A Journey through the Guardian’s Coverage of the Libyan Disaster

In this analysis we examine Libya’s recent history looking through the eyes of the Guardian, the flagship of liberal western outlets, and its reporting. As with most other western media, the Guardian was an enthusiastic supporter of the NATO intervention that overthrew Gaddafi and threw the country into the disaster that we are about to describe. Faithful to western interests then, the Guardian remains faithful afterwards as well. But imperial designs are laden with contradictions and sometimes drastically change course, but the Guardian dutifully follows. More interestingly, in light of the complex Libyan situation, the Guardian resorts to labels, adjectives, to distinguish the “good” (i.e. western-supported) actors from the “bad” ones. And as western powers stumble from one strategy to the next, these labels change accordingly.

We start this journey around the 2012 election in Libya, a few months after the end of the brutal, western-led regime change. We will not focus on the western media’s cheerleading for the NATO intervention, on the basis of preventing a repeat of atrocities that did not happen and stopping an imminent massacre that was also not going to happen, or on the conveniently overlooked extremist elements in the opposition ranks. We will also not compare the free and democratic future predicted by western commentators to the disastrous failed-state that Libya has become. Finally, we also do not cover the tragic refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, even though it is a direct consequence of the turmoil in Libya. And while we scrutinize the Guardian’s coverage, most of what follows also holds for other mainstream western outlets.

Gunpoint democracy

The 2012 parliamentary election is hailed as “a major step toward democracy after decades of erratic one-man rule,” even with “politicians finally wak(ing) up to the power of women,” despite the unrest and lawlessness that had already taken hold of the country. The resulting General National Congress (GNC) is considered a hopeful mixture of Islamists and “moderates.” But with the country “awash with militias,” the news cycle soon becomes dominated by the assassination of the American ambassador in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. While this could have been taken as a clear sign that the extremist groups that had been armed did not turn democratic overnight, and especially did not see the west as a liberator, the Guardian instead tries to reassure us that democracy has come to stay.

But if armed factions are running riot in the streets, life is not any easier for the factions in suits in Libya’s new parliament, as protests and disagreements leave “[…] Libya still without firm government, nearly three months after the parliamentary elections and with violence breaking out in several flashpoint towns.” The first designated prime-minister lasts a mere month on the job after his cabinet is rejected, and finally a government led by former Gaddafi diplomat-turned-opponent Ali Zeidan takes office, with equal doses of technocracy and sharia. To make our job slightly easier in what follows, we will refer to this government as G#1. The sailing from this point on is far from smooth, and the backlash from the NATO intervention starts to spread across the region. In January 2013, another western intervention begins, this time in Mali, to suppress a Salafist rebellion that was flush with weapons in the wake of the Libyan chaos. We are told that the west had “overlooked risk of Libya weapons reaching Mali.”

But things are equally turbulent in Tripoli, with extremist tendencies and rogue militias coming to the fore. Somehow David Cameron’s promises that Libya “will have no greater friend than the United Kingdom” did not manage to quell centuries-old tribal rivalries, mushrooming armed militias and salafist groups. This is also the time when the UK government was being sued by the notorious Abdel Hakim Belhaj. Having fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Belhaj was renditioned by the secret services due to alleged links to al-Qaeda, and handed over to Gaddafi. After seven years in prison, he played a major role in the NATO-led intervention and became chief of security in Tripoli. The remarkable bit is that the Guardian refers to a career “jihadist” as a “politician.”1

The turmoil and tensions escalate, specially in the extremist capital of Libya, Benghazi, formerly known in the western press as the birthplace of the “revolution”. And at this point we see the real problem of a conflict between a weakened government, the Muslim Brotherhood with a growing influence in parliament, and other militias – a threat to the oil business. Amidst all the talk of “freedom” and “democracy” it was almost forgotten that Libya holds the biggest oil reserves in Africa. The high point of this struggle was probably the kidnapping of prime-minster Zeidan, an event Zeidan described as a coup attempt. Western journalists begin worrying that Libya is being “thrown into turmoil,” and especially worrying is the fact that luxurious hotels are no longer safe havens. The Guardian even feels the need to to present us a “who’s who” of the rival groups in Tripoli, since the previous “pro-western freedom fighters” label is no longer sufficient. The spectre of a generalized civil war hangs menacingly in the months that follow, as there is no way around the “inability of Libya’s government to rein in the powerful militias”. This period is marked by constant fighting, ministers shot dead and government resignations.

Finally, PM Zeidan is ousted, even though he was a “popular figure with western diplomats,” and at this juncture it is worth noting that the parliament that was initially greeted as having important doses of “moderation” is now plainly labelled as “Islamist”. The impending campaign to retake the oil ports “risks splitting the country apart,” and this is the moment when an important figure enters the fray – General Khalifa Haftar. A former Gaddafi general, he fell out of favour after an ill-fated war against Chad, later joining an US-backed opposition group and taking part in a failed coup attempt against Gaddafi. He spent years in exile in the United States, until his dramatic return in early 2014 (he returned shortly in 2011 but the powers that be could not settle on a role for him). Haftar leads his forces on a two-pronged attack, on one hand attacking the parliament in Tripoli, calling for its dissolution, and on the other starting a campaign against hardline groups in Benghazi and eastern Libya. At this stage western analysts are a bit shell-shocked that their glorious humanitarian intervention has not exactly gone according to plan (!), but in general they welcome Haftar’s strongman antics since he is fighting “Islamists”.

One more election and one more government

While the Guardian ruefully declares that the “democratic dream is all but ruined,” and multiple figures claim they are the rightful prime-minister, Haftar continues his campaign in the east, and the country stumbles onto new legislative elections. This is declared to be “Libya’s last chance to reconnect with democracy,” but turnout was a lowly 18%. The coverage this time around is almost reduced to a footnote, since not even the former intervention cheerleaders want to associate themselves with the current mess. Quite predictably, the new poll leads to further fighting in the capital, forcing western countries to withdraw their diplomatic personnel. Even after all this mayhem, sane voices in the Guardian are few and far between. Anthony Loewenstein strikes quite an exasperated tone:

I feel like I’ve been writing the same column for over a decade: humanitarian interventions by the west end up destroying the countries they try to save.”

“Is this your democracy?” (Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

In a nutshell, Islamist groups (“Libya Dawn”) in the capital were not happy with the new elections and took power by force, pushing the newly elected parliament, called Council of Deputies, to the far-eastern town of Tobruk. This parliament operated first out of a cruise ship and later out of a hotel. This is an important moment to take stock. There is a (renewed) General National Congress in Tripoli that has nominated a new government, which we will still label as G#1, while the Council of Deputies chose a different government, which we will call G#2, based in Tobruk.2

Furthermore, judicial authorities in Tripoli declare G#1 as being the legitimate one, although it’s fair to guess that being close to the G#1 militias with guns might have influenced this decision.

And it is from this point on that the Guardian really brings out the labels. G#2 is the “legitimate”, “internationally recognised”, “democratically elected” government, whereas G#1 is the “Islamist”, “extremist” one, perhaps even “comparable to ISIS.” Unsurprisingly, the actual ISIS does spring up in Libya, taking control of the town of Derna before taking Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. What follows is a full-blown civil war between the two parallel governments, with Gen. Haftar being named commander of the armed forces loyal to G#2. The main fighting takes place in the oil-rich eastern provinces, specially for control of the coastal oil terminals. Libya’s oil output is but a tiny fraction of what it used to be, meaning that a lot of potential profit is going to waste. While ISIS begins to spread its influence, the two rival governments also begin gathering international support, with Qatar backing G#1 and the UAE and Egypt backing and even intervening militarily alongside G#2 against ISIS. But soon we start to see people wondering if the wrong government is being “recognised”, since there is a full-blown refugee crisis going on in the Mediterranean, and for western governments the solution is to simply stop the boats from leaving Libyan shores. There are now constant rumblings about forming a “new” government, with negotiating efforts being led by UN diplomat Bernardino Léon. The refugee crisis also becomes a bargaining chip for both G#1 and G#2.

Meanwhile the civil war drags on, while the US carries on with its airstrikes everywhere, even killing Mokhtar Belmokhtar for the umpteenth time. Needless to say, the Guardian is now far less interested in covering this quagmire, even though some start to question the whole endeavour. Western powers remarkably start considering a new intervention, while pinning their hopes on Léon’s efforts behind the scenes. Finally there seems to be a breakthrough when Léon announces a new, “national-unity government”, which we will call G#3, that is meant to take over for the two parallel governments G#1 and G#2. G#1 and G#2 officials themselves seem less convinced, and the fighting goes on as before. People on the ground are not any more enthusiastic about this UN-imposed government, perhaps to the surprise of outside observers. But it is interesting to note that the Guardian seems to have no issues with this idea of nominating an African government from the outside, as if it were the nomination of a colonial governor. Western leaders could also have tried to feign a little more concern for the sacrosanct “democracy” they are always preaching about, perhaps trying the Yemeni model.3 The Solomonic mediator Bernardino Léon also does not cover himself in glory by taking money from the UAE, backers of G#2, and claiming he knows how to delegetimise G#1. He is replaced as UN envoy to Libya shortly afterwards.

Two is company, three is a crowd

Though it’s business as usual for US warplanes life on the ground proves much harder for honest-to-god multinational oil corporations, who run the dreaded risk of “sign(ing) a deal with the wrong people.” With ISIS threatening oil ports, western governments are itching for G#3 to take power so it can authorize foreign military intervention, but G#1 and G#2 remain far less inclined. Even with more UN-backing, contradictory and premature announcements, there is no approval and G#3 remains stuck in Tunis, as preparations for a new intervention are in full swing. The interesting aspect to notice is that around this time G#2 starts losing its “internationally recognised” label, and becomes just “Tobruk-based.” Similarly, the perspective of getting G#1 to vacate its seat in the capital means we are no longer constantly reminded of its “islamist” character, and it becomes just “Tripoli-based”.

G#2 loses its “recognition” in the space of three months.

Finally G#3, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, arrives in Tripoli, after the no-longer-islamist G#1 agrees to step aside. And although we lose G#2’s former label, the Guardian is quick to introduce a new one to ensure the reader knows which team to support. G#3 is now the “UN-backed” government, the one that will usher the country into a safe and prosperous future! It is also the government of “National Accord”, even though the Libyan people hardly had a say in it.4 And in a bizarre case of deja-vu, a British envoy arrives to pledge the eternal friendship of Her Majesty’s government. The Foreign secretary pledges that “ground troops could go to Libya,” because past mistakes are meant to be repeated. And lest we forget what this is really about, the issue of oil soon crops back up again. Within a couple of months G#2’s label has now gone all the way to “unrecognised” after it dared attempt to export oil. There is also a new chaotic element as parallel banknotes start circulating. Additionally, western leaders don’t seem to realise that fragile governments don’t become more popular if they are propped by foreign powers. It is also worth noticing that Gen. Haftar is now seen to be a problem because he refuses to bow to this UN-imposed government, even though he is still fighting Islamist groups and ISIS.

In any case, both recognised and unrecognised forces, together with the ever-present US bombings, make quick gains against ISIS. The elimination of this threat means that G#1+3 and G#2 can go back to fighting each other, with the capture of all-important oil facilities by G#2 prompting a “call for military action.” Around this time the ill-advised Libyan intervention also comes under intense scrutiny in the UK. Whereas there are always reasonable voices in the debate, others disingenuously claim that nobody could have foreseen this disaster. A loosely-bound country with tribal rivalries held in check by a strongman’s mixture of carrot and stick strategies, then sees a huge inflow of weapons, religious extremism and foreign military intervention. What could have gone wrong? Of course, there are also those unrepentant imperial apologists like Bernard-Henri Lévy who would do it all over again.

And this is more or less where we stand now, even though this story is far from over, and neither are the Guardian’s flexible labels. There is trouble in Tripoli, as the armed militias of the former G#1 are far less convinced about recognising G#3 than the UN and western diplomats. A failed coup attempt should serve as a warning, and the Guardian should be ready to dust off its “islamist” label at a moment’s notice. In the East, Gen. Haftar and G#2 move further to the dark-side by asking Russia for help, but remain firmly in control of several oil facilities. Furthermore, with an economic collapse looming and G#2’s oil output increasing, the west again wonders if it has bet on the wrong horse. The Guardian warns that G#3’s “window for […] action may be closing,” so there is a strong chance that the recognised, then unrecognised, G#2 might find itself recognised again, for whatever that is worth. As we have seen in this short story, nothing, not even the Guardian labels, are definite in Libya. In this farcical and tragic cycle, coups, foreign interventi•ons, ISIS surges, and even Mokhtar Belmokhtar‘s death, are destined to be repeated so long as western empires stumble from one adventure to the next.

• First published at Investig’Action

  1. True to his calling, Belhaj would later join ISIS in its efforts both in Syria and Libya, but this might have been too embarrassing for the Guardian to report. []
  2. During the 2016 presidential campaign, when flexing her foreign policy muscle, Hillary Clinton defended her actions in Libya. Acknowledging that things were not perfect, which is quite the understatement, she stressed that there had been two “free and fair” elections. Even letting the “free and fair” part slide, what she forgot to add, and what any decent journalist should have pointed out, is that these two elections were not supposed to result in two parallel governments. []
  3. After the ousting of long-time dictator Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, the US and Saudi Arabia scrambled to ensure that ensuing elections would not harm their interests. Finally they settled on a ballot with a single candidate, Mansour Hadi, former 20-year vice-dictator. []
  4. This is on par with calling organizations that receive money from the US government (through USAID or NED) as “NGO”s just because they are serving the empire in other countries. They should be called FGOs, Foreign Government Organizations. []