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.

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.