Iraq, Gaza, South Sudan, CAR, Syria… it’s been dizzying keeping track of all the conflict and destruction around the world this summer. We’re here to add yet another country to that list, but also to push you higher up the ladder of understanding.

In the midst of widespread disarray in the Middle East, Libya hasn’t topped as many headlines, but the country has been convulsed by violence involving militias that spearheaded the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. As the country descends further into a potential civil war, the US embassy has evacuated their staff and Western countries have urged citizens to leave.

This week we talked to interruptor Mary Fitzgerald, an Irish journalist based in Libya, to get a sense of what the heck is going on, and why, ultimately, we should care.

Mary has reported from Libya for the Economist, the BBC, Foreign Policy, The New Yorker, the Financial Times and the Guardian. She is currently on a year’s sabbatical from her post as Irish Times foreign affairs correspondent. She began her career reporting on Northern Ireland before relocating to the Middle East. She has worked across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, reporting from countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Burma. In 2004 she was awarded the Laurence Stern Fellowship at the Washington Post. She is a contributing author to a book on the Libyan revolution and its aftermath to be published later this year by Hurst & Co.

Fun-fact: “I have a habit of ending up at weddings while on assignment. Weddings can tell you so much about a particular society and culture and for that reason I’m always delighted to get an invitation,” she says. “I have attended nuptials in countries including Ethiopia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Congo, all of which were fascinating in their rituals plus great occasions for gossip, often of high politics.”

FPI: What exactly is going on in Libya right now? Can you give us a diagnosis? A prognosis?

It all comes down to militias. Three years after the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year experiment in dictatorship, Libya’s greatest challenge is dealing with the constellation of militias that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising against him. I am constantly reminded of the words of a Libyan psychiatrist just after the fall of Tripoli in August 2011. As we watched jubilant rebel fighters fire shots in the air, he turned to me and said: “What are we going to do with all these young men when this is over, now that they have experienced the power of the gun?”

That question continues to haunt Libya. Its two main cities – Tripoli and Benghazi – are wracked by fighting between rival militias. A dramatic escalation in Tripoli over the past five weeks left scores dead, drove thousands from their homes and rendered the city’s international airport inoperable. Over the past year militiamen of various ideological hues, both Islamist and non, have:

  • briefly abducted the prime minister
  • blackmailed the head of parliament and repeatedly attacked its headquarters
  • kidnapped foreign diplomats to win concessions
  • blockaded eastern oil ports for almost 12 months, cutting off the country’s main source of revenue

Most militias are on the government’s payroll due to ill-fated decisions by the transitional authorities in the wake of Gaddafi’s ousting. Many have entangled themselves with politicians and criminal networks. Libya’s militia menace is such that an increasing number of ordinary citizens have become cynical about democracy, believing that real power is vested not in nascent state institutions but in armed groups that are a law unto themselves.

The prognosis is grim. Such is Libya’s descent into chaos that many Libyans are demanding some form of intervention by the countries that backed the NATO-led aerial operation that tipped the balance in the rebels’ favor in 2011.The newly elected parliament has voted to seek international assistance to “protect civilians” and deal with the militias. But there is little appetite to intervene in Libya – though recent airstrikes carried out by Egypt and the UAE on Islamist-aligned militias in Tripoli suggest regional actors engaged in a wider struggle with political Islam are more willing to act than Western powers.

UN attempts to mediate between the warring factions have so far come to nothing. Many Libyans fear years of low-level fighting, if not all-out civil war. Some are putting their hopes in a strongly worded UN resolution passed this week which extends sanctions to address the rising violence. This may result in militiamen who violate international law facing travel bans and asset freezes. Much depends on implementation of course but it certainly sends a signal that the days of impunity are over.

FPI: Libya hasn’t seized the same attention other countries and conflicts in the region have. Why do you think that’s the case? And why, ultimately, should people care about Libya’s fate?

For the small band of foreign journalists based in Libya, it is often a struggle to get editors interested in the story. Now and then, attention will be sparked by a particular incident – the recent militia fighting at Tripoli airport, for example – but other than that, Libya has been largely forgotten. You hear people complain that Libya is “too complicated” or that the story “never really changes very much.” It is also seen as too dangerous: some media organizations no longer allow their reporters travel to Benghazi and other parts of eastern Libya; others have withdrawn staff from the country altogether. It’s not just the media – Libyans regularly gripe that they feel the world abandoned them after the 2011 intervention. So much is happening elsewhere in the region – particularly Syria, Egypt, and Iraq– that is of far greater geopolitical importance. In the US, the political tempest over the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi has poisoned the wider conversation about Libya.

Why should people care about Libya’s fate? Given its location and porous borders, what happens in Libya has implications for the wider north Africa region, the Sahel and Europe. As we have already seen, an unstable Libya can lead to instability elsewhere.

FPI: How are we – the foreign policy community, the press – getting Libya wrong?

Too often I read reporting or analysis on Libya that tries to impose one-dimensional narratives that simply don’t fit, chief among them the notion that what is happening post-Gaddafi is essentially a struggle between “secularists” or “liberals” and “Islamists.” Libya is a broadly conservative society – it is not Egypt or Tunisia where such divides are more clearly defined. I have seen militias from some of the most conservative towns in Libya described as “liberal” just because they are battling those perceived to be “Islamist.” In fact, no political figure in Libya publicly self-identifies as “secular” or “liberal.” Similarly, there are a great many who want religion to play a significant role in public life – including forming the basis of the constitution– but bristle at being described as “Islamist.” Indeed, the “Islamist” label is often used to smear political opponents. It is not uncommon to find Libyan families that contain both liberal-leaning and more Islamist-oriented members. That is Libya’s complicated reality. What is happening is less an ideological battle than a scramble between competing interest groups rooted in regional, economic and social dynamics.

FPI: Any reading recs for those interested in learning more about the country?

Because access was so restricted during the Gaddafi era, there is a relative dearth of research on Libya. That is changing now. Those who regularly visit and are worth reading include German researcher Wolfram Lacher, Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council and Carnegie’s Frederic Wehrey, plus Claudia Gazzini of the International Crisis Group who is based in Tripoli.

Surprisingly few books have been written so far on the events of 2011. Lindsey Hilsum’s Sandstorm and Rana Jawad’s Tripoli Witness are both gripping journalistic accounts of the uprising. I have contributed to a forthcoming volume which examines what happened by tracing how different towns, communities and political currents participated in the revolution and helped mould the aftermath. 

I devour the work of Libyan novelists like Hisham Matar, Ahmed Fagih, Ibrahim al-Koni and Mansour Bushnaf, all of which are available in translation. Many of Libya’s novelists explore the nature of dictatorship and its effect on individuals. Reading their work adds context and deepens your understanding of how the Gaddafi years shaped Libya and its people.

It’s also worth dipping into Libya’s rambunctious social media. Almost every Libyan public figure – from politicians and militia leaders to prominent imams – is on Facebook but be wary of the country’s well-oiled rumour mill. A favorite of mine is the Humans of Tripoli page and its Benghazi equivalent.

On Twitter, you shouldn’t miss Hend Amry’s pithy observations and wisecracks.

FPI: What is your favorite thing about Libya?

First and foremost, the people. That dark sense of humor so many Libyans share in the most difficult of circumstances, particularly former political prisoners who spent years in Gaddafi’s jails. Many wear their experiences of that time lightly, even though they and their families suffered greatly. Libya is a fascinating place for journalists, partly because we had so little access to the country during Gaddafi’s 42 years in power. In order to understand Libya today, we need to understand what happened over those four decades. There are so many untold stories. Fresh details often slip out in the most innocuous everyday conversations. There is an intimacy to Libya due to its small population (just over 6 million) and tightly-knit society. It often seems there are only two or three degrees of separation. Living here can be inspiring and infuriating – often at the same time. Oh, and did I mention the wonderful macchiatos you can buy on almost every street corner? Libyans take their coffee very seriously.

FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interrupters?

Go boldly. If you’re interested in a particular region or country, go live there. Nothing can compare with that kind of first-hand knowledge. Too many self-described experts have spent little or no time in the places they profess to be specialists in. Don’t be intimidated by challenging environments. As a woman reporting in places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, I could wear a burqa or hijab to move around less conspicuously and interview women my male counterparts would not even be allowed to meet.