Has Libya been let down by the West?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rival sides continue to clash in Benghazi

Is that a new Dawn for Libya I can see breaking over the horizon? A new prospect for Dignity?

Or will Dignity and Dawn remain poetic euphemisms for destructive division - the names of two competing military operations?

If the latest peace talks lead nowhere the country is likely to spiral deeper and deeper into a multi-faceted, free-wheeling civil war.

Amid the chaos, Islamic State (IS) is gaining ground in Libya.

Europe, in a state of anxiety at the thought of jihadists returning from Syria, looks nervously across the narrow waters of the Mediterranean, pondering what is next.

The US ambassador to Libya Deborah Jones, based in Malta after the murder of her predecessor in Benghazi, told me: "Libyans have always been very protective of their own resources and sovereignty, and that should tell them to circle the wagons and keep these other guys out who just want to exploit their resources and have other aims than those of the 17 February Revolution."

She says, as a diplomat, she is hopeful about the Geneva peace talks. That may be diplomatic indeed. It is true there are some grounds for optimism.

The UN and EU brokered talks have made some progress and are set to continue.

Both main sides have declared a ceasefire.

Life is tough

But pessimists could point out that one side in the civil war didn't even turn up in Geneva.

Then they could scour the headlines -Tripoli's main supermarket torched, a senior oil executive kidnapped, fighting continuing and one party insisting that any future talks are held, not in safe Switzerland, but on their home turf.

That is just on one day.

Libyan academic Mohamed Eljarh, of the Atlantic Council, paints a depressing picture of life in Tobruk, where he is based: blackouts, no internet, shortages of petrol and cooking fuel.

He says things got to this state because democracy hasn't taken root after the fall of Gaddafi.

"In Libya there is a legitimacy crisis - and people are willing to accept the democratic process only if they win. People will accept the rule of law only if it is in their favour.

"That's why we have two governments fighting for legitimacy, we have two parliaments, two prime ministers - this has created the space for armed groups to flourish, to play an increasingly influential role.

"What's worrying is that there are terrorists groups, Islamic State and Ansar al-Sharia, and both are taking advantage in the country."

Separate conflicts

It is fraught enough having two rival governments fighting each other backed by a myriad of militias but there are - arguably - two separate civil wars.

In the East the army fights Islamist militants, in the West there is a wider clash.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pro-government forces take time out in Benghazi

Dr Guma El-Gamaty has been campaigning for democracy in Libya for a very long time - 30 years ago he was protesting outside the Libyan people's bureau when a shot from inside killed policewoman Yvonne Fletcher.

After the revolution he was co-ordinator for the British government with the National Transitional Council.

He told me what lies behind the two main factions: "Operation Dignity is led by a retired General, (Khalifa) Haftar - he was a comrade of Gaddafi some 45 years ago when Gaddafi staged a coup, he was one of his partners, then they fell out.

"He ran away about 20 years ago and now he wants to take over.

"He is hanging it on the fact that he claims to be fighting terrorists, but he wants to eradicate everyone who opposes him, which is not fighting terrorism but imposing his will by force.

"That's why people oppose him because they think he is taking us back to the days of army rule and dictatorship by military people."

That is the side recognised by governments in the West - those who oppose them are often seen as the militants, the extremists.

Dr El-Gamaty says it is not that simple.

"The other side, Libya Dawn is an affiliation of many militias from different cities and towns in the West of Libya, some of them are Islamists, some not Islamists at all, far from it.

"What they are saying is that there is a counter revolution going on and the General wants to take us back to tyranny and oppression."

It may be crude to try to slice sides in a civil conflict into good guys and bad guys - but it is even harder in Libya.

No simple narrative

Matt van Dyke is an American documentary film maker - and self-proclaimed revolutionary.

He swapped his camera for a gun and fought against the Gaddafi regime - he says the old solidarity has completely collapsed.

"In 2008 I made a lot of good friends there and when the revolution started I joined the revolution to help my friends overthrow Gaddafi.

"They're all disappointed the way Libya has turned out after the revolution.

"But I have friends on both sides of the current conflict - some are convinced they are fighting old pro-Gaddafi elements, some are convinced they are fighting Islamists, and both are convinced they are on the right side.

"Personally I think both sides are wrong."

It all seems a long way away from the time when David Cameron visited Benghazi in 2011 and told the people they were a beacon for the world.

After all, there had been Western intervention to remove a secular dictator who had brutally covered up his country's fault lines - what could possibly go wrong?

Lack of Western engagement

Since the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi few western governments seem that active in Libya, to the dismay of some Libyans, like Dr El-Gamaty.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were quick to claim triumph in Libya

"When the revolution was over the West just walked away and left Libyans to their own devices," he said.

"But Libyans could not be left alone because they do not know how to come together and forge a consensus and build a new state from scratch.

"We inherited a Libya with no institutions whatsoever, with no constitution, with no expertise in how to run a country, and the international community just walked away.

"That was the mistake. Now they are coming back because they cannot afford to ignore Libya."

The Conservative MP who chairs the UK's all-party Libya group - Daniel Kawczynski - told me he was one of the MPs who lobbied hard for military action - and that it was right.

"I am, however, very disappointed that we have not been able to help the Libyan people to create a situation of normality and security subsequently."

A hundred new Gaddafis

He says one of his Libyan friends says they have got rid of one Gaddafi and created a hundred more.

He thinks the problem is that politicians move on to the next crisis.

"I very much hope the prime minister will not forget our duty and responsibility, having intervened and having spent hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money."

The US ambassador Deborah Jones says the talks are key.

"We've reached a point where the options are to engage seriously in this dialogue, or we risk a serious civil war and fragmentation.

"I reject the idea the West has turned its back. Military action alone isn't sufficient and more military action in Libya would not have addressed the fundamental problem of a lack of political cohesion.

"That is a lesson we have learned elsewhere."

The Obama administration believes the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are that the huge neo-colonial task of nation-building is beyond the West's capability and appetite.

But that does not weaken the argument of others that it is a moral imperative to prevent mass murder, and that failed states are a danger to the rest of the world.

Foreign policy in Paris, London and Washington appears still trapped between the ease of going to war and the difficulty of creating peace.

Libya is just one of the proving grounds.

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