Residents of Libya: We Were Promised Democracy, But We Were Deceived

The war correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) Aleksandr Kots, the only journalist from Russian print media who is in Benghazi, reports from the country where war has not ceased for eight years.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

The stone colonnade of the embankment of Benghazi – the Eastern capital of Libya, which became an opposition stronghold during the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 – is filled generously filled with the light of streetlights. My Libyan friend Ramzi specially suggested to meet here in the evening in order to show me the level of security on the streets: one can walk until one’s heart’s content. In fact, I remembered this embankment as such, when I left Libya 8 years ago. Only back then here it was full of people with weapons, machine-gunning everywhere because of the excess of feelings and revolutionary significance. Along the road there were pickups that were loaded in such a way that Hollywood decorators would be burning with envy cat at the sight of such invoice. Recoilless guns, helicopter pads under unguided rockets, and MLRS systems were installed on chassis…

The deafening holiday reigned in the city – the offensive of Gaddafi’s forces was disrupted by the concerted “humanitarian bombings” of the NATO coalition, the traces of which stretched along the road to the West – to Tripoli – along the coast. Tens, if not hundreds of kilometers of burned equipment, among which I with surprise did not find any air-defence vehicle. The leader of Jamahiriya was sure so of his success – a little bit longer, and he will crush the flower of democracy that sprouted through the asphalt with this stupid amount of equipment. He did not even think to cover the military against the air. The country was flooded with weapons, but nobody was able to fight with a serious opponent. And also did not plan to. But the West dragged through the UN Security Council the resolution of a “no-fly zone” over Libya (back then Russia abstained, without using the veto), which in practice meant that nobody can fly, except the combat aircraft of NATO.

Together with jubilation in 2011, on the territory of the opposition a large-scale witch-hunt was launched, which we, the journalists of KP who were taken prisoner, having being accused of espionage in favour of Gaddafi, also fell victim to. Thanks to the lightning reaction of the Russian authorities, we were quickly liberated. And before our departure we came to this embankment – to say goodbye to Benghazi, as it seemed, back then, for forever. The outcome of this war was obvious, and later we recorded it already in Tripoli, when the capital fell under the storm coordinated by the American special troops. A bit later in Sirte the leader of Jamahiriya was sadistically executed. But the sun of freedoms did not ascend over the Libyan Desert, having plunged the country into long-term civil strife. And already on April 4th of this year the Marshal Khalifa Haftar – the leader of forces in the East to the country – declared a campaign to Tripoli – the capital of the West.

“Today the city is absolutely safe,” said Ramzi to me on camera. “Life returned, now we have the time both for work and for entertainment. We cope well with building a new country. And I would like to say to those people who live in Tripoli: the changes are good, and that now the army comes to save you. You should support it. This is a right choice and it is your last chance. You will see yourself, it is quiet and safe at our place. It can be like this at your place too, if you do not want to remain under the control of armed groups.”

Behind the back of Ramzi there are the skeletons of the destroyed buildings, which did exist 8 years ago. Back then the war had not reached the city. But the militia was replaced by various terrorist groups – from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. And it was already necessary to be at war with them.

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“But many opportunities appeared for us after Marshal Haftar cleansed the territories,” said Ramzi in good English. “British and American schools were opened, we at last could leave to study abroad. The market for import goods were opened. Now I have my own bookstore and tea shop. By the way, tomorrow I will hold a day for the free distribution of books, I want people to read more and learn about what happens outside Libya. In the past our youth had no such opportunity.”

PERMANENT WAR

After 2011 the young Libyan society, not without the mediation of the West, tried to build a democracy which all political groups were given the chance to take part in the work of the national congress. As a result the disputes of still recent nomads dragged on for two years, during which there were no attempts to create a normally functioning state and overcome splits. The “civilised world” [the Western world – ed] every time tries to try out templates alien to the Arab world. And every time it ends the same. And it is not important whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, or Egypt. Sooner or later a more organised and aggressive force comes to power. And the murder of the American ambassador in their own residence in Benghazi was the apogee of the failure of the western policy in Libya – off this same Christopher Stephens, who with a smile, posed near the defeated body of Muammar Gaddafi. The Middle East do not appreciate it when others come to them and tell them what to do.

“The main disputes in the interim parliament revolved around the constitution – who has the right to take part in its development, about women’s rights, and about the role of Islam and Sharia in thenew legal space,” I was told by the orientalist Grigory Lukyanov, who has been to Libya more than once after the revolution and who observed the dynamics of the degradation of Libyan statehood. “They were resisted by those who supported if not a secular way of development, then for a more moderate one. But these disputes paralysed the work of state institutes, which still somehow functioned. And at the local communal level people started to self-organise and ensure for themselves both defence and resources. In these conditions something similar to the 2014 civil revolution began.”

Practically nothing was written about this in Russia. Why?

Haftar’s supporters said that Islamists flooded the parliament and monopolised the process of preparing a constitution. Islamists, in response, accused the military of attempting to usurp power and to return Gaddafi’s government with Haftar at the head. As a result, both of them were able to accumulate strong support among youth groups. As a result of combat in Tripoli, Haftar was forced to retreat to the East, to Tobruk. There, the temporary HQ of the new parliament minus the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups was created. In Tripoli the old parliament, which was updated at the expense of members of the same party, continued to function. Members of ISIS started to arrive on the territory of the country. With the mediation of the UN Mission it was succeeded to ensure that the Islamists who found themselves practically in isolation agreed to hold negotiations, the Skhirat peace agreements – under which the Government of National Accord was created – were signed. But the parliament in Tobruk – which was recognised, by the way, by UN – did not start to build relations with them, having decided that it is a screen for Islamists.

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As a result there was a paradoxical situation. Khalifa Haftar controls most of the country, including the main oil and gas fields, and the profits from selling hydrocarbons is received by Tripoli through the National Libyan Bank. And in the country the mass of interests of world powers – in which the East of the country is supported by France, Egypt, and the Arab Emirates, and Turkey, Qatar, and Italy support the West of it – are intertwined. At the US looks at all of this from above waiting for the winner, feeding both sides.

PUSHKIN ARAB-STYLE

I walk down the familiar small streets of Benghazi. The sparkling display windows of supermarkets are filled with import abundance – the country, besides oil, produces practically nothing. Car shows with the latest models of global carmakers. Little cafes with smoking hookahs, multi-coloured playgrounds with children who haven’t yet seen war … But if you turn into the neighbouring quarter – there are broken roads, collapsed floor slabs of houses, rusty flattened cars, walls corroded by lead. The trouble that was stirred up by the West long raged, while it started to splash out of it. The terrorist groups, the trafficking of illegal immigrants to Europe, the smuggling of gold, gangs of mercenaries from black Africa … It was necessary to wait until this soup reaches a boiling point in order to try to cool the cauldron radiating with heat.

And people in Libya, apparently, very much count on the support of Russia. Representatives of both warring parties started to come to Moscow often, in the local press the authorities call us to more actively join in the process of solving the conflict peacefully… Against the background of the unpredictable policy of Washington, Moscow, with its responsible and consistent approach, indeed looks to be more important. But officially Russia remains neutral, diplomatically urging opponents to sit down at the negotiating table.

“My 75-year-old mother, when shes sees on TV that Haftar is in Russia, rejoices, her tears flow,” confessed the General of the Libyan National Army Nazir to me in fluent Russian. “She very much hopes that you will help us. In the military sphere – it can be weapons. We like to work with Russian weapons. Russia as a supplier of air-defences, an Air Force, and a fleet can play a huge role. Half of our officers studied in Russia. And in the civil sphere Moscow can help us with the construction of railroads, with improving the system of public transport in cities and between them. Russia can also participate in oil and gas affairs, in the construction of a road network. Your medicine is also very known here …”

General Nazir studied at first in Odessa, having graduated from the engineering faculty. Then for 8 months he studied in Minsk, in the air defence academy. He has two diplomas of a military translator, he adores Russian literature and has an unusual hobby. In his spare time he translates Pushkin into Arabic.

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I had a teacher named Lyubov Somakhina, she said: “Nazir, you have a good voice, you can be an actor”. She gave me two poems of Pushkin to learn. And during different holidays in school I read them from a stage. Since then she has told me all the time: “Read Pushkin, Nazir, and try to translate it into Arab”. This is a very interesting, but very difficult hobby.

As befits a General of the Libyan National Army, he idolises his commander-in-chief – Khalifa Haftar. A personality that is as charismatic as it is contradictory. The former officer of Gaddafi, who the leader of Jamahiriya relinquished when the latter was taken prisoner during the Libyan-Chad war. The French paid a ransom for Haftar and transferred him to the Americans. After this the future leader of Benghazi lived in the US for more than 20 years. There are rumours that he worked for the CIA, but nobody saw the registration form of Langley. Anyway, it is exactly thanks to him that the East of the country was cleansed of terrorist gangs. At the same time, his visits to Moscow can hardly be considered as a tribute of politeness to the main ally. As the real Eastern governor, he dextrously manoeuvres between different forces in his interests. It is said that he, playing dumb, answered the Americans in response to accusations of cooperating with Russia: “Well you cooperate with Israel. Grant me also the right to deal with what I consider to be necessary”. His opponent in the West of the country – Fayez al-Sarraj – doesn’t have either a military past or a rigid character so valued in Libya. But he has the support of Ankara and Doha, and armed groups, including radical ones.

“We were deceived. We wanted the Libyan state to became democratic. But it turned out that today Islamists from the different countries of the world head Libya in Tripoli,” said General Nazir. “Before this they were in Benghazi. They destroyed our houses, especially officer’s ones. There were militants from all the planet – from Iraq, from Syria, from Lebanon, from Bosnia, and from Yemen. Only thanks to Haftar were we able to bring together a new army. And to expel them from our houses.”

Do you think that people in Tripoli want the same thing?

“Now people understand that there is a need for a strong army, strong police, strong intelligence agencies … Only with these components will there be peace. I have many officer friends in Tripoli. We try to speak Russian so that we are not eavesdropped by militants. They almost do not leave their apartments. They are called for work in uniform only when the TV has to film them. They show them on TV like saying ‘yes, there is an army’, but after filming they are sent home and power is again taken by groups of Islamists. People are afraid to contradict them. As my friends describe, if our army will make two steps into the capital, then all the people will come outside to support it.”

And what will be after the capture of Tripoli?

“My personal opinion is that three-four years of military management are needed in order for the country to have stability. There is a need for a military person who will bring order, who will clean away the dirt and will restore law.”

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