Why Libyans Hoped for More from Obama's Speech

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.



A Leaky Border Threatens Tunisia's Transition

Last week, Tunisia's Interior Ministry reported that its forces had arrested eight Libyan militants who had entered the country with the aim of carrying out attacks against Tunisian officials. The ministry described the men as "Islamists." The news jangled nerves in a country that's already worried about contagion from the deepening turmoil in post-Qaddafi Libya. Tunisians, who have had their own troubles with religious militants, have followed the steadily rising tide of bombings, shootings, and militia escapades in their neighbor to the east.

On May 16, a general with old CIA links, Khalifa Haftar, sent his troops into the streets of Tripoli to battle Islamist militias and attack the General National Congress (GNC), the Libyan interim government. He called on the GNC to relinquish power to a council composed of top judges that will oversee future elections. Haftar claims the government and parliament are no longer legitimate because they've failed to curtail the power of extremist groups roaming the country.

Tarek Kahlaoui, an analyst with the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, says that Libya's neighbors have good reason to be worried. As the political crisis in Libya deepens, jihadist groups operating in the country "will grow even stronger," he says. "It may become possible for them to stage attacks inside Tunisia as elections draw nearer." These groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia (which claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012), have transnational structures and aims. If the remaining state structures in Libya collapse, says Kahlaoui, there's a high likelihood that the militants will attempt to expand their operations across its borders to Tunisia and other adjacent states.

Borders, in fact, are a big part of the problem. North Africa is a place of sweeping and often empty territories, making it hard to police state boundaries. In a recent report, Geneva-based researcher Moncef Kartas focuses on a border region called the Jefara. One of the most worrisome aftereffects of the Libyan civil war, Kartas notes, has been the dispersion of weapons looted from Qaddafi's arsenals into the regions around Libya. Most of the arms that have entered Tunisia have done so through the Jefara.

Jefaran society is largely divided between two tribal federations spanning both sides of the Tunisian-Libyan border. Prior to European colonization, the tribes developed a complex yet stable social order in the Jefara, enjoying what Kartas calls "a solid, if unspectacular, economy." French and Italian colonists shattered this stability by drawing borders that cut through the region.

With the growth of the Libyan oil industry in the 1960s, Tunisian migrants to Libyan markets began sending remittances, fueling cross-border trade. The Tunisians sealed the border on numerous occasions, among them when Qaddafi sponsored unsuccessful coups against then-Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba in 1978 and 1980. Yet members of a tribe on the Tunisian side soon learned to deal with disruptions in the official border economy, developing a black-market system replete with money-changing businesses, remittance deliveries, and people-smuggling networks. The U.N. embargo imposed on Libya in 1992 inadvertently spurred illicit trade in the Jefara. By 2010, an estimated 10,000 Libyans and Tunisians were crossing the Ras Jdir border point every day.

During the U.N. embargo, Qaddafi relied increasingly on Tunisian smuggler networks to change money and to help acquire overseas assets. Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime tacitly encouraged the emergence of the trafficking cartels as a driver of economic growth in the long-neglected region. "The previous government was smart enough to realize that if they allowed the trade, they could police it," Kartas told me. But post-revolutionary governments in Tunis have been cracking down on all illicit activity along the border, which may unwittingly strengthen the role of militants as traffickers seek ways to keep up the smuggling business by other means. "Now traffickers are making agreements with armed groups to control portions of the border for smuggling."

The outbreak of the Libyan civil war in early 2011 brought a massive influx of Libyan refugees into Tunisia. In severe need of cash, they sold whatever they could carry with them after crossing the border. Some sold gold and other valuables, and some sold weapons, largely handguns and AK-47 rifles. "A lot of the Libyans in Tunisia were supporters of the Qaddafi regime, and they will continue to support particular [counterrevolutionary] tribes and factions," Kartas said. This can serve to erode stability in Tunisia, he noted.

While the war raged between Qaddafi's army and revolutionary militias in May 2011, I remember seeing some of these cross-border nomads in the Tunisian border town of Dhehiba. Tunisians in Dhehiba had given shelter to the families of rebels from the anti-Qaddafi strongholds in Libya's nearby Nafusa Mountains. (The photo above shows Libyan rebels patrolling the border near Dhehiba in 2011.) Upon arriving in Dhehiba, I ran into a group of heavyset, thick-bearded revolutionary fighters. Between bouts of battling Qaddafi's army, the Libyan fighters sat sipping tea at outdoor coffee houses, chatting and laughing with Tunisian locals. Their worn garments were the same as the Tunisians', their accents in Arabic almost indistinguishable. It was as though the border was merely a formality, a line scratched in the Jefara's desert earth.

The arms that Libyan refugees exchanged for cash were only the tip of the new weapons iceberg. Traffickers in the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane on the northern edge of the border availed themselves of the plentiful supply of arms from Qaddafi loyalists taking refuge in Tunisia. These large stockpiles of weapons apparently still exist, yet Tunisian security forces appear hesitant to seize them.

Some of those guns have recently begun appearing in the hands of three groups in Tunisia, Kartas points out. The first are jihadi Salafists, those who support armed combat to overtake the state. Though they are relatively few, jihadi Salafists in Tunisia have links to al Qaeda units in the Maghreb in Algeria and Libya. Tunisian security officers say that they're keeping close tabs on all jihadi Salafists, but claim that they've never received orders from the government to arrest them. The second group is made up of tribes and clans in the Tunisian far south and interior regions. Since 2011, these tribes have also increasingly used firearms in disputes that have left several dead and scores wounded. Finally, there are ordinary Tunisians. Growing perceptions of vulnerability, whether real or imagined, have increased demand for firearms among average Tunisians, who, observing a decrease in police presence after the uprising, want to protect themselves.

Near Ben Guerdane, volatility has increased due to conflicts between tribal groups over trafficking networks and their confrontations with militias on the Libyan side, making the border crossing more difficult to control. In Dhehiba, farther to the south, smugglers have forged ties with militias in the Nafusa Mountains, attempting to erode cartel control of smuggling networks in Ben Guerdane. Dry riverbeds known as oueds, crisscrossing the Tunisian-Libyan border below the Nafusa Mountains, are another possible entry point. They allow access deep into Tunisia without checkpoints that could hamper arms smuggling.

Meanwhile, Algerian armed forces have discovered caches of hundreds of anti-tank and anti-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades deep in the Sahara where the borders of Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria come together. Weapons smuggled through this route are likely run from Libya into Algeria and then find their way into Tunisia.

The continuing collapse of state institutions in Libya gives Tunisians real reason to worry. Over the mid-term, this is likely to be one of the main threats to Tunisia's security. "Continued fragmentation in Libya makes it much harder for Tunisia to make sound judgments on how to protect its borders," Kartas added. "This makes the potential for armed groups to infiltrate Tunisia much higher than it was two or three years ago."

Sam Kimball is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. He has reported previously from Yemen and Egypt.

BORNI Hichem/AFP/Getty Images