There were several accusations among the respondents that Britain was involved in the battle in Sirte for its own interests and that its real goals had more to do with stealing Libya′s wealth and resources. One student explained, ″The international community has bad faith towards Libya because it does not seek to protect civilians from IS. It seeks to dominate resources in Sirte.″

Recent comments by British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who stated during a meeting on the fringes of the Conservative party conference in October 2017 that Sirte could become the next Dubai once it had "cleared the dead bodies away", only served to amplify such suspicions.

More importantly, through its intervention, Britain has inevitably become bound up in the complex local power struggles that are tearing Libya apart. By backing the GNA in its battle to oust IS from Sirte, the UK gave the strong impression that it was supporting one side in this conflict at the expense of others. Although the GNA was conceived of as a consensus government, its rejection by some of the key forces on the ground meant that it was never anything of the sort. Nor was it ever officially approved by Libya′s elected parliament, the House of Representatives, meaning that in the eyes of many Libyans, the GNA remains an illegitimate body.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party Conference on 3 October 2017 (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
A diplomatic scandal: the British foreign minister, Boris Johnson caused a public outcry following his visit to Libya, when he declared that the country and especially the coastal town of Sirte could become an attractive destination for tourists and investors –"all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away." Until government troops retook Sirte in December 2016, Muammar Gaddafi′s home town was one of Islamic State′s last remaining strongholds in Libya

By working through the GNA and those forces that support it, Britain appeared to some Libyans, therefore, to be deliberately empowering certain elements in the wider Libyan conflict. As one civil society activist asserted, ″Without doubt, British intervention favours one side over the other.″

At the same time, local power brokers have been able to seize upon foreign intervention to discredit and undermine their opponents, accusing each other of having sold out on national sovereignty for their own gain. As one respondent explained, ″The problem for us is that members of the political class are competing for power. They empower themselves against each other through foreign parties.″

Even madder not to

Yet, in another sense the UK is damned if it doesn′t engage. Despite the dominant narrative that rejects foreign intervention, there is clearly a lot of bitterness about the way in which Libya was left to its own fate once Gaddafi had been toppled. There is clearly an appetite in Libya for international support, as long as it is perceived to be focussed on helping Libya as a whole and not just on tackling groups like IS or dealing with the migrant crisis.

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