What next for Libya?

The kidnap of Libya's prime minister, Ali Zeidan, is a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

The kidnap of Libya’s prime minister Ali Zeidan by armed militia, and his release a few hours later by another rival militia, has illustrated the depth of Libya’s security challenges. Libya’s weak central government is unable to assert control over the country’s many armed groups, and political kidnappings and assassinations are becoming increasingly commonplace. It should also come as a warning that Western powers need to do more to support the revolution they helped bring about.

Zeidan’s brief detention followed closely after the US’s capture of the al-Qaeda operative Abu Anas al-Libi in Tripoli. Al-Libi is believed to be behind the 1998 US embassy attacks that killed more than 220 people, so he is a high-profile target for the US. But Many militia groups felt angered that the US had infringed on Libya’s sovereignty in this way.

The US’s anti-terrorist operations are hugely damaging to the fragile national governments of countries targeted by drone attacks and strikes on militants. If the US wants a moderate like Zeidan to stay in power, it cannot afford to undermine his authority in this way. The capture of al-Libi will only strengthen support for the anti-American sentiments expressed by the same radical Islamists that the US wants to crush. Most Libyan’s don’t hate the West, but years of colonial rule means they are fiercely protective of their country’s independence and whatever the reality, the US’s actions have made Zeidan appear in thrall to Obama.

Meanwhile, Zeidan has repeatedly requested more assistance in disarming the country’s militias and training up a national police force and army. The UK, France, Italy and Turkey are all due to help train militia groups, and numerous technical advisers have been sent into the country by Western powers, but much, much more needs to be done.

Nato powers have a responsibility towards Libya. They, after all, intervened to help remove the country’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country’s current state of chaos is by no means surprising – after four decades of Gaddafi rule, post-revolutionary Libya had no civil society, independent media or experience of democracy. Unlike neighbouring Egypt, it did not have a powerful and unified national army, and almost every man old enough to carry a gun owned at least one. Libya needed much more support with its post-war reconstruction and reconciliation efforts than it ever received, but even those who welcomed Gaddafi’s removal took no time to dismiss the country as ‘another Iraq’ and a failed cause.

Admittedly, there are huge challenges when intervening to bolster Libya’s central government. In 2011 Libya turned down offers of UN peacekeeping troops, who could have helped strengthen central government’s authority in the aftermath of the war. Foreign boots on the ground would have been deeply unpopular, but in hindsight, rejecting UN assistance was probably a mistake. Today the security situation in Libya is so dire that it’s quite hard for foreign advisers to operate safely, particularly in the virtually lawless east of the country.

The problem is, the price of the West’s inaction will be high, and not only for the millions of ordinary Libyans who want to see peace and security restored to their country. Libya is currently home to the world’s largest unsecured stockpile of weapons, and the country’s lawlessness means radical Islamist groups are able to operate and organise freely. The US may have succeeded in the capture of al-Libi, but its short-sighted strategy in Libya will only strengthen al-Qaeda.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and head of the General National Congress Nouri Bousahmein give a press conference shortly after Zeidan's release. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.