ISIS sympathisers in Libya are a small, surrounded minority but Europe could start “feeling the heat” of the problems besieging the North African neighbour if it remains passive, Sakharov prize laureate Ahmed Al-Senussi has warned.
“You shouldn’t be so surprised (that ISIS has found a foothold in Libya) because the reality is that there a lot of foreign fighters inside the country because our borders are completely open at the moment,” Mr Al-Senussi says.
The soft-spoken 80-year-old was in Malta last Friday to deliver a lecture organised by the European Parliament office in Malta, as a laureate of the prestigious Sakharov prize for freedom of speech, which was conferred to him in 2011 for his contribution to the Arab Spring.
His struggle started well before the wave of protest reverberated across North African and the Middle East in 2010. Mr Al-Senussi spent 31 years in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 1970. Nine of those long years were spent in solitary confinement, in a cell so small he could not stand upright in it.
He appears comfortable speaking about this period, despite it having been punctuated by so much personal tragedy – his wife died while he was in prison and he only got to know the news years after her death.
However, he says that would rather be explaining the situation in Libya because he says right now it is nowhere near as important as talking about the period he spent in prison.
His cautionary words, in effect, come at a critical time. Earlier this month, the Pentagon confirmed that it had its sights on an ISIS “training camp” in Derna, a coastal city of about 100,000 people in Eastern Libya, a few hundred kilometres from the border with Egypt and the shores of the EU.
“Given its geography, Derna provides a safe refuge for extremists because it is hard to access. And I say it is a safe refuge because the role of the State is absent.”
He underscores that most Libyans in the region are against extremism.
“Even the inhabitants of Derna do not support them but they are obviously living under the threat of their knife. But I would say that the vast majority of people in Barqa – a region comprising Derna, the Eastern city of Benghazi and some other towns – are against them, so in a way they are surrounded.”
When you are trying to get out of the clasp of a 42-year dictatorship, you are bound to pay a high price for it
However, he is insistent that Europe should stop being passive about the general situation in his country. “We appreciate the European role in the revolution… as well as that of the Americans but after Gaddafi fell, you gave up on us. Gaddafi left no institutions behind him. We were in a completely different situation to Tunisia and Egypt for instance, which are institutional States, so we faltered.”
Libya, he says, does not need military intervention, but the EU should play a part in helping the country build the State from scratch, as it had done in Kosovo.
Following a stint of about a year, in which it looked as though Libya might be transitioning into a democracy relatively quickly, the country has descended into a civil war that sees a multitude of militias fighting each other.
There are two governments and two parliaments, one grouping operating from the East, in Tobruk, and the other from the West, in the capital Tripoli, both claiming to be the legitimate representative of the revolution.
Many felt betrayed by the fact that former Gaddafi cronies and others who, he says, simply emulated his rapacious style of politics, “climbed over the shoulders of the rebels to become famous, to obtain money or power or both without offering any real leadership”.
Still, when asked for his reaction to those who say that Gaddafi was right when he said Libya would descend into chaos if he had to go, Mr Al-Senussi smiles wryly and shakes his head.
“Every tyrant says the country they rule would be lost without them. (Hosni) Mubarak said it in Egypt, Zine el-Abedin (Ben Ali) said it in Tunisia. It was obvious that the overthrow would be messy given that Gaddafi left no institutions behind. So though what he was saying may have been right it does not mean he was right for the country,” he says.
“When you are trying to get out of the clasp of a 42-year dictatorship, you are bound to pay a high price for it.”
A relative of Idris, Libya’s former king, who was overthrown by Gaddafi in 1969, Mr Al-Senussi is advocating the establishment of a federalist State that would give a level of autonomy to the three regions that make up the country.
He is also calling for a return to the 1951 Constitution, which was the first piece of legislation to entrench the rights of citizens following the creation of the Libyan state after the Second World War. However, he insists that his is not a call for the return of the monarchy. The shape the Libyan state should take should be decided by a referendum, he argues.
Given the current situation in Libya, it is hard to imagine how the warring factions could be brought to even start discussing such proposals.
However, he is resolutely optimistic, which in certain respects should not come as a surprise given that he persevered with his political vision over the years despite the bleak situation.
“I never lost hope. Not when I was incarcerated or even after the revolution, when colleagues of mine were being assassinated by people who had seized power, and I was sort of waiting for my turn. The chaos and the killing will not deter the people who love freedom from forging ahead. Freedom is worth it,” he says.
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