Reports about the presence of French Special Forces in Libya have started to emerge since February 2016. French newspaper Le Monde revealed at that time that a detachment was aiding the retired General Khalifa Haftar against Islamic State forces from a base at Benghazi airport. However since then the French government kept denying the existence of such forces or at best refusing to comment on such an involvement in Libya.
Yet the death of three Special Forces soldiers on 13 July in a helicopter crash forced François Hollande to admit their death after successive media reports. Social media activists from Libya as well as in France had widely circulated images from a Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter gunship and among the dead in the crew were white Europeans. The President appeared the day after to announce that ‘Three of our soldiers, who were involved in these operations, have been killed in a helicopter accident… they died during dangerous intelligence operations…”
What made the French government deny their death in the beginning and then confess the loss?
Before delving into any further details, some facts need clarification. Most important of which is that since the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Libya has been in a state of chaos. After five years of political turmoil, a unity government recently formed. However there currently exists a parallel government in the Eastern part of Libya led by retired general Khalifa Haftar. The latter does not recognise the legitimate government in Tripoli and has been engaged in a war with Daesh (IS) and other groups to control Benghazi.
Daesh has been attempting since 2011 to take control of parts of Libya due to its vast boarders as well as oil riches. The growing influence of this terror group as well as the military capability of Haftar and his followers have posed security challenges to the coalition government. As a consequence the country remains divided with no national army with sufficiently widespread capability to keep tight control of its vast boarders.
During the last few years, the initiatives to articulate a moderate yet efficient alternative to what has been perceived as ‘religious extremism’ in the region has become undoubtedly urgent. The development of the so called group Daesh is an illustration of how desperate this alternative must be urgently sought in Libya. The media have proven effective tools in the formation and development of Daesh. New technologies have extended the spaces of influence for the circulation and negotiation of their discourse. Such unprecedented conditions have led to the emergence of a multiplicity in religious authorities and the absence of a unified establishment able to earn an overwhelming legitimacy among the populace.
On another note, during the last few decades there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the emergence of Islamic groups. Among most of the research centres, academic quarters and policy making bodies this phenomenon has been given various terminologies such as ‘Islamic extremism’, ‘political Islam’, ‘radical Islam’, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘Islamism’, ‘Islamists’, ‘Islamic terrorism’ etc. The reasons for the development of such groups, including the challenges they pose, has been most of the time attributed to various problems that the Arab and Muslim world has been facing, but to some it has been considered a sign of a renewed clash of civilizations.
However I argue that, contrary to the claim that these groups emerged as part of de-westernization project in the region, in fact, they have gained credibility due to the absence of a thriving civil society in parts of Arab world which is willing to open up the opportunity for freedom of expression and organization and accommodate diverse ideological and religious differences. Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt are cases in point. Such dictatorships ruling them in the region have been considered not only stumbling blocks towards modernisation and development but they also constituted total failures even in their attempts to develop their countries economically, politically and technologically following the Western liberal model.
What is certain is that helping the wrong parties in Libya, i.e. General Khalifa Haftar and his gang, will further the destabilisation of Libya. The Libyan people protested last week against the French intervention for this very reason. What they are calling for is that European powers should pledge their support to the legitimate government, militarily or otherwise. Haftar has been simply on the opposite site of political legitimacy.
France has been facing horrific attacks on its soil during the last few weeks. Extremist groups such as Daesh are reportedly responsible for nurturing the perpetrators. The barbaric attack targeting worshippers in one of Paris churches on 26 July is another horrific crime against peaceful civilians.
One can argue that the foreign policy of France should probably be reconsidered. It has become evident in various part of the Arab world that terrorism does not thrive in a democratic atmosphere. Daesh and its associates are doomed to fail if democracy, justice and freedom of speech prevail in the war-torn countries of the Arab region.
This article was first published by thepeninsulaqatar.com.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.