Libya: “To intervene or not to intervene”… a Shakespearean perspective

  • By defencematters

One of the most well known of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet, is persecuted by a taunting indecisiveness, similar to that which world’s leaders are faced with when it comes to making a decision about Libya.

Stefania Coco Scalisi


Comparing Shakespeare - widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist - to the crisis in Libya may appear to some a stretch, to others even heresy. However, one of the most well known of Shakespeare’s characters, Hamlet, is persecuted by a taunting indecisiveness, similar to that which world’s leaders are faced with when it comes to making a decision about Libya.

The famous Shakespearean doubt “to be or not to be”, which torments Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, does not only concern the destiny of his family, irretrievably compromised by the choice of whether taking revenge over Claudius or not, it is also a choice which will determine the destiny of an entire country. As a matter of fact, at the end of the tragedy, when after a vengeful impetus all the members of the Danish royal family die, Fortinbras, King of Norway, will take the crown for himself.

The story of Hamlet, somehow recalls what is going on with Libya right now. The possible, widely announced, forthcoming attack in Libya brings along all the uncertainties and doubts the international community shows when it comes to dealing with the former Gaddafi realm. Western countries are debating on whether Italy, France or the US should have control of the operations, but major concerns should be addressed towards who is going to be the political counterpart of the operations in Libya. That’s because the green light for such an operation won’t only affect the terrorist groups that are raiding the country, but the future of the country itself. There are, indeed, at least three aspects to consider in case of an intervention in Libya.

First of all, intervening without an official request from the Libyan government is not only a violation of international law, but it is also a worrying signal of the confusion that dwells among western leaders about who to consider the rightful Libyan authority to discuss an intervention with. The world cheered last December when a draft unity government[i] resulted from the diverse mix of tribal groups fighting for their own interests. Hopes were high that the myriads of conflicts between local groups that supported either the Tripoli-based "Libya Dawn", or "Operation Dignity" in Beida and Tobruk in the east will be over.

But despite the fact that in early April a “unity” government arrived from the sea to hopefully take the lead of the country, the reluctance of the Tripoli parliament to recognize it as the rightful Libyan government does not suppress the fear that the agreement reached on December 16, 2015 might remain, in the long term, dead letter.

Acting now, without a clear understanding of who is going to take a decision on behalf of the Libyan people and who is going to rule after the military operation will be over, risks generating even more chaos in Libya. That’s because engaging into dialogue with one of the two rival parties or even worst, partnering with one of them to coordinate ground operations, will jeopardize the unification efforts so far sunk in the country. And the long term result of this choice will be even more dramatic: a country, once again torn in two. A country once again prone to become privileged stage of future terrorist actions.

A second aspect to consider is that a military intervention today may have spill over effects on neighbouring countries, above all Tunisia, which shares a porous border with Libya. Recent events in Tunisia prove the potential of security repercussions on it, which will jeopardize the democratic yet fragile transition of the country, probably the only one to have turned the Arab Spring’s movement into a success story, but which has lately undergone a massive wave of protests due to the high level of unemployment in the country.

If the morale among Tunisians is down, the security situation in the country is not brilliant either.

At the beginning of this week a triple terrorist attack out by Daesh supporters has shaken Ben Guerdane, a city in the South next to the Libyan border. More than 90 terrorists have been involved in an attack whose scope was to turn Ben Guerdane into a new Ramada, a safe haven for terrorists outside Libya. After days of fighting that left tenths on the ground, security forces have regained control of the city, which seems now free from any threat.

What happened in Ben Guerdane is only the last example of the risks the country, which is already experiencing an uncontrolled drain of youths joining Daesh in Libya[ii], will face in case of a military intervention in the neighbouring country. If Libya has become a terrorist pole of attraction after Daesh started losing grip in Syria under the Russian bombings, it is possible to imagine a similar course of action in case of Western bombings in Libya, to Tunisia’s detriment. Therefore Tunisia’s strong disagreement towards a military action seen as a temporary measure in a country that, in its view, may benefit more from a peaceful settlement than from bombings enemy lines comes as no surprise.

A third aspect to consider in case of an imminent military intervention, is the repercussion that it may have on the Libyan oil sector, already crippled by violence from Daesh. Before the violence, Libya was producing 1.6mn barrels of crude per day, but today production has fallen to less than 350,000 barrels daily, about a third of its normal capacity, and Daesh attacks have further heightened concerns about the collapse of the industry. For Daesh, the goal appears not to generate revenues from Libyan oil, as it has done in Syria and Iraq, but rather to sabotage the economy, making Libya even more unstable and taking advantage of the power vacuum to extend its influence. International oil companies, with the only exception of ENI, have left the country scared by the vortex of chaos that shakes it. To worsen the situation, the plummeting oil prices affecting the world producers as a whole, may lead Libya to state bankruptcy by the end of this year.

To conclude, it is important that the Western world has decided to do something in Libya because leaving the country facing its problem by itself will lead to a much foretold death. A death the West has not only the moral duty to avoid, but also the political and security necessity to fight with all its means, as it will mean leaving the country in the hands of Daesh and let the group build a stronghold near Europe’s doors.

However, there are some precautions to take before acting. First of all, it is necessary to push for the implementation of a real unity government as foreseen by the agreement reached between the members of the Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments and not of a puppet one whose scope might be only to officially “ask for” an international intervention. In doing so, the West will prove that its priority is to help Libya get out of trouble rather than only fight its battle against Daesh. Bombing will mean death and destruction for civilians, and it is inconceivable to ask for the support of the Libyan people without offering them a credible plan for their future. Without their support, the risk is that the military intervention may be seen as a Western takeover of the country. And that may paradoxically help Daesh gain support among young people and draw sympathetic fighters from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria as well as other countries via Libya’s porous borders.

Libya’s porous borders are also another aspect to consider before intervening in the country. To avoid a domino effect in the neighbouring countries, it is important that the West help these countries in securing their borders. This is essential above all for Tunisia, that risks to see all its efforts of becoming a mature democracy frustrated by an impair fight against growing attacks of Daesh runaways.

Finally, having a unity government in Libya will also mean having a unified national army, rather than its highly factionalized armed groups that remain locked in a multidimensional civil war. With a unified national army, the West could easily start training programs to strengthen their operation capabilities against Daesh, facilitate ground operations in case of a foreign military intervention and prepare the army to properly face new security challenges. This means giving the country a tool to protect its people and its resources, above all its critical energy infrastructures, their safe-conduct to a better and more prosperous future.

To sum up, the West should turn its urgency to intervene in Libya into political leverage against Libyan political factions. They should pressure the members of the Tripoli and Tobruk parliaments in implementing the agreement reached last December and get out from the political stalemate they have confined themselves to. Intervening now, without a clear understanding of who will be in charge of the country after Daesh’s defeat will leave the question “what future for Libya” unanswered. The risk is, that moved by the same sense of vengeance that led Hamlet to kill Claudius, Libya’s destiny will be the same as Denmark’s in the tragedy. But in this case, Fortinbras won’t be a friendly foreign king, but more likely chaos and civil war.


Stefania Coco Scalisi is a political risk consultant with experience with both the private and public sector. Already a Fulbright scholar, her interests span terrorism, energy security and international law.



[i] The agreement set forth the creation of a Presidential Committee that includes 6 personalities already indicated by the UN (the Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, three vice premiers Maetig Ahmed Fathi Majbri Koni and Musa, and the two ministers Aswad Omar and Mohamed Ammar). This original group has been joined by three other politicians, two representing the Fezzan, southern Libya, and one of Cyrenaica, the eastern part. The hard task this Committee will undergo, will be the creation of list of ministers who will ideally form the future unity government itself, which shall be approved and settle in Tripoli within 40 days from the sign of the agreement.

[ii] According to recent estimates, about 5000 Tunisians have joined Daesh in Libya. Main trigger of this phenomenon is the level of poverty and unemployment in the country, which has pushed many among its youngests to join the fight with the Islamic State.