Last week, an extraordinary downpour in eastern Libya led to the bursting of two dams. Then, metres high waters raced through central Derna destroying buildings and sweeping thousands away to their deaths. The natural human reaction is to see this as an unlucky tragedy and express genuine sympathy for the victims. Both Western and Islamic societies will invariably rally together to give relief aid. Yet our natural human response, and that of our political leaders, misses the real issue.
The tragedy in Derna and many seemingly disparate daily human disasters (from Canadian and Hawaiian wildfires, to Pakistani floods, to drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean and the English Channel) are actually all symptoms of our new era, which I term the Global Enduring Disorder. Libya is a perfect microcosm to observe these current trends: the floods were exacerbated by Global Warming. Countries like Libya have subsidised petrol and provided free electricity to consumers. While in the Global North we are trying to tax petrol and carbon emissions, we frequently condone regimes that massively subsidise fossil fuel consumption.
Today’s Libya exists in the Hobbesian state of nature – there is no law and order, no enforceable building regulations, no effort to charge what things really cost, and hardly any functional emergency services. Libya’s dysfunction is made worse by the fact that a divided international system backs opposing actors and pulls the country in contradictory directions.
Monday’s floods were as tragic as they were predictable. Derna is one of the least governed spaces on earth. Its location relative to potential flood waters coming down the Green Mountain has been known for centuries.
Yes, Derna is under 300 miles from Greece, but it has been a long-running hotspot of jihadi recruitment. Although the city strongly supported the rebellion against Gaddafi in 2011, by 2012 it was beyond the control of the post-Qadhafi National Transitional Council. Ansar al-Sharia blocked residents voting in multiple elections. Then in 2014, the Islamic Youth Shura Council announced its support for ISIS and helped it take over the city.
By 2015, Al-Qaeda linked forces had displaced ISIS. From 2016-2018, a multipronged civic war between different jihadi factions and the Libyan National Army (LNA) tore the city apart. The LNA – led by the rogue General Khalifa Haftar – then established a semblance of despotic control, devoid of any interest in the welfare of their enemies.
In 2020, roughly 10 million dollars were allocated towards fixing the dams that held the waters back from the edge of Derna’s cliff. Yet due to inefficiencies and no doubt also to corruption, those allocated funds were never spent. Over the last few weeks, there have been heightened tensions in Derna with LNA-linked groups reportedly intimidating candidates for the municipal elections, forcing them to be postponed. Given the city’s history, it should come as no surprise that reports are circulating that the mayor of Derna asked the LNA for permission to evacuate the city when the storm hit. Yet, the LNA must have preferred its iron grip to the population’s welfare.
So, as we contemplate this tragically avoidable catastrophe, we must grapple with the Global Enduring Disorder itself. It isn’t that no one cares about justice and human life. It isn’t that Libyans and their allies lack money to repair dams, build safer houses, coordinate evacuations, or provide relief aid. Rather, we haven’t fostered the kind of political systems that promote compromises, rigorously supervise their enforcement, and actively confront the enemies of an ordered world.
Jason Pack is the Host of the Disorder Podcast and Author of ‘Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder’