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Libya to Europe: Remember us?

Former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said at a European conference that his struggling nation feels practically “abandoned” by Europe.

Former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said at a European conference that his struggling nation feels practically “abandoned” by Europe – where attention is focused on Syria – and that the youth who brought the 2011 revolution are “being completely left out of the picture” ahead of elections in June.

It is a “tragic mistake … a fatal mistake” to abandon Libya at this time, said the former leader of the Transitional National Council. “Libya is in a political and security vacuum, and vacuums do not remain vacuums. Extremism might spread at any moment,” Mr. Jibril warned. “I am afraid that early indicators are there right now.”

More than a year after France and Britain spearheaded air strikes in Libya and seven months after the fall of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Jibril traveled to Brussels for the German Marshall Fund‘s annual forum to deliver some harsh words. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was present, disagreed that Libya had been forgotten.

Libya has not regained stability in the months since Qaddafi was ousted. The east is fraught with competing militias, and calls for partition between the east and west have left the political system in limbo. United Nations humanitarian advisers have been deployed, but only in an aid capacity, not as peacekeepers – even as politicians such as Jibril, who has started his own political party, are forced to move their Tripoli offices daily for security purposes. Outside urban areas, there are frequent reports of gang killings, retribution, and torture.

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“The Libyan revolution is in serious jeopardy,” agrees Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris. “Qaddafi left many booby traps. Government institutions are still embryonic, civil society is disempowered, and Libya is in dire need of a stronger central political authority that would rein in the militias, collect the weapons, and prevent atomization.”

No one, including Libyans, had expected this scale of change in Libya, upended after decades of dictatorship, and rebuilding often seems overwhelming, Jibril said.

“Our partners forgot that when the regime fell, the state fell as well, and when it happened, everyone disappeared,” he said, comparing the transformation to the French Revolution. “We’ve never been through that process.”  

The young “dotcom” generation that is Libya’s future now feels left out, Jibril said. 

“They carried out the revolution…[but] the West started dealing with elites like myself … leaving the younger people to feel … their dreams, agendas, hopes for dignity are not yet included.”

Some 60 percent of Libyans are under 40, many of them technologically minded and media savvy, and they connect with a broader world than the older generation of Libyans, Jibril said.

Ms. Ashton responded that Libya has not been abandoned, even if the EU has been focused on Syria, and that Europe is providing support, particularly to women’s groups seeking aid, as part of a civil-society vision for Libya’s future.

“Europe will be there for the long term,” Ashton responded. “Our commitment is absolutely there. What is important is inclusivity when it comes to what I call the ‘deep democracy’ of the future. But there are not civil servants and bureaucracies to engage with in places like Libya, just ordinary people, so it’s a real challenge.” 

Jibril said that the current European approach to Libya lacked the coordinated focus of its military intervention last year, and that now Europe “is looking at what it wants to do and is ignoring needful priorities,” such as getting weapons off the street, and holding elections. “Engaging women is a good thing, but doesn’t touch the real problems,” he said. People feel we’ve been abandoned… We need to rebuild trust.”

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Analysts like Mr. Bitar in Paris say that Libya may be a larger security threat than Europe realizes right now and that its instability is already creating problems in North Africa.

“The nightmarish scenario of an Iraqi-zation of Libya no longer seems so far-fetched,” says Mr. Bitar. “Europe has to get involved because the outflow of weapons and the security vacuum are also starting to destabilize Mali, Niger, and the entire Sahel region. [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional Al Qaeda franchise] might benefit and European security will sooner or later be affected. Europe simply cannot afford to stay out of it and Ms. Ashton should be aware of this.”