Propaganda or real democracy? The future of Libya remains uncertain despite western (media) allegations

British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s visit to Libya has been one of the most reported issue by the media last week. The two men have scored a strategic point for their respective countries, not only for being the first foreign political leaders to go to post-Gaddafi Libya – which is not surprising since the United Kingdom and France are at the forefront of the NATO operations in the country – but for overshadowing Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s travel to Libya. 

Under tight security both leaders went to Tripoli and Benghazi, centre of the uprising. They visited a hospital, spoke to NATO led rebel fighters and Libyan civilians injured in the battle. They also showed their support to the National Transitional Council (NTC), meeting its interim members (as none of them is an elected representative) chairman Mustafa Adbul Jalil, and PM Mahmoud Jibril.

During the visit ‘the pair were given an enthusiastic welcome and a calmer, but no less warm, greeting by Libya’s interim rulers’ (The Guardian, 15 September 2011).

In the subsequent press conference both The Guardian and BBC quoted Cameron’s same words:

It’s great to be here in free Benghazi and in free Libya.”

However, perhaps these words would have been different if the pair had extended their visit to other areas within ‘free’ Libya, such as the makeshift camp outside Tripoli, where Sub-Saharan Africans live in fear of reprisals and violence from NTC-affiliated fighters.

During many years ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi hosted hundreds of thousands of Sub-Saharan migrant workers, stopping them from reaching European coasts by boats and helping Europe to reduce illegal migration. This was part of the Frontex programme, for which Gaddafi received millions from the European Union. Most of the migrant workers were employed in low-wage jobs and faced discrimination and racism.

It is alleged that after the uprising Gaddafi hired mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa to fight against NATO-led rebel fighters, some groups of soldiers fled to Mali and Niger but still remains unclear how many of those mercenaries remain in Libya. Some reports indicate that what is happening now in some parts of Libya is a witch hunt, or better said, a black hunt.

Battle for Tripoli
Image: Remi Ochlik (XL Semanal No: 1247).

Al Jazeera (14 September 2011) reported that black Libyans and African migrant workers are facing accusations of being pro-Gaddafi soldiers and detentions from NTC fighters, even if they are found unarmed. Kidnappings and rapes have also been reported by black women, although officials from the NTC have denied such reports. Most of the Sub-Saharan Africans maintain that they are simply migrant workers detained without evidence. There are some estimates indicate that ‘more than 5,000 black migrants have been detained in makeshift jails around the country, and others have faced beatings, revenge killings and even mass execution.’

In a video footage from Al Jazeera (14 September 2011) award-winning correspondent James Bays reports from a desolated area of the western side of Tripoli, where and old harbour has turned into a camp for migrant workers living underneath the boats. Despite there are some aid agencies operating in the area, people say they feel terrified. They are from different African countries and fear going outside the camp because they say they would be arrested accused of being mercenaries.

Bays speaks to a woman about the conditions and security at the camp.

The problem in this camp is that we are not safe. Last night we saw some Libyans; five of them came and were moving from ten to tent, bringing their knives and guns because they wanted to rape our girls.”

We want the United Nations come and help us because now we can’t stay in Libya anymore, we can’t even go back to our countries because there are some political problems in our countries. We don’t want the Libyan authorities to help us, the only people we want now is the United Nations, that’s what we are looking for now. We were working in the country before the war started, everybody at this place was working.”

Amnesty International released a report last week based on a fact-finding visit to Libya between 26 February and 28 May 2011, which reveals that both sides of the conflict committed violations of international humanitarian law.

‘In the unrest and ongoing armed conflict, al-Gaddafi forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), including war crimes, and gross human rights violations, which point to the commission of crimes against humanity. They deliberately killed and injured scores of unarmed protesters; subjected perceived opponents and critics to enforced disappearance and torture and other ill treatment; and arbitrarily detained scores of civilians.’

‘Members and supporters of the opposition, loosely structured under the leadership of the National Transitional Council (NTC), based throughout the conflict in Benghazi, have also committed human rights abuses, in some cases amounting to war crimes, albeit on a smaller scale, including violent attacks against perceived supporters of Gaddafi and suspected ‘mercenaries’.’

In the reporting of the high-profile visit, neither The Guardian nor the BBC mentioned the African migrant workers’ situation at the camp. The Guardian (September 15) quoted the following Cameron’s words, in which the Prime Minister tried not to sound triumphalist over the future in Libya.

I would accept that the hardest work is still to come, of making sure that everyone has a future in this country, getting it back on its feet. These will be difficult times but, so far, what I think we have seen from the National Transitional Council, what we are seeing here in Tripoli is a remarkable and impressive recovery from a very difficult situation.

Also, the British newspaper (15 September 2011) quoted President Sarkozy’s words over comments on reconstruction contracts or economic deals with Libya in return for military support.

This is a very important issue and I want things to be very clear to the entire Arab world. What we did was for humanitarian reasons. There was no hidden agenda.”

A good question for Mr Sarkozy would have been the reasons for which France has not supported in the same humanitarian way the uprisings in Syria, Bahrain or Yemen.

On an online article from Al Jazeera (15 September 2011) journalist David Poort asked four Tripoli residents for their thoughts on the visit and the Anglo-French intentions. Three out of four agree that both the UK and France’s prominent role in Libya intervention is due to profitable oil and gas contracts, while Muammar Sadiq, 23, English student at recently named Tripoli University believes that the intervention was forced by the danger posed by Gaddafi, he said:

Look at the state of our country. It is poor. Gaddafi made it like this. I think that if he stayed as leader of Libya he would’ve done a lot more damage. He was about to eliminate Benghazi if it wasn’t for NATO. So I say thank you England, and thank you France. You are more than welcome here in Tripoli.”

Full article here.

The BBC (September 15) also quoted the locals’ views on the UK and French visit. Abir – no surname given – from Tripoli said:

Since they feel safe to visit Tripoli, it means that there is security and stability.”

However, it is not surprising ‘the security and stability’ in Tripoli since, according to reports from Spanish newspaper El País (16 September 2011) and its special correspondent in Tripoli Francisco Peregil, a team of 150 French agents arrived to the capital the day before the heads of state did in order to ensure the  security of the visit. It was also the French police who provided security at the hotel where the leaders’ press conference was hosted. Perhaps for some people, the idea of security and stability in a country is subject to be surrounded by a foreign army.

To end up with this reflection, just the mention of a video of both leaders’ press conference from Natochannel.tv – NATO’s official online video channel – posted on its Facebook profile under this headline:

‘The new future for Libya is looking promising, as leaders from both France and the United Kingdom visited the capital Tripoli to show and continue their support for the country.’

Many questions rise over this headline; does this mean the new promising future for Libya is subject to both France and the UK continue their military support to the country? How promising is the future for those African migrant workers who live in fear at the camp outside Tripoli? Can be ensured that ALL crimes will be investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice? Time for another reflection.

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