In Libya, Quieter On The Western Front

Is it the torpor of summer ?

 The laziness of minds and their prejudices ?

Is it the idea, endlessly repeated, that the Libyan war was a mistake from which no good could ever come ?

Whatever the cause, the media are missing an event that should be front-page news.

That event is the assault on Sirte, until recently held by the jihadists, by forces linked to Libya’s national unity government in Tripoli.

It is the fall of what for two years has been a bastion of the Islamic State that at one time stretched along 200 kilometers of the Libyan coast and included several of the country’s largest oil terminals.

It is the fact that as of August 15 Libya’s fighters, supported by American airstrikes and a handful of special forces soldiers from the United States and Britain, were poised to take control of the last section of the city still infested with Daesh snipers.

That, since April—that is, even before the national unity government assumed ownership of the operation—the offensive has been spearheaded by citizens of Misrata is deeply meaningful for me.

So many memories tie me to that city.

So many names and faces encountered in May 2011, when the hungry port city was under siege, bombarded day and night, and when, from Malta, it took twenty harrowing hours to run the blockade and land.

There was the eminent president of the local bar association who accompanied me to the front at Abdul Raouf, 15 kilometers from the city center, where the Chebabs were holding off Gaddafi’s mercenaries. After the war he visited me several times in Paris to talk about his plans for a Libya open to the West, ruled by laws, and respectful of human rights. His name was Abdelrahman Al-Kissa. This past June he judged, just as he had in 2011, that his place was at the front. And it was there, on June 8 that a missile mowed him down as he was driving his car.

And there was, too, the brave commander, a member of the local transitional council, who, on the day I was to return to France, had just made me an honorary citizen of the city of Misrata. I never saw him again, but his words stayed with me. Today, with the battle for Sirte, his apostrophe stands out even more strongly: “The Libyan revolution will be a long one; there will be steps backward, miscalculations, mistakes. But know that here, in Misrata, we will never allow a new form of despotism to take the place of the one we have deposed.”

But the unfolding event in Sirte is important for at least three reasons.

It proves, once more, that Daesh is weak, that its forces are bad soldiers, and that as soon as they come up against disciplined, determined, and courageous fighters, as they have in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Manbij, Syria, they beat a hasty and shameful retreat.

It confirms a law familiar to every people that has lived through the overthrow of tyranny, a law according to which pride in what one has accomplished alternates with self-deception, perseverance in the ideals to which one has dedicated oneself alternates with betrayal of those same ideals, and the “eruptions of heroism” that, according to French historian Jules Michelet, were the undying legacy of 1789, rotate with the “frozen revolution” of Saint-Just.

And, finally, this: From the most prosperous city in western Libya, from a city that is doubly heroic because Libya owes it much of the credit for the fall of Gaddafi and can now thank it for the fall of the caliphate on the Mediterranean, from the “surge of devotion and sacrifice” (Michelet again) that has led Misrata to fight twice now for a certain idea of itself and of freedom, comes the message that, in the war between the two Islams, in the no-quarter confrontation between jihadist and moderate Islam, in the struggle between the Islam that removes heads and the one whose adherents hold their heads high, it is the latter that now holds the advantage.

Of course, not everything will be settled after the Misrata militias take possession of the last buildings of the Ouagadougou Conference Center in Sirte.

It is reasonable to fear that, once dislodged from Sirte, the terrorists will disperse throughout the Bani Walid district or, more likely, back into the bordering countries from which many of them come.

But, as I say, the event has occurred.

With it, Daesh has been routed on a new front in the war it declared on the world.

And, whether or not we care to admit it, we owe this victory to the Chebabs, history’s waifs, people with no real memory of civil rights or political give and take, whose cause we can be proud to have embraced (but whom we then cut loose, going on to despair of their future on the pretext that their revolution was more disappointing than we had hoped).

In reality, the West made only one mistake in Libya, and that was not to have walked with these people a little further down the path toward the democracy to which they aspired and to which, it seems, they still aspire.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

At this moment, when it is so important to distinguish friend from foe, we owe it to ourselves to recognize in this segment of the Libyan people our companions in the struggle against the absolute evil of Daesh. Weapons in hand and at the cost of many lives, they have proclaimed, “No jihadists here! The caliphate has no place in Libya!”

Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy

 

 

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