Category: Libya- General

Version 2.0 of 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.

A Race Against Time for Timbuktu’s Famed Collections

With Salafist mobs succeeding in toppling and defacing Sufi shrines in Libya last year, it should have come as no surprise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), imitated these acts while spreading guns and anarchy south. Having failed to hold Timbuktu, AQIM set out to destroy centuries-old manuscripts stored in (mostly) private libraries. While the corpus contains extensive local commentary on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), it includes other material retrograde elements deem “un-Islamic”.

Through a set of extraordinary events, local custodians of more than 300,000 rare manuscripts (foremost among them Abdelkader Haidara,  who spent decades acquiring and caring for what is perhaps the most significant of the local collections, previously housed in the Mamma-Haidara library),  managed to secret most of the volumes to  Bamako, 700 kilometers away. About half of the manuscripts went by road, and the other half by water, down the Niger River from Timbuktu and across the inland sea to Djenne, where 300 taxis took them the rest of the distance.

Now, the West African intellectual trove faces another threat: the elements. If they are not protected, the manuscripts, many of which are friable, will not withstand the rainy season, which begins in a few weeks. Each volume must be isolated, and individually boxed – at a cost about 30 dollars per book. To cover this, supporting organizations have started a fundraising campaign, seeking relatively modest amounts to stave off the most immediate threat, through boxing/ isolation, application of desiccants, etc.

The Timbuktu trove contains histories and travelers accounts, commentaries on Islamic jurisprudence (fikh), as well as commercial transactions and treatises on medicine, slavery and astrology. The chronicles constitute the main primary sources on the history of Islamic West Africa from the 12th to the 18th century, and debunk the widespread notion that pre-Colonial Africa produced no written sources worthy of mention. The Timbuktu collections yielded significant works by black-African intellectuals– like “Tarikh es-Soudan” (a history of the Songhai empire, written by Abdel Rahman Ibn Abdallah al Saadi in the late 1500s), and Tarikh al-Fattash (“A Seeker’s History”), believed to have been written by Al Hajj Mahmoud Kati in the 1600s, and the Tadhkirat al Nisyan (“Notes to the Obivious”), by an anonymous author. These three works provide a rare and unique perspective on the social and political history of West Africa during this time, including commentary on not only the local pre-colonial dynasties, but also Arab, Tuareg, Jewish and other peoples prior to the Moroccan invasion of the 16th century (backed by the British, who sought to eliminate any potential threat to its interests in the Transatlantic slave trade).

This situation is one among many within the context of the “Arab Spring”, or “Arab Revolutions” that collectively underscore the need for new multilateral/ binational mechanisms to safeguard cultural and human heritage in times of immediate crisis, working with local authorities where possible (before, during and after a crisis) to draw up contingency plans, deploy expert conservationists, and lobby for defensive action; to fill the gaps as the international organizations ramp up to provide longer term solutions. Of course, the direct human cost of hot conflict must be of paramount concern, but addressing these two issues is not mutually exclusive:  collateral cultural losses are often the result of basic neglect, not mis-prioritization of resources. Are we about to lose another major piece of human history, for lack of a few million dollars?