Category: Libya- Benghazi

Libya’s Last Stand

Huffington Post Blog, August 15, 2014

By Ethan Chorin and Husni Bey 
If there was ever a J.R.R. Tolkien moment in the Libya conflict, it has arrived. The forces of good and evil, abstracted here to represent ‘those who want progress’, and ‘those who would rather have nothing, if not their version progress’, are fighting the future of Libya — not in Mordor, but in concentric circles around Tripoli Airport and Benghazi. From the outside, the rapidly escalating violence looks to be the result of hopeless confusion and self-debasement. In fact, it is the direct outcome of some clarity, and some success. The West needs to get off the fence and help, before Libya’s fragile new infrastructure is wiped completely clean.

In the year following the Western-assisted ouster of Col. Gaddafi in 2011 criminals and extremists hijacked the Revolution, pushing aside the moderate but disorganized majority. Ill-prepared and executed assistance programs cost valuable time, with a good fraction of ‘modest millions’ of dollars awarded organizations with little knowledge of Libya or its context. The attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in September 11, 2011 by design pushed the Americans, and then most foreigners out, leaving a city of close to one million at the mercy of a small but growing and determined number of spoilers.

Despite the ongoing violence and disarray, there have been muted but substantive gains. Libyans checked Muslim Brotherhood ambitions in parliamentary elections on June 25. Just a few weeks before, the sitting Prime Minister Abdullah Al Thinni challenged, in Libya’s Supreme Court, the legality of the election of Ahmed Metig to succeed him — and won. Metig was induced to step down. There have been wide protests against Libya’s Grand Mufti for inciting ‘gratuitous violence’. Collectively, and individually, these are remarkable acts of civil responsibility.

Over the last few months, in a kind of un-harmonic convergence, the spoilers have individually and collectively decided to drag the state under. Thus we’ve seen an increase in fighting in the West, with the powerful Misurata militia and its Islamist supporters fighting the Zintani militia and their allied brigades over the Tripoli airport. In the East, the renegade General Khalifa Hifter continues to add fuel to the fire with his desultory, destructive campaign against “Islamists”, inducing the Egyptians to consider military action.

In a recent BBC interview former Libyan PM Ali Zeidan said he did not blame Islamists specifically for what is happening, but “all Libyans.” But Libyans are not operating on a fair playing field, and never were. Unlike neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the ‘new Libya’ has had to start from zero. It has been inundated with nearly a billion dollars in weapons, much of which entered after the lifting of Western arms embargoes while Gaddafi was still in power. The West’s ‘light footprint’ intervention led to a situation where the naked patient was essentially left to hobble around in a snake pit. In a NYT interview on Friday President Obama rued that intervening in Libya ‘without sufficient follow-up on the ground’, was ‘probably his biggest foreign policy regret’.

The solution is not a wholesale intervention, but a series of intensified, coordinated and targeted actions, necessarily led by the West and neighboring states, with gains secured by the U.N., which older Libyans credit for securing the country’s independence in 1951. The program would build on more helpful operations, such as the foiling by U.S. SEALs of Eastern separatist attempts to sell oil out from under the central government.

Libya needs a proper, elite security contingent: a young, regionally and tribally heterogeneous force, loyal to the state. There is no apparent viable process for identifying suitable recruits or building an esprit de corps. Libyans need their national assets back: airports, refineries, ports, hospitals – and oil – all of which militias and non-state actors exploit to advance their own narrow objectives. Libya’s direct neighbors have indicated willingness to accept more aggressive U.S. and E.U. technical assistance to police vast shared borders, and start to control criminal trade in weapons and drugs that are fueling conflicts across two continents. Above all, the city of Benghazi needs to be made safe again — not only for its captured citizens, but Libya’s new legislature, currently billeted to the far Eastern town of Tobruk.

Outside assistance should be at Libya’s invitation, and ultimately, expense. The Libyan House of Representatives last week called for an ‘immediate and unconditional cease-fire’, and reserved the right to take ‘all necessary steps’, including requesting international support. It has just authorized U.N. intervention to protect civilians. With relative calm, Libya will heal, and hopefully become one of the West’s most effective allies in the region, a stabilizing presence in the Middle East and Africa, not a destabilizing one.

Libya has suffered neglect under Gaddafi, and it has suffered neglect after Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s narcissistic proclamations of ‘après moi, le déluge,’ were never to be taken seriously, but have become dangerously close to reality, due to errors committed on all sides. The West still has reliable local interlocutors, the same who warned the U.S. of ‘imminent state collapse’ and reluctantly helped coordinate the its departure last month. While it is obvious there is little appetite in the U.S. for corrective action, the alternatives are truly frightening.

Husni Bey is Chairman of the HBGroup, and a Co-Founder of Libya First. Ethan Chorin is author of Exit the Colonel and Translating Libya.

The Quandary of Gen. Hiftar

The new danger in Benghazi

A former Libyan general with American connections may be a savior, or a strongman in waiting. Either way, The U.S. cannot remain silent about him.

By Ethan Chorin

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Forget the endless obsession with assigning blame for the attack in 2012 on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The United States has another crisis on its hands right now in Libya. Khalifa Hiftar, a former Libyan general who is now an American citizen, is mounting what could be de facto coup, or a decisive blow to Islamists, with far reaching consequences for Libya and the United States.

That is where our government’s attention should be.

Mr. Hiftar led former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s disastrous war with Chad in the late 1980s. He was captured by enemy forces, and our government struck a deal with Chad for his release and transfer to the U.S. While researching a book on the origins of the 2011 Libyan Revolution, I uncovered traces of a long relationship between Mr. Hiftar, the United States and the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main exile group opposing Qaddafi at the time. These included assertions that the C.I.A. recruited Mr. Hiftar to help prepare military activity against the dictator. Mr. Hiftar settled in Virginia and, according to Abdurahman Shalgham, Gaddafi’s Ex-Foreign Minister, was put in charge of training like-minded Libyans as prospective insurgents. But those preparations never bore fruit; instead, in the late 1990’s, the United States pursued  accommodation with Qaddafi. When the 2011 rebellion broke out and NATO intervened, Mr. Hiftar returned to Libya expecting to command the rebel forces, but lost out to Abdul Fattah Younes, Qaddafi’s former interior minister. Younes was later assassinated, with suspicion falling on an Islamist militia then emerging in Benghazi.

This month, Mr. Hiftar re-emerged as the leader of an increasingly popular assault on Libya’s Islamists, backed by jet fighters and artillery; simultaneously, his partisans in the capital of Tripoli terminated a session of the Parliament, the General National Congress (GNC) and say they’ll thwart any attempts to reconvene. Hiftar claims to have been planning this maneuver for months, if not the least two years, by shuttling among Libyan military figures in Libya’s major cities — a scenario reminiscent of Qaddafi’s preparations for his own 1969 coup.

Mr. Hiftar calls his program Operation Karama — Arabic for “dignity.” In interviews with the Arabic press, he styles himself a fierce patriot with a civic duty to deliver Libyans from the Muslim Brotherhood. He speaks of “cleansing” Libya of Islamists, especially in Benghazi, where he blames them for daily assassinations and kidnappings. He has not stated an end-goal, but has said he would not refuse a leadership role — if the people should will it. He rules out compromising with Islamists, who, he says, only respond to force.

In the last week, Mr. Hiftar has gained backing from key Libyan army and air force units, important militias and senior members of the regional security forces, as well as increasingly strong endorsements from some of the most visible leaders of the 2011 revolution.

Indeed, Mr. Hiftar’s resurrection has acquired an almost ‘redemptive’ quality. In Washington, some policy experts and State Department officials quietly express satisfaction that someone is going after Ansar al-Sharia, the militia blamed for the attack on the United States compound.  And a sizeable number of Libyans hope Mr. Hiftar can reverse the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on Parliament, which they consider a hijacking of democracy as egregious as any external coup.

Some in Libya have called for the immediate handover of all legislative power over to the elected 60-member Constitutional Assembly, which enjoys wide legitimacy. This is necessary, they say, because the main goal of the Islamist -controlled Parliament is to control the constitution-drafting process, and make sure that their views are reflected in the final document.   Further, they say, there is no way that Libya will be even remotely prepared for new elections the 25th.  The security situation alone, will vastly curtail the number of people who will participate in the voting, thus playing into the Islamists’ hands.

The problem here, of course, is that the GNC itself is the only body that is legally authorized to diminish its own powers, and the controlling Muslim Brotherhood and Al Wafaa blocs can be counted upon to oppose such a decision.  One hope has been that the GNC will dissolve by itself, as internal fissures grow, and more members boycott the sessions.

Meanwhile, large, pro-Karama demonstrations in Libya’s major cities have given Mr. Hiftar what he says is a mandate to proceed.  Over the weekend, however, Hiftar’s campaign seems to have faltered  – and this could be just as unfortunate for Libya’s future as any unilateral assumption of power by Mr. Hifter.

In all of this, the United States government has not expressed a judgment. It seems to be avoiding endorsement or rejection of Mr. Hiftar, limiting itself to expressions of concern about a situation it calls “extremely fluid” and joining an international call for all parties to refrain from violent acts. Secretary of State John Kerry has asked a senior diplomat, David Satterfield, to go to Libya as an envoy, but has not indicated a direct connection with Mr. Hifter’s action.  At a press briefing last Thursday, the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sidestepped discussion of Mr. Hiftar, but underscored American support for Libya’s people, its democratic process, and the GNC’s response to the current “situation,” which at that point amounted to announcing a date for parliamentary elections — June 25.

Such anodyne evasions are dangerous. If the Mr. Hifter’s succeeds in his first stated goal of fighting terrorism, he could help level the political playing field in Libya, or generate a long period with no elections whatsoever.  If he fails, this may strengthen the views of others, who see in the United States’ actions a plan to seek accommodation with “moderate” Islamists.

Since Hiftar is largely a U.S. creation, we need to be clear about what we think of him, or risk being tarnished with the outcome, whether positive or negative.

Do we still have a relationship with Hiftar?  Do we sympathize with all of his spoken intentions, or with only some — for example, reclaiming Benghazi from extremists? What kind of behavior will we hold him to, as an American citizen bearing arms abroad, and as a potential leader of Libya? Certainly, if he were to overturn all of Libya’s democratic gains, he would be acting against stated United States policy.

More than once, the U.S. has gotten into trouble in Libya by not taking clear positions. During the 2003 rapprochement, we told Qaddafi we had conditions for reconciling with him. Then we didn’t enforce them. The fact that Mr. Hiftar is now hunting Islamists, rather than Qaddafi loyalists, is a direct consequence of the West’s failure in 2011 to plan for security or reconstruction after Qaddafi’s ouster. Good planning might have prevented Benghazi from falling into the wrong hands to begin with. In an interview in the early spring of 2012, J. Christopher Stevens, who was then ambassador-designate, conveyed to me his deep fears regarding this very outcome. Ironically, Benghazi did not fall to Islamists and criminal elements until after the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, which took the lives of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans. Benghazi has since become the northern anchor of an arc of instability that extends into sub-Saharan Africa.

But it is never too late to learn a lesson. Whatever his flaws, Mr. Hiftar has some good and timely qualities. With the United States unwilling to intervene directly in Libya, and the Libyan government compromised by Islamist sympathizers within, he may be the only person able and willing to lead a successful fight against Libyan extremists.

That said, Libya’s nascent democratic institutions must survive.

To pursue both goals, the United States needs to delineate which of  Hiftar’s  stated objectives it believes are legitimate, where it thinks s the limits to Mr. Hiftar’s action and ambition should lie, as well as the consequences if he and his supporters stray from them.  If it gets this balance right, the United States may yet help preserve a fragile democracy, stymie an Islamist takeover of Libya, and tame a dictator — before he becomes one.

Libya Telemedicine Initiative

This past week, in the midst of yet another political crisis in Tripoli and the third anniversary of the 2011 Revolution, 11 Libyan physicians, including diabetes specialists, ophthalmologists and pharmacists, participated in an intensive three-day certificate program in “Retinopathy Screening for Primary Care,” in Istanbul, Turkey. Diabetes-induced retinopathy is one of the leading causes of blindness in Libya, and is currently at epidemic levels.

The course is part of an ongoing post-conflict assistance initiative run by the Avicenna Group, and was administered by senior clinical faculty from the University of California at Berkeley School of Optometry, and EyePACS, a California-based telemedicine initiative.

Dr. Jorge Cuadros, Professor of Optometry at U.C. Berkeley and co-founder of EyePACS, led the seminar, which trained clinicians from across Libya to use advanced digital imaging techniques to diagnose retinopathy, a degeneration of the eye, which in its early stages has few symptoms and is often diagnosed too late to save vision.

The Libyan clinicians will use retinal cameras and the Cloud-based EyePACS training and grading system to screen diabetes sufferers for retinopathy, and will train other Libyan doctors to do the same. A Libyan-American steering group has been created to manage local outreach, and get as many retinal cameras into primary care situations as possible. EyePACS, in conjunction with faculty and students at Berkeley, will provide remote and on-site quality assurance and diagnostic support to the Libyan physicians for the duration of the project, which is expected to add greatly to knowledge of diabetes and other health indicators in Libya.

Those diagnosed with retinopathy will receive formal diagnosis reports from EyePACS, and will be referred to affiliated clinics for laser treatment. Dr. Cuadros, who has run similar programs in Mexico, said he was “extremely impressed by the dedication of the Libyan medics and physicians,” and the fact that all passed the certification.

As Libya’s very young population ages, diabetes threatens to devastate the country’s already over-taxed health budget. Dr. Issam Hajjaji, the Director of LADE and a course speaker, said the program had the potential not only to save the sight of “many thousands in Libya, but add substantially to knowledge of diabetes in Libya.”

Libya ranks very high in all major cardiovascular risk factors, including diabetes, hypertension, retinopathy and health awareness. The causes include genetic factors, diet, as well as poor health maintenance and preventative care. A 2009 STEPS survey, now out of date, estimated the incidence of diabetes in Libya to be 16.4 percent out of a population of just over 6 million. Statistically, 10 percent of those will develop retinopathy. The figures increase dramatically with age. According to the same 2009 study, 37.1 percent of Libyans aged 55-64 are diabetic.

The Avicenna-EyePACS program is one of the first telemedicine initiatives linking a U.S. university with Libyan counterparts. The project is underwritten by private American and Libyan sponsors, including Siran Pharmaceuticals and the Libyan Diabetes and Endocrinology Association (LADE). Program administrators hope this will serve as a model for delivery of other critical medical training and services to Libya, at a time when security concerns are impeding outside involvement.

The Avicenna Group was founded in early 2011 to catalyze health and environment-related partnerships between U.S.-based institutions and analogues in Libya and the broader Middle-East/ Africa region. Avicenna is a sponsor of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) at UCB’s College of Natural Resources, which last year saw its first Libyan graduates.


The California-Libya Connection

Despite being almost 7,000 miles apart, California and Libya have an interesting history, a similar climate, and a relationship that’s worth watching.

At independence in 1951, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world, exporting scrap metal and dates. After the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in 1958, Libya began sending promising graduates to the United States to acquire skills needed to manage the country’s natural resources. Future petroleum engineers went to ‘oil schools’ like Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas A&M, while those focused on agriculture and water (a critical issue in a country that is over 90% desert), attended Federal land-grant universities such as U.C. Davis and Berkeley. Libya’s most prominent hydrologist studied at Davis in the 1970s (perhaps it is no coincidence that California artichokes grow beautifully in Libyan soil).

As Gaddafi’s policies became more erratic and violent, nearly two decades of bilateral and U.N. sanctions reduced Libya’s contact with the West. During the rapprochement with Libya in the late 90s and early 2000s educational links began to re-form, if tentatively. The 2011 ‘Libyan Spring’ spawned literally hundreds of local civic organizations, and prompted a large number of the Libyan diaspora– many from Texas and California– to return to help create a new, more open state.

This year, one might say the Libyans have returned to California. Two out of a record six Libyan candidates were chosen to participate in the prestigious U.C. Berkeley-Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program (ELP). The ELP, in its 15th year, is designed specifically to boost the effectiveness of promising mid-career professionals from developing countries, through modules on resource management, global warming, food security, etc. and workshops on negotiation and organizational management. Two past ELP participants have won the Goldman Prize (Environmental Sciences’ analog to the Nobel).

Khaled Ben Halim, one of the 2013 ELP Libya contingent, relocated to Tripoli from Texas during the revolution with the single-minded goal of protecting animals from abuse; “conservation and animal welfare is usually last on the list of concerns during war,” Ben Halim rues, “but these constituencies also need advocates, and I felt that was the contribution I was best able to make.” Ben Halim has been instrumental, among other things, in a campaign to rehabilitate the Tripoli Zoo, whose collection of hippos, oryx and other African fauna barely survived the revolution, due to the efforts of volunteers. On the sidelines of ELP, Ben Halim hopes to create a relationship with the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.  Rida Sherif, a final-year forestry Ph.D. candidate at the University of Mississippi, is concerned with the impact of improved forest management on desertification. ELP participants from the state of Mali, itself severely impacted by the revolution in its neighbor to the North, improve access to education through feeding programs.

Professor David Zilberman, ELP program co-director, says that “sustaining natural resources in post conflict nations is a major priority for the College of Natural Resources, and we are very eager to support Libya’s future environmental leaders.”

My experiences at Berkeley (Ph.D., Agricultural and Resource Economics), and as one of the first U.S. diplomats in Tripoli from 2004-2006, shaped much of what I’ve done since, including co-founding the Avicenna Group, which has specialized in building relationships between U.S. and Libyan institutions, particularly in the area of acute care and emergency medicine.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens, whose ties to California and U.C. Berkeley were widely reported, served sequential assignments in Libya as Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Envoy to Benghazi, and then, Chief of Mission in Libya.  Stevens was critical in generating U.S. support for Libya during and after the 2011 revolution, until his tragic death last year in the attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi at the hands of extremists– an act that had more consequences on Libya’s trajectory than many would care to admit.

Anne O’Leary, who retired recently from the Foreign Service, was the first permanently assigned Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Tripoli, and in that capacity, created a framework for future US-Libya student exchanges. O’Leary grew up in the Bay Area, and was ‘Diplomat in Residence’ at U.C. Berkeley from 2007-2008. One of her successors, Mietek Boduszynski–you guessed it, another Berkeley Ph.D.– has been responsible for keeping U.S.-Libya educational relationships running, through the current turmoil.

After the September, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission, the Avicenna Group shifted its focus to the problem of how to provide technical assistance when a sustained in-country presence is either not possible, or very difficult. The organization, with support from American and Libyan donors, has been working closely with ELP, and the Blum Center for Developing Economies to engage advanced graduate students in Engineering and Public Health, for example, to address a series of practical questions such as “how to design an ambulance dispatch system in a city without physical addresses”, “how to train novice medics in the field via Internet-based courses.”

In parallel, Avicenna has been working with faculty at the University of San Francisco (UCSF)-Global Health Sciences, and the U.C. Berkeley School of Optometry, to scope projects in, for example, retinal scanning for diabetes (assisted by a Libyan Ph.D. candidate), hospital administration, planning for acute and emergency care, and sustainable design. California-based firms with international interests, like the Berkeley Research Group, a law and economics consultancy, have helped underwrite the costs of ELP’s Libya outreach.

Recent exchanges have also been cultural: several in Libya and California helped bring noted Libyan artist Mohammed Binlamin to Davis in early April, to participate in a Stevens memorial exhibition, hosted by the John Natsoulas Gallery. Binlamin spent several days in Berkeley, visiting with local artists and touring a local foundry and galleries, with the goal of bringing California-based artists to Libya.

Collectively, the Libya-California links are multi-faceted, decreasingly random, and neither permanent nor fail-proof– but with attention, they have the potential to contribute to a more stable Libya, a more creative U.S.-Libya bilateral relationship and new approaches to the provision of meaningful, cost-effective assistance to post-conflict states.

Anti-Killer Apps & The Arab Revolutions

It is not surprising that the power of technology available to support post-conflict humanitarian action vastly surpasses the ability of governments, multilateral organizations and commercial enterprises to deploy it optimally. It is usually the smaller, nimbler, locally-rooted organizations that are usually best able to respond to local crises. Yet by their very nature, these organizations must be discovered and empowered if they are to act on a larger scale. It is here that politics comes into play.

Take ‘medicine and the Arab Spring’: There are a number of regionally-focused medical organizations, projects and technologies that could have a substantial impact in reducing human suffering in the field, and yet are healing at levels far below capacity, mainly because the smaller and the larger organizations are not speaking to one another as optimally as they might. A few examples from personal exposure as Co-Founder of the Avicenna Group, which has been working to boost medical capacity in post conflict regions (Libya, particularly), since 2011.

Mobile Ultrasound in Syria:  Pushed to its Limits

Within the Syria crisis, which has claimed by some estimates more than 100,000 lives, a U.S.-based organization called SAMS, the Syrian-American Medical Society, has spearheaded a series of truly inspiring humanitarian efforts. SAMS’ staff, most of which are senior American physicians, undertake regular, extended tours in country as trauma surgeons and advisors, in the most extreme of conditions.

One new technology in particular has proven hugely useful in the field. The VSCAN, a portable ultrasound scanner manufactured by General Electric, has been a diagnostic boon to the various field medics and hospitals — in ways that the manufacturer probably never envisioned. Indeed, General Electric corporate was unaware until recently that their products were playing such a prominent role in treating Syrian war wounded.

Severe conditions breed innovation, not only in technology, but also process: SAMS purchased 40 both rehabilitated and pared-down VSCANS, transported them to the Turkish-Syrian border and from there, into Syria, where they have saved many lives. The small size, versatile nature and ease of use of the VSCAN often makes it the only diagnostic tool within reach, both literally and in terms of cost (the units start at about 8000 dollars). In the cities of Homs and Aleppo (high-casualty centers for the Syrian opposition), for example, single-digit units are serving populations of 1-2 million.

SAMS is not just putting this technology to use, it took the lead to successfully lobby for an amendment to Anti-Assad sanctions that would allow legal delivery of VSCANs into the battle theatre. SAMS estimates that it needs another 40 of these units to reach the limits of its own capacity to assist.

The current push is to get more VSCANS into Syria, Turkey and Libya, to extend their use with power-enhancing accessories (the field life of device’s batteries is a large constraint). There is an effort underway to bundle VSCANs with expert-made diagnostic videos featuring the VSCAN, and to create detailed logs as to how the VSCANS are being used. The resulting ‘how to’ videos and logs would be made available free of charge to train medics and crisis planners outside of the region in use of the VSCAN and associated tools– all of which would benefit the suffering Syrians, of course, but also future trauma victims worldwide. From the manufacturers’ perspective, it could also be expected to create a much larger commercial market for these tools inside and outside of Syria.

‘1-1-1’ in Benghazi, Libya

Benghazi is a city largely without addresses, and without ambulances. When citizens in this city of 800,000 need urgent assistance, they count on friends and relatives to take them to one of the city’s six hospitals. The capacity of these hospitals varies greatly from week to week, and day to day. God help those heart attack, bombing victims or pregnant mothers with complications if they’re taken to one of those clinics that’s closed.

Benghazi officials tried to address this problem the low-tech way, by erecting a large billboard downtown, on which that day’s ‘open clinics’ are listed. Yet a relatively simple, technology-driven override exists:

A group of graduate students at U.C. Berkeley, assisted by a Bay Area technology firm, spent last semester building a prototype cell-phone-based app that allows the driver or the victim to use his/her GSM phone text a 3-digit number (say 1-1-1), to receive a return text message listing the closest open hospitals — obviating a trip to the “oracle-billboard.” A mapping enhancement developed by StampStreet, may in the near future enable victims to create their own ‘pickup’ addresses and maps, in a city with few valid addresses and little reliable mapping data (try looking up Benghazi on Googlemaps). The main local requirement for all of this is reliable human updating of facility status via independent, secure web connections, and a robust public awareness campaign. Estimates are that hundreds of lives have been lost because of this information breakdown. Undoubtedly many more will be if the situation continues for long.

The above are just two cases in which a small infusion of capital, and a bit more coordination within the local and international communities could have a large impact. There are many more. Every day counts.