When I covered Libya’s revolution in 2011, I had a driver named Mashallah. Mashallah was a decent and stoical man with an interesting propensity for malapropisms. He was regarded with fondness by us journalists — so when I decided to return to Libya recently, I sent him an email: did he want to work for me again?
Unfortunately, replied Mashallah, he was in Paris. This seemed strange. How would he have got a French visa? I emailed again suggesting another week and received another profound apology. That week he was going on to Ankara and Istanbul.
A quick look online solved the mystery. My former driver Mashallah Zwai is now oil minister in the new Islamist Libyan government (this makes him powerful, since oil is the only asset Libya possesses) and furthermore, the de facto national security adviser. Mashallah had even been offered and turned down the post of prime minister.
All the more reason to meet up with my old friend, which I did in his sizeable office in Tripoli. Mashallah dresses in a smart suit these days and his malapropisms have almost disappeared. He was particularly pleased to see me, he said, because he had a message for David Cameron: he must start dealing with the new Libyan government, the Islamist one, or else the migrant crisis will only get worse.
For those who haven’t followed the course of recent events in Libya, here’s a brief account: during post-Gaddafi elections, the Islamic parties — in coalition under the name Libya Dawn — dominated parliament, but they officially lost at the polls last year. They disputed the result and Libya Dawn set up a government in Tripoli. Meanwhile the coalition that claimed victory set up a rival government in the east, first in a car ferry off Tobruk and then a hotel near the city.
The West recognises the Tobruk government and considers Libya Dawn to be illegitimate and run by extremists. The trouble with this is that the Tobruk government is relatively powerless. Libya Dawn controls most of the country and, crucially, the two main ports used by the people-traffickers. Now that the migrant crisis has flared up and Cameron has said that he wants to tackle it, Libya Dawn are the obvious people to deal with.
‘Do I seem like a member of Taleban or Daesh (Isis), do my colleagues, are we terrorists?’ Mashallah asked me. ‘All we want is for the West to talk to us. We are ones fighting Isis in Sirte. Surely it makes sense to help us tackle this rather than all this talk about bombing us? We need western help, and investment in the oil industry, we are open to that.’
Libya Dawn is not a terrorist organisation, but there are certainly reasons to be nervous of it. One of its allied militias, Ansar al-Sharia, has extremist links, and some of its members are believed to have taken part in the killing of Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, in Benghazi three years ago. But alliances form and fall apart in the changing pattern of Libya’s conflict, and it’s true that Ansar are now fighting against Isis.
After I left Mashallah, I met Libya Dawn’s leader and prime minister, Khalifa al-Ghweil, who was also anxious to help the British government understand the real situation in Libya and how to best thwart people traffickers. ‘The answer is not to carry out unauthorised attacks to bomb boats, but to take part in dialogue with us, so we can solve this problem which concerns both us and Europe,’ he said.
The Central Illegal Migrants Unit was located 300 yards away from Mr Ghweil’s office. Colonel Nasser Hazm, in charge, had processed 3,000 women and men, children and elderly people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, in the previous three months. Another 3,000 had left Libya for Europe in the past three weeks. EU military intervention, he insisted, would be ‘bullshit. Think about it. There’s no point in blowing up empty boats because boats are easy to replace. And what would be the international reaction if they kill refugees while blowing up boats? The Europeans want to carry out land operations in Libya? Well, good luck!’
At the port of Misrata, Colonel Rida Benissa, the commander of Libya’s coastguards, told me about the international reach of the migrant-smuggling network and showed me transcripts of conversations between Libyans and the Italian gangsters who co-ordinate the people-trafficking. Colonel Benissa acknowledged that the smugglers were taking advantage of corruption in Libya, but complained about lack of co-operation from Europe. ‘We had just eight patrol boats,’ he said. ‘Four were sent to Italy for repairs and impounded because the EU does not recognise our government.’
Colonel Benissa echoes the words of both Mashallah and his prime minister: the West must deal with Libya Dawn if it wants to achieve anything. ‘This situation could be resolved if the Europeans trained us, lent us equipment, boats, gave us information from satellites. But this does not happen.’
Libya Dawn may have a point about the Tobruk government’s impotence, but it became clear to me also that the trade in humans is far too lucrative to be resolved easily. I visited the coastal city of Zuwara, where I met Zouhar, a 23-year-old from an impoverished background who was now making $200,000 a month.
Zouhar’s syndicate sends one shipment of migrants a week, mainly Syrians with a few Palestinians and Tunisians, earning around $185,000 a trip. It is a low-risk business: the Libyan traffickers never get on the boats, which are crewed by passengers given rudimentary training. A second, faster boat shadows the one carrying the migrants part of the way and when they’re nearing Italian territorial waters, they call the Italian coastguards.
‘We always use good boats and we leave the passengers in good condition, we have a 90 per cent success rate on delivery,’ said Zouhar with professional pride. ‘Why should we stop?’
Back in Tripoli, Mashallah agreed that people-smuggling is a huge and complicated problem, tricky to solve even if the West sees sense. ‘It is difficult to carry out raids, these gangs are very well armed. Did you ever think when we were reporting on the revolution, there would be such a mess?’ he asked me. ‘I didn’t think the Europeans and the Americans would simply walk away afterwards leaving this mess.’
It’s not the first time the West has walked away from a land they supposedly liberated, leaving a mess, I pointed out. At some point, Libya will have to sort out its problems on its own. Mashallah looked gloomy, as if the burden of office weighed heavily upon him.