Libya: now’s the time to choose

We cannot afford a failed state on a Mediterranean shore.

To paraphrase the unsurpassed Chinese master Sun Tzu, who in his Art of War wrote: “Choose your battlefield and you will win.” But sometimes choosing is not that simple.

Such is the case with Libya, a failed state at the mercy of dozens of opposing, self-serving armed militias and fertile ground for organised crime, which enjoys both constantly growing profits and the security of complete immunity.

The country is the main point of departure for an African migration that is becoming more uncontainable by the day and a battlefield for two warring strands of present-day Sunni extremism. Meanwhile, Egypt, on one side, eyes with infinite yearning the Cyrenaica region and its oil fields and Tunisia, on the other, looks to Tripolitania. It is a land forever coveted by all those – Europeans included – who believe they might have a chance at carving out a nice slice of the country’s oil resources for themselves. 

In such a chaotic scenario, where instability, danger and mortal risks are so rife, no one is prepared to make a concerted effort to pull Libya out of its downward spiral of anarchy, violence and death.

On closer scrutiny, the few operations backed by external forces have all been carried out by countries that were hoping to satisfy their own specific interests through said operations. None of them genuinely attempted to help Libya move towards a more stable future.

This self-serving interpretation can be applied to the support being given to several warring factions by Saudi Arabia and other countries on the Arabian Peninsula and can also be said of the backing provided by the Muslim Brotherhood to other adversaries. Not to mention the bombings, which some attribute to a collusion between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, while others see them as stemming from interested discussions being held for some time now between Algeria and France.

That’s about it. No one else has lifted a finger. And the void has only been filled by nebulous diplomatic initiatives sponsored by international organisations, which everyone knows will never achieve anything but are good for salving consciences and could come in handy to rebut any subsequent public finger-pointing or outrage. Two perfect examples are the UN Secretary General’s appointment of a special envoy for Libya and Spain’s exhumation of the old 5 + 5 Dialogue group.

To top all this, there’s been such a deafening silence in the media, which in Italy’s case is even more surprising, seeing as Libya could be considered the most potentially menacing of its neighbours. In Italy, the only place where one can hope to find this information is the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the sole printed publication not burying its head in the sand over Libya. But is it really so hard and so divisive to make a choice?

It is. When trying to get to the heart of the problem, one realises that – leaving aside the myriad other players – the two main coalition forces fighting on the ground right now are so very complex and so very shadowy that neither is acceptable. Politically speaking, these two forces currently represent two governments and two parliaments that continually accuse each other of illegitimacy, despite the fact that neither side is truly legit.

On the military front, there is a fragile and unstable balance of forces, with each side paying the heavy daily price of this bloody war of attrition. Above all, while attempting to get the upper hand over their rivals, each side winds up accepting into its ranks allies that are difficult to defend.

So what can be done? Of the two emerging coalitions, should one opt for the Operation Dignity movement, which in some respects is the more reassuring side, even though it comprises a large swathe of Gaddafi revanchists and is clearly supported by Egyptian forces? Or instead choose Operation Dawn, which has a much more fundamentalist streak about it but may better represent the will and feelings of the Libyan people than the other side?

There are no other concrete alternatives right now, in part because so far no one has tried to use their authority to include the most influential Libyan tribes and representatives from the large Libyan diaspora at the negotiating table. Though whether an assertive 'civil society' in Libya has ever existed is a moot point.

At the end of the day, the secular community has also demonstrated its limited powers even in Egypt, a country that is light years ahead of Libya in this sphere. If Cairo lacks this community, why on earth should we expect to see one in Tripoli and Benghazi? Many of Libya’s traditional tribal points of reference were destroyed in the revolutionary cauldron, and, as experience elsewhere has shown us, unfortunately this process is difficult to reverse.

No charismatic leaders of impeccable pedigree can be sighted on the horizon. And there is also no sign of a Libyan equivalent of those ‘moderate Talibans’ the West has been vainly searching for in Afghanistan for a decade now, like Diogenes of Sinope with his lantern.

In cases such as this, the only possible solution is to carefully weigh the opposing alternatives and choose the one that, even if it’s not the best, at least seems ‘less worse’ than the others. So let’s do it, right now, before the sleep of reason produces more monsters. 

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