Could Derna tragedy trigger a national reconciliation in Libya?
Everywhere in the flood-stricken eastern Libyan city of Derna, there is a feeling of absolute tragedy for those lost, a feeling of dread for those missing and a sense of despair for those who survived. However, though divided, the governing forces of Libya have agreed to put their differences aside for now in order to deal with the calamity that has hit their country. But will Libya’s fate as a failed state change in a way that will unleash its potential to rebuild itself or edge closer to offering its people stability and working institutions that could oversee their well-being and prosperity and ward off future predictable disasters?
It has been more than a week since nature, maybe compounded by global warming, and neglect — the failure of the pre- and post-revolution authorities to maintain flood barriers and dams — combined to leave this long-neglected part of Libya prone to the wrath of flash flooding caused by Storm Daniel. Thousands are dead and many more are missing after the torrent flattened entire neighborhoods before the entire population of the city — estimated to be more than 120,000 — could take the necessary measures to flee or shield themselves.
Derna lies in a wadi 900 km east of the capital Tripoli and, like any Mediterranean city, is prone to seasonal storms like Daniel, which bear the features of tropical cyclones and hurricanes and are known as “Medicanes.” While scientists usually avoid making any direct link between individual weather events and long-term climate change, Storm Daniel is yet another storm of the type we should expect to see more of. Its devastating effects match with the EU’s climate-monitoring service Copernicus’ repeated warnings that rising global sea surface temperatures are driving record levels of heat across the globe, with 2023 likely to be the warmest in human history. And climate change-linked extreme weather events tend to be deadliest in strife-torn and poor countries that lack good infrastructure, early warning systems and strong emergency response services, exactly like what happened in Derna.
Derna’s disaster was also the result of more than a decade of bloody battles and power struggles between Libya’s various forces
Derna’s infrastructure is dilapidated, with many buildings put up over the last decade flouting basic planning regulations. The city also suffered from a lack of preparation for unanticipated disasters such as this one, which has transformed it into a vast cemetery.
Derna’s disaster was also the result of more than a decade of bloody battles and power struggles between Libya’s various forces, which are allied to rival domestic, regional and international actors. They inherited the country from the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who ruled the country for more than 40 years, but they have failed to find a consensus to share power and the vast oil resources of a relatively homogeneous country, which is now considered a failed state due to its limitless number of militias and political actors.
Libya is currently ruled by two main rival administrations, one based in Tripoli in the west, which is the so-called Government of National Unity, and another that controls large parts of the flood-ravaged east of the country and is controlled by the military strongman Khalifa Haftar. A ceasefire agreed in 2020 did at least bring to an end an attempt by the troops of the old national armed forces to reunify the country, after it failed to capture the capital Tripoli.
In the absence of a domestic consensus, and amid an international vacuum on the multilateral level due to the complicated geopolitical divisions that were made more prominent after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Libyans in Derna can only hope for help to bury their dead, find some of their missing and maybe enough donations to repair some destroyed key infrastructure, such as reconnecting the stricken region to clean, unpolluted water.
Libyans now have an opportunity to turn this disaster into a catalyst to refocus efforts to bring to an end the years of violence
Like under Qaddafi, Derna has suffered from neglect. It was seen by the previous regime as a hotbed of dissent. After Qaddafi’s removal, the area suffered from being in the hands of Daesh. Later, the group’s affiliates were driven out by force by Haftar. But as in every failed state suffering from civil strife, infrastructure investment lurked at the bottom of the list of priorities. Derna has now paid the price for this.
Disasters often bring people together and one hopes this one might push the rival parties and their backers — from Russia, Turkiye, Egypt, the Gulf states and beyond — to put their differences aside and redouble their efforts to unify Libya in a way that better protects the country and its people from future calamities.
Libya does not lack resources. It is not poor, like so many other unfortunate failed states in the region. If the Libyan power-brokers manage to set aside their differences and unify their efforts not only to rebuild Derna, but all parts of their nation, then the country might be able to turn this disaster and the subsequent suffering into an opportunity.
Many have said that what the world witnessed in Libya last week was an example of how a small natural disaster can dramatically impact a failed state. Libyans are now at a crossroads, with an opportunity to turn this disaster into a catalyst to refocus efforts to bring to an end the country’s years of violence, destruction and discord, and find a path to reconciliation and stability.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.