Interview with Andreas Dittmann

"Libyans themselves are destroying their country"

Three years after the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libya is at risk of becoming a failed state. The country is threatened by both militias and groups of jihadis made up of disaffected young Libyans with a radical agenda. Kersten Knipp spoke to Professor Andreas Dittmann about the current conflict

Libya seems to be sinking into chaos. What's your impression of the current situation?

Andreas Dittmann: Until a few months ago, we were still debating whether Libya was a "failing state" or whether it had already become a "failed state". Unfortunately, the question has now been answered. Today, Libya barely exists as a state. It still exists on the map, but the state organisations are no longer able to carry out their duties.

What exactly is threatening the country?

Dittmann: Libya is facing several conflicts. One is the age-old clash between the western and eastern parts of the country: Tripolitania against Cyrenaica. This is a conflict between the Islamic and partly Islamist-leaning East and the somewhat more secular-leaning West.

And the other conflicts run along these lines?

Dittmann: Yes. There's a very old religious opposition in Libya, dating back to the Italian occupation. At that time, they were seen as religious freedom fighters. Today, we would call this movement Islamist. Its members mainly come from eastern Libya. When Muammar al-Gaddafi was still in power, this group was his most dangerous opposition. Although Gaddafi implemented many Islamic laws and introduced Sharia in many parts of the country, that wasn't enough for the religious zealots. These motives – and the ideological orientation along the aforementioned regional lines – still exist after the revolution.

Libyan rebels in Abou Selim (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Petit Tesson)
Libya somewhere between civil war and the collapse of the state: "Today, Libya barely exists as a state. It still exists on the map, but the state organisations are no longer able to carry out their duties," says Prof Andreas Dittmann of the University of Gießen

Only now the conflict is heating up once again ...

Dittmann: ... and that's because yesterday's leaders do not enjoy a very good reputation among the younger, more radical Islamists. The younger Islamists support Islamic State (IS) and the ideology hinted at in its name; they are pushing for an Islamic domain that is not limited by geography.

Many of them have fought for IS in Syria and Iraq. They dream of realising the caliphate on Libyan soil. So it's a religious, political and at the same time a generational conflict. For the young people, religion plays a very important role. By no means is it a cloak behind which they are hiding other interests.

Over and over, we've been getting reports that former members of the Gaddafi regime have allied themselves with the jihadists. Is that correct?

Dittmann: Yes. The same thing is happening in Iraq, where fighters once faithful to Saddam Hussein have joined IS. They're not doing this for ideological reasons. Instead, both groups are exploiting the chaos of these failing states in an attempt to shape the future according to their wishes. Both Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi considered the Islamic opposition as their greatest enemy. Today, however, the two groups are working together in both countries. Of course, these are only temporary alliances. Both groups are united by the goal of preventing the creation of a state based on the Western democratic model.

A member of the Islamic Ansar al-Sharia brigades in Libya (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Libya as a recruiting ground for the terrorist militias of Islamic State. Soldiers commanded by the ex-General Khalifa Haftar have been fighting Islamist groups in Benghazi for several months now. One of these groups is Ansar al-Sharia (member pictured above), which is loosely allied with IS

In your opinion, what sort of future does the country have? Can Libya ever develop and move toward a prosperous future?

Dittmann: The basic conditions for development are actually very good for Libya. Of all the six Arab Spring countries, Libya has by far the best prerequisites. The country has a relatively small population, just under 6 million inhabitants. In addition, Libya has oil reserves that will last for another six-and-a-half decades.

The reality is, however, that the government is functioning at a very modest level and it has lost control of parts of the country. The entire southern half is out of their control; police no longer have any power there.

The military is also weakened or, to put it more accurately, tied up in clashes with the militias and tensions between the western and eastern parts of the country. Other government responsibilities, like education and health, are being neglected.

At the same time, any political successes – the holding of democratic elections, successfully putting a president into office – are being torpedoed by the militias. When they don't agree with certain election results, they refuse to recognise them and try to impose their ideas by force.

In other words, Libya itself is to blame?

Dittmann: Yes. Of course external factors also contributed to Gaddafi's relatively quick overthrow from power. But what Libya is currently doing wrong is, in a sense, homemade, that is to say, it is its own fault. Given the current developments, we can't always refer solely to external influences. At the moment, Libyans themselves are destroying their country.

Interview conducted by Kersten Knipp

© Deutsche Welle 2014

Andreas Dittmann is a professor at the Justus Liebig University Giessen. He specialises in human geography and development research.

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