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How corruption within Libya's warring factions worsened the impact of floods

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are calls for accountability in the city of Derna, Libya, after devastating floods there killed more than 11,000 people, according to Libyan authorities. Storm Daniel broke through two poorly maintained dams last week and swept away entire neighborhoods. Of course, Libya is divided by warring factions that are vying for power and wealth in that oil-rich economy where corruption can be rife. Alia Brahimi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council who researches Libya. Thank you for being with us.

ALIA BRAHIMI: My pleasure.

SIMON: Who's in charge of Derna?

BRAHIMI: The country's been divided for almost a decade now geographically, so that in the west you have a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. And in the east, you have a rival parliament that's controlled by a warlord named Khalifa Hifter, and it's his authorities that are in charge in Derna. These two sides in their repression and their activities, they actually look a lot like each other and like the Gadhafi regime. The prime minister in the west was never elected. He was appointed to bring the country to elections, and he's essentially refused to do that. And he relies on some fearsome militia groups to stay in power. And in the east, where Derna is, you have what is effectively a police state under Khalifa Hifter and his sons, backed by Russia. And they're sort of now securitizing that relief effort in Derna. And then the tenure of both sides, as you intimate, is underwritten by eye-watering levels of theft and of corruption.

SIMON: Yeah. You say eye-watering levels. What kinds of corruption?

BRAHIMI: Plundering of state institutions by politicians systematically and the militias that keep them in power. And then alongside this, you have the smuggling of humans, drugs, fuel and weapons on a colossal scale. So many Libyans actually call it a gangster state.

SIMON: And how did this complicate flood recovery?

BRAHIMI: Well, you know, corruption is the defining feature of the modern Libyan state, and it sort of suffuses everything. As you describe, it explains why the two dams that unleashed the violent wall of water that deluged Derna - why they hadn't been maintained. And then you have the corruption of the mayor and the municipal authorities who essentially pilfered state budgets and kind of mired the city in mismanagement and neglect. And this decimated the city's defenses to the violence of the storm. But there's an even more profound and sinister framework of corruption that kind of encases all of this in eastern Libya, which is the military rule in the eastern part of the country, where General Khalifa Hifter styles himself after Gadhafi and aspires to basically a dictatorship. So they have a stranglehold over the economy, which is one thing. But the other is that they've weaponized development, and they kept Derna in a state of deliberate collapse as punishment for resisting Hifter's consolidation of power over the east. And now we're seeing their leadership philosophy, you know, in full bloom, where they've imposed a media blackout. They're preventing people from assembling because they have protested, and they're arresting grieving protesters.

SIMON: So this kind of enforced suffering probably made the damage of the flooding worse and makes recovery even harder.

BRAHIMI: That's absolutely correct. And I think the final reckoning will demonstrate that. In some ways what happened is a story about Derna itself. Derna is an ancient city. It's historically an intellectual center. All that changed under Gadhafi because its intellectuals and thinkers resisted his rule and the city was severely punished. As elsewhere in the Middle East, when all the liberal or secular intellectuals are killed or flee, the only idiom of opposition left is Islamism. So Derna became a key city for the Islamist resistance to Gadhafi and then now to the new Gadhafi, Khalifa Hifter. And so it was bombed and collectively punished, and once Hifter had finally subdued it five years ago, there was no way he was going to rebuild it.

SIMON: Are Western countries not implicated in any way?

BRAHIMI: You know, in Libya, there are no overarching ideological struggles, really. There's no sectarianism. It's fairly homogenous. It should not be this divided and dysfunctional. And that is the work of the political class who are right now two families. And they've sort of sucked all the air out of the room since 2011. And we continue to defer to them as the West and as the international community. And why are they doing it? They're doing it for fiefdoms, for power and for money. So I think the West has to stop that notion - that because they are Libyan, they speak for Libyans has to stop. I think we need to start using some sticks when it comes to their vast wealth they've accumulated and sort of shining a light on their misdeeds and holding them to account and basically reminding them that nobody's fooled.

SIMON: Authorities say there is going to be an investigation into what happened during the floods. You have any confidence in that?

BRAHIMI: I wouldn't have any confidence in a local investigation. You know, the attorney general, again, is fairly formidable, known as incorruptible, but he lacks the resources and the expertise, quite frankly, and the support domestically to affect an investigation worthy of the victims and the scale of the catastrophe. An international investigation I think would be hugely welcome in Libya, and it would reaffirm that they haven't been forgotten as Libyans, but also the dead from this particular event. There was one angry and despairing resident who recently - he posted a video online, and he said, these people don't fear God, but they fear the camera. You know, we need to get that camera rolling. And I think an independent, impartial, technical, international investigation could represent that kind of camera.

SIMON: Alia Brahimi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRAHIMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.