Earlier this week, President Barack Obama outlined his foreign policy vision in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He used the occasion to declare that the United States should cut back on the use of large-scale military operations around the world while stepping up training missions in countries threatened by terrorism. His only mention of Libya was a fleeting reference to joint U.S. efforts "with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol" in the country. It seemed like an oddly casual comment given the bloody power struggle currently under way in Libya -- one in which the United States is likely to play a key role.
This evening, Libyans are once again witnessing huge nationwide demonstrations against the Islamist militias that have done so much to turn post-revolutionary Libya into a bloody battleground. The demonstrators have taken to the streets to condemn Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group that claimed responsibility for killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stephens in 2012 (among other things).
On Tuesday, the day before Obama's speech, Ansar al-Sharia's leader, Sheikh Mohammed al-Zahawi, went on TV to issue a withering denunciation of General Khalifa Haftar, a retired Libyan Army general with close ties to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies who has been conducting a military campaign against extremist groups in eastern Libya. Haftar has garnered considerable popular support for his attacks against the Islamist militias (which lately have even included airstrikes by Libyan Air Force jets on militia positions around Benghazi). Zahawi vowed to fight back against what he called "the crusade against Islam" led by Haftar and supported by the United States. The sheikh went on to threaten the United States with attacks like those against staged against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The photo above shows the shockingly photogenic Zahawi standing before an Islamist flag at a press conference in Benghazi.)
The statement by Ansar al-Sharia came as the United States deployed the assault ship USS Bataan, with some 1,000 marines on board, in waters off the Libyan coast. Washington has described this as a necessary precaution if the embassy has to be evacuated due to the political crisis in Tripoli and the deteriorating security situation.
As Libya faces its worst crisis since the ouster of the Qaddafi regime, most Libyans have seen the United States as supporting Libya's democratic transition. Yet the precise nature of Washington's position toward the military operations of General Haftar remains unclear. In a recent talk in Washington, Deborah Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, notably declined to condemn Haftar's campaign: "I can't condemn Haftar's actions if he's going after groups that are designated as terrorists by the United States," she said. That comment doesn't necessarily mean, though, that the United States is providing active support to Haftar.
A Gallup survey in 2012 showed that American support for the 2011 revolution that brought down Colonel Muammar Qaddafi generated an unprecedented level of goodwill for the United States among Libyans. 54 percent of Libyans approved of U.S. leadership, among the highest rating Gallup has ever recorded in the Middle East and North Africa region outside of Israel. Since that poll was taken, however, Libyans have endured many turbulent events that have left them wondering whether the United States is still willing to play a positive role in their country's affairs.
Given the polarized nature of the political scene, Washington's current policy toward Libya, including President Obama's latest speech, is being interpreted in two different and distinct ways. Some commentators on Libyan TV channels seem to acknowledge that American leaders have shown a willingness to deal with groups representing political Islam, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda movement in Tunisia, and to accept them as partners in the region. Yet some Libyan commentators note that post-revolutionary Libya has show itself to be significantly different from Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike their counterparts in those countries, they note, Libyans refused to give Islamist groups a majority of their votes in the first post-revolutionary election.
Indeed, many in Libya (if the chants and banners from tonight's well-attended demonstrations are any indication) hold the view that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are giving political cover to extremists like Ansar al-Sharia. One banner from tonight's protests in the city of Al-Baida read as follows: "Ikhwan [the Brotherhood] learn the lesson, Egypt is next door" (a reference, of course, to the harsh crackdown imposed on the post-revolutionary, Brotherhood-led government of ex-President Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian military).
The other view of the United States belongs, of course, to the Islamists and their Libyan supporters. In these quarters, Washington is usually seen as the moving force in a conspiracy around the Middle East to eradicate political Islam groups from the Arab Spring countries in concert with regional powers including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Ordinary Libyans feel the international community that helped save many lives and overthrow the Qaddafi regime has abandoned them, failing to offer proper assistance as the country struggles to negotiate its turbulent transition. Upon hearing of the deployment of USS Bataan off the coast of Libya, a young Libyan activist told me sarcastically, "They're here to save the real humans, not us." This comment reflects the general feeling among many other Libyans, who feel their lives are still under threat from vicious extremist groups and militias who armed themselves from Qaddafi's stockpiles of weapons.
Needless to say, it is difficult for the United States to be constructively assertive in Libya without being accused of interfering in the country's internal affairs. Yet there is still much that can be done in addition to the technical assistance and expertise that the country already provides. Above all else, friendly nations like the United States, which is still held in high regard by the majority of Libyans and the country's politicians for its role in the Feb. 17 revolution, can give Libya's main political groups friendly but assertive advice to get their act together. There is no doubt Libyans have to find their own solutions to their problems -- but that doesn't mean that the United States and Libya's other friends in the West can't help to show the way. As Ambassador Jones rightly pointed out in her talk: "We can help the Libyan people tell their story, but we can't tell their story for them."
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.
MOHAMMED EL-SHAIKY/AFP/Getty Images