a torch. Various French intelligence reports that were published afterward, were very clear that if Qaddafi goes, their problems would increase exponentially.
James M. Dorsey (26:08):
We both alluded to the meeting between the Israeli and the Libyan foreign ministers in Rome recently, and as mentioned before, Libya seems to be one of the most unlikely candidates for engagement with Israel. What do you see as the reason for the meeting and how much of this potentially driven by wanting to earn brownie points in Washington and what are the domestic drivers here?
Ethan Chorin (26:38):
Well, I think, as you put it, certainly the most current or prevalent view is just that the government in Libya’s West, the government of national unit,y recognised by the international community, was looking for brownie points with the United States. Iin terms of advancing the peace Arab Israeli peace process, that was energised, however you want to put it, by the Abraham Accords of 2020. And there has been a current of both Israeli Jews of Libyan origin and some in Libya for contacts that date back to the Qaddafi times. But I think it was just a botched effort on all sides, and, I believe, that the Israelis did not actually think that this meeting was going to turn into anything because Libya is not in a position to negotiate anything at the moment, given its political divisions and fragility and the fact that who knows how long its government is going to last.
I think that that a calculation was made in Jerusalem it’s better to take a bird in the hand and claim credit for the meeting than actually invest in some kind of a real process. And the question of the Israeli media that has been full of recriminations about who and why and would this affect the respected peace process with Saudi Arabia, et cetera. I think it’s basically a red herring with respect to Saudi Arabia. The calculations are very different, and everybody can sort of see what’s happening in Libya and why this would come up, but it doesn’t reflect well on anyone.
James M. Dorsey (28:51):
Obviously the 2012 attack on the consulate in which Ambassador Stevens was killed was a watershed moment for Libya, but it also left an indelible mark on the United States and on European countries. And you alluded to that earlier, but I wonder whether you could spell what that mark is and how that mark continues to exist until today.
Ethan Chorin (29:28):
Yes. Well, the Benghazi attack certainly left a huge mark, not only on Libya and many of the neighbouring countries in terms of their level of political chaos and disunity, but it was a watershed moment in American political history. That fact, I think, has been obscured by the very politicisation of that event back home in the United States. Benghazi became a taboo subject and was characterised or summarised on both sides, (who) selectively picked information and created their own two narratives, some of which was true, and some much of it which was false. And the American public became so incredibly turned off of the whole issue that one can’t even 10 years later really penetrate that shell and explain to what degree Benghazi essentially served as a kindling for a step up in American polarisation and ultimately the election of Donald Trump. Benghazi more than, it’s interesting. There have been a couple of new reflections on the Trump presidency, and it’s quite shocking to me that Benghazi is never mentioned as a factor in that outcome because all of the senior officials and many on both sides of the aisle that I interviewed for my book on the broader impact of Benghazi, have said very openly that regardless of what’s been said in the media, Benghazi was the issue that decided the 2016 election, simply because it was the common denominator of every other issue that’s been cited as a major factor in the 2016 election.
And all of that goes back to 9/11 and the circumstances in which the Obama administration was born, which was highly conditioned by the Iraq war and the War on Terror. And it had to create a narrative against that. And there was a constant fear within the Democratic party, and rightly so, that the Republicans would come back and use anything that looked like it might indicate a resurgence about Al-Qaeda or a failure of the War on Terror against them. And I think that, as I explained in the book, I think the punchline here is that the Republicans were looking for a fight and the Democrats were looking to escape from a fight. And by doing that essentially, the administration made the problem that could have been managed worse. Although I’m not blaming, I try very hard in this book to assign, not to be a partisan force, but to explain the mechanics, how did this happen and what do we not know about the Benghazi situation? Everybody has an opinion, but most of them are simply incorrect. I was on the ground.
James M. Dorsey (32:56):
This was for you also a personal issue. You were in Benghazi, ambassador Stevens was a friend of yours. You were supposed to be at the dinner in the consulate at the moment of the attack and at the last minute decided not to go. So, this is not just something you’re looking at from afar, it’s also something very personal for you.
Ethan Chorin (33:20):
Yes, and when I came back, I waited. It took us a day and a half to get out of Benghazi. I was no longer a US official. I was working on a medical infrastructure project, and when I finally got back to the United States, a week later, I got a call as my plane was landing from the Wall Street Journal asking me to comment on a video, and I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. This of course, was the anti-Islamic video that was cited as the approximate cause of the attack.
James M. Dorsey (33:51):
This was, if I can recall correctly, it was a burning of a Quran possibly in Florida. Correct?
Ethan Chorin (33:58):
There was a loose connection with the person behind that, but it was a video created by an Egyptian American in Los Angeles that basically didn’t go anywhere, but then was dubbed into Arabic a few days before 9/11. And as I also explained in the book, I think that was a purposeful attempt to rile up the public before 9/11. So, the video did play a role in the Benghazi attack and the other protests around the Islamic world, but it was not in the way that the media and the administration claimed, or even the Republicans.
James M. Dorsey (34:51):
Right. If you look back, what lessons do you think should be learned from the attack?
Ethan Chorin (34:59):
Well, I think, basically one problem is these are historical problems with the US foreign policy that we tend to have a very short attention span. We don’t invest because of our own political, domestic political problems. We don’t. The foreign service and other professional bureaucracies don’t get the funding and the attention they deserve. They’ve become polarised. I think the Iraq War started, this didn’t originate with the Iraq war, but I think again, there was a step up in political manipulation of data on the organisational level that just continued. So, these things, it’s like an example I give major universities.
You decimate the top 10 per cent of your faculty and you no longer have a prestigious university. So, this is what’s facing the United States is, and Secretary Blinken said as much just before he took office as secretary that, okay, he was speaking specifically about the Trump administration, saying that Trump opened the door and let a whole bunch of people out and that it would take two decades to repair the damage. But the problem is that that process has been going on for far longer than the Trump administration. Trump was more like a very active symptom of the problem. So, I think the lessons are that it’s not just that the threats to democracy come in various guises and one has to have an independent, somewhat transparent and factful foreign policy and security community that shares information. These are the same lessons that from 9/11 essentially, and that essentially, we can’t do half measures, we can’t go, and there’s a happy medium, I dunno, probably an unhappy medium here between outright intervention and doing nothing.
And in the case of Libya, we intervened in a country that had promising prospects. Many of the points that were articulated by people including Ambassador Stevens as to why we should help in Benghazi back in 2011 remain valid today: low population, high wealth, lack of overt sectarian divides. Of course, this has now been taken over by a multitude of quasi tribal and military and criminal activities. When you take away the centre or structure as dysfunctional as it was dysfunctional as they were in Libya and Iraq, you have to create something to replace it or else have people revert to the lowest common denominator to survive.
So, I think there are a lot of lessons there. Of course, it also touches on electoral reform in the United States that we’ve got a system that simply doesn’t function properly and is subjected to wild swings based on ideology, not reality. And this is of course, a global phenomenon. So, it’s not just limited to the States. As I mentioned in the book, there’s a huge impact also on the timing of the development of certain aspects of social media and the Benghazi attack. I actually interviewed a number of experts on the evolution of social media. And they all point to that one period just around the attack on the mission in Benghazi as the timeframe in which social media could become weaponized and actively be exploited by other countries and people in the United States to put people into extremes. And, I guess, the broader point is, if you look at the history of the United States since the September 11th, the original Al-Qaeda attack, I don’t think that Bin Laden and his deputies could ever imagine in their wildest dreams, they could do as much damage as they have done to the United States by essentially creating not just external harm or internal specific destruction, but ideological conflict within the United States.
And that point has been made in a couple of op-eds, but I don’t think that the general public understands just how successful the baiting of the Bush administration on ideological grounds was and the Bush contributed to America’s current problems. And I like to say that essentially Benghazi has really shaped the world we live in today just as much as the original 9/11 did. But we’re not going to learn any lessons until we learn that, until we understand that.
James M. Dorsey (40:33):
Indeed. But what you’re basically saying is that Benghazi is one of the first examples of the impact of manipulation on social media. Is that correct?
Ethan Chorin (40:46):
Yes, I think it is. I called it one of the original social media scandals without social media. It’s sort of like you can look back at other points in the development of the Internet and media technology and how it’s surprised presidents and officials in the past. A number of studies have been done in Italy on this issue as well. I got much of the information from a number of Italian data scientists who were working on this question of how a polarisation in Italian politics is linked to specific advances in social media.
James M. Dorsey (41:31):
I think it would be interesting if you could sort of spell out a little bit more sort of as a case study in the case of Benghazi, who did what to whom on social media?
Ethan Chorin (41:46):
I have done so in my book, but I think if you look at, there are several books that actually go through in minute detail, the portrayal of Hillary Clinton on social media and the effect of memes and the bots that propagated those memes and the connections with foreign powers and political parties within the United States.
James M. Dorsey (42:18):
Foreign powers like,
Ethan Chorin (42:20):
Well, the Russians for one, essentially America was exposed. While I think a number of individuals in the Obama administration realised just how toxic the situation was becoming, and were putting more and more resources into defences, which is part of the problem. You can’t blame the Obama administration for having to create these structures to defend against attack because though that was a reality at the time and getting worse, on the other hand, that preoccupation led them into other situations from which were essentially very harmful to the administration’s legacy or hoped for legacy, if that makes sense.
James M. Dorsey (43:09):
No, it certainly does. I guess finally, Libya is a fractured country and in many ways an artificial country. It’s also a country in which both nonn-violent Islamists and Jihadists play an important role on both sides of the divide. How problematic is the role of, on the one hand, the non-violent Islamists and on the other, the Jihadists, as well as the role of foreign powers like Russia, the UAE, and Turkey that have lined up behind one or the other rival in Libya, and does Libya at all have a future as a unified country?
Ethan Chorin (43:50):
That’s five questions in one. I think first of all, on the Islamist question, I mean, this is a very interesting question, and I think it also comes to the heart of the United States, really didn’t understand who was who in Libya, just as it didn’t understand who was who when the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed back in 1998, which had a Libya connection by the way.
James M. Dorsey (44:27):
I didn’t realise that.
Ethan Chorin (44:29):
Yes, the Libyans were for very specific reasons, I think, seen by the Al-Qaeda senior leadership as a prime pool from which to recruit. They were exiled from their country. Qaddafi was hot on their tails, and they were very keen on going back and getting rid of the regime. So, they were very highly motivated. But the connections between them goes back to the etymology of Islamist groups and their offshoots transitions and manipulations by other powers. So, all of this stuff, as I alluded to, as I mentioned before, the United States flirtation with some of these groups opened and lack of consistent attention to what was going on in Libya and the connections between these groups and other groups along the spectrum of Islamism political Islam made us essentially sitting ducks. And everyone in the region knew that if you attack the United States dating back to the 1983 bombing of the US Barracks and Marine barracks in Beirut, the US will leave. And when I was standing on the tarmac in Benghazi, hoping to get on the last flight out after the attack, I was thinking just this, that the United States should not leave. The instinct is going to be to leave Benghazi, but this should not be the case. This is an opportunity because not to emphasise the current situation, the dam would break. And as far as the, I think you were alluding to the this.
James M. Dorsey (46:25):
I was referring to, on the one hand, let’s say nonviolent Islamist, I’m not sure I would define the Madkhali as Islamists. The Madkhalis are followers of a very prominent Saudi cleric who is quietest, with other words, he does not favour engagement in politics, but he does preach absolute obedience to the ruler. The Madkalists played a major role in Benghazi within the militia of field, Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
Ethan Chorin (47:13):
They’re playing both sides. The Madkhalis have a very strong presence within the deterrence force that’s part of the apparatus in Tripoli. And their allegiances shift back and forth according to very, very generally speaking, who’s got the power. But what they don’t do is advocate. They were originally against the intervention in Libya, and they’re Salafis in the true sense of the word, but they are for the maintenance of power for the greater good, regardless of whether the power is just or not.
James M. Dorsey (48:07):
Absolutely. So, my question was twofold. One is I was making a distinction between non-violent Islamists and violent Islamists who usually are jihadists. So, my question was how much of a role do both the nonviolent Islamists as well as the Jihadists play in Libya, how problematic is that? And then the second part of that question was essentially the same for the foreign powers, Russia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, that have lined up both behind either Haftar or the government in Tripoli.
Ethan Chorin (48:51):
Okay. For the first question, the Islamist question is central to the evolution of the Libya problem. As you mentioned, the Benghazi attack was just sort of the manifestation of a degree of influence that would only increase after the US and other parties left Benghazi. And they’re present in every facet of the political situation in their various guises, whether quietest or strategic or strategists or the Muslim Brotherhood. The question of political Islam has been present in Libya for a long time, obviously, and the major source was Egypt since the years of (President Abdel Gamal) Nassar when many of the Brotherhood leaders fled to Libya for sanctuary. But it’s complicated because, obviously the original, for a couple of centuries, the main Islamist current in a very conservative country that is Libya, was the Sanousiyya, which is Sufi order, which any of these groups see as heretical of form of apostasy.
So these conflicts are rife. The question is, how much has the intervention in 2011 changed the nature of Libyan society? One point that I make quite frequently is that given the demographics of Libya and the fact that in 2011, I think 70% of the population was under the age of 30, you’ve got a whole huge generation of people for whom Qaddafi was not the main figure in their conscious lives and have been influenced by a variety of ideologies that were not endemic to Libya. Now that’s a historical process, and you can say, okay, we have to deal with the reality as it is now, but it requires thought and an understanding of these dynamics, which I think is one of the problems with the West. Generally speaking, I would describe their treatment of Libya as one of containment rather than understanding of these dynamics. Make sure that the migrants don’t make it to the shores of Europe and make sure that terrorism doesn’t spread. And as far as the outside powers, like Turkey, Emirates, et cetera, all of them have their regional interests. And regardless of what you think of them and their validity, they’re advancing.
They each have their own logic. The Gulf states are, particularly Emirates and Saudi Arabia, working against what they perceive to be a radical Islamist takeover. And Turkey and its allies look at Libya as an opportunity to expand their reach to a former Ottoman territory and lay claim to economically viable assets. So, Libya has become a proxy battleground, but the threats are clear. The question of course becomes how do you disentangle all of these elements, which have the international community coming in and essentially picking and choosing among governments. We’ll take a bit of the elected constituencies here and merge them with an appointed group here. And hopefully we’ll have something that’ll work. It just simply compounds the problem because you’ve lost any thread of legitimacy. And so where do you go at the moment? Where do you go? I mean, everybody keeps promptly saying, oh, the elections are going to come soon, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Absent a real radical act as in an occupation or some other unforeseen circumstance, how do you deal with this is major. I think that’s why the international community precisely engaged in this policy of containment. You mentioned the question of whether Libya’s history as a state, you also have to realise that Libya’s a very young state. And the other metaphor that I really like in trying to understand Libya and its dynamics is the notion of Libya as a vast sand sea upon which there are islands, small islands, and populations mostly along the coast, all of which have their own individuals sort of unique culture and history to some degree. It’s sort of like a Darwinian scenario here, and they have their affinities and their historical differences, and basically the events of the last 10 years have essentially shaken the mix and added new ingredients. Yeah, it’s a real dilemma.
James M. Dorsey (55:04):
On that pessimistic note, unless you have something you would want to add as a last-minute thought, I’m afraid we’ve just simply run out of time. Time’s not our friend, even though we could have gone on for much longer. Is there anything you want to add to this?
Ethan Chorin (55:26):
I would appeal to for international aid to the victims in Eastern Libya because I think that’s, at the moment, that is a truly horrific situation that requires assistance, and we can provide it
James M. Dorsey (55:51):
Ethan, thank you for a fascinating conversation. Obviously, Libya’s not going away as a more important story than many recognise, and I look forward to having you back on the show.
I hope this conversation inspires readers and listeners to get a copy of Ethan’s book of Benghazi, A new history of the fiasco that pushed America and its world to the brink, published by books.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the Turbulent World. The Turbulent World is a reader and listener supported column and podcast. Voluntary paid subscribers allow me to cover the cost of production and ensure the widest possible distribution. You can subscribe at www.jamesmdorsey.substack.com. Thank you for tuning in today. Best wishes and take care.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Honorary Fellow at Singapore’s Middle East Institute-NUS, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.