If you ask Libya’s highest-ranking diplomat in the United States to describe the February 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi, don’t expect a detached, scholarly dissertation about the triumph of democracy over dictatorship.
No, Wafa Bugaighis actually lived it. From her Benghazi residence only a few blocks from the epicenter of anti-government protests, she saw the bloodshed, smelled the tear gas and heard the screams as Qaddafi’s henchmen attacked anyone opposed to his 42-year regime of repression.
“On Feb. 15, a group of women whose sons were in prison took to the street, calling for the release of the lawyer defending their sons in jail,” Bugaighis recalled. “They were crying, ‘Wake up, wake up Benghazi, the day you have been waiting for so long has finally come!’ Those were very tense days. We followed the revolution minute by minute. We lived in horror and fear.
“Women started banging on the cars, screaming and shouting in front of the security building, not far away from my house. Suddenly hundreds of people took to the streets. The protesters grew in numbers and everybody was repeating the same slogan. Then a group of thugs confronted the demonstrators with weapons,” Bugaighis said.
“On Feb. 17, after two days of confrontation, the city was liberated. But we lost a lot of lives. On the 18th I was in the hospital volunteering and saw young people who had been attacked with anti-aircraft missiles. Even the doctors were in shock. They had never seen anything like it. I still have trauma from those times.”
The trauma back home has not subsided. After rebels, supported by NATO airstrikes, ousted Qaddafi and set up a transitional government, there was an initial period of optimism that Libya, with its vast oil wealth, could become an Arab Spring success story. But the North African nation descended into lawlessness as clashes broke out between warring militias and power split between an elected government that has set up camp in the east of the country and a self-declared rival parliament led by Islamist-aligned groups that have seized Tripoli.
International mediation to create a unity government has so far failed to bring the two sides together; fighting has crippled the country’s energy-dependent economy; and Libyans are fleeing in droves, creating a humanitarian disaster that is often overshadowed by crises in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Islamic State and militants associated with al-Qaeda have tried to capitalize on the power vacuum to gain a foothold in Libya, threatening to further destabilize the region.
Bugaighis, whose father was a general in the Libyan Army under King Idris (the man Qaddafi overthrew in 1969), is a 1987 graduate of the George Washington University. She’s headed the Libyan Embassy here as chargé d’affaires since December 2014, having spent nearly two years as Libya’s deputy minister for political affairs, and as acting foreign minister for a few months last year.
She now hopes to be named ambassador, even as war continues unabated and her government has little control over the embattled country.
“My appointment is an indication of women’s empowerment by the elected House of Representatives. The current situation is very critical and requires sending somebody here with experience,” said Bugaighis, 51, explaining that as deputy minister, she headed committees dealing with border security and other key portfolios.
“Libya is a very rich country, but when you go there, you think you’re in one of the world’s poorest countries,” she lamented. “My dream was to build a democratic nation that promotes human rights, education, quality of life and a fair distribution of Libya’s wealth, where every part of the country could benefit. But soon after our liberation, political divisions started to rise on the surface and it took us by surprise.”
Those divisions have emerged along a complex web of ethnic, tribal, geographic and ideological lines “against the backdrop of a hardening Islamist versus non-Islamist narrative,” wrote Andrew Engel, a former research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Following the revolution, many Libyans dreamed — not unrealistically — of their country developing along the lines of Persian Gulf states with similarly small populations and abundant natural resources,” he said. “Yet Libya has since become a failed state in what could be a prolonged period of civil war.”
With some 430,000 of Libya’s 6 million inhabitants either internally displaced or seeking refuge abroad, according to the United Nations, the country now has two competing parliaments: the democratically elected House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk, and a resurrected General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, which Engel calls “an entity dominated by Islamists and with a long-expired mandate.”
Bugaighis said various warring factions attending the recent talks in Morocco supervised by U.N. special envoy Bernardino León agreed on a framework for peace, but that a key player — the GNC — isn’t part of that draft accord. (The group boycotted the signing over lingering disputes, but U.N. officials still hope to bring it on board for the next round of negotiations.)
“There’s a lot of polarization among my people between the elected, internationally recognized government in Tobruk and the other government in Tripoli,” Bugaighis said. “We’re hoping the current peace talks will end this polarization because we cannot live with this any more.”
The outspoken Bugaighis, who last visited Libya in October 2014, talked with The Washington Diplomat for two hours at her official residence on Wyoming Avenue. Ali Aujali, the last ambassador to live here, resigned in February 2011 after years of defending — and then disowning and denouncing — the Qaddafi regime.
Asked for his take on the current situation back home and what Bugaighis might do about it, Aujali said “this is a very serious crisis. What’s going on is unbelievable.”
“The person now in charge of Libyan-American relations should be constantly in contact with the U.S. government and Congress, explaining what’s happening and telling them frankly what we need from them,” said Aujali, who, like Bugaighis, is from Benghazi but doesn’t know her well. “The person in charge should ask the U.S. to play its role responsibly. The Americans supported the revolution in the first place, and now it’s crucial for them to support the formation of a new government — and to stand firm against the people opposing this agreement.”
Aujali added that “being soft” when negotiating with radicals is pointless.
“I don’t hear a strong voice from the United States about what’s going on in Libya. They should speak firmly and loudly if they really want to help the Libyan people out of this crisis,” the retired diplomat suggested. “We have an army fighting terrorists in the entire country, and this army cannot fight with words. They need weapons. Discussion by itself does not help if we have no strong support from the international community. That’s the only choice we have now.”
The terrorists Aujali despises are Islamic State fighters (also known as ISIS) who have established a beachhead in Libya, far from the group’s original strongholds of Iraq and Syria.
The situation is “very critical, very dire,” said Bugaighis. “We need to reach a political situation very soon. We were hoping to reach consensus on a government of national accord so that we can utilize international help, especially recently with the presence of ISIS in Libya.”
Many fear that Libya has become fertile training ground for militants looking to stage attacks in neighboring countries. One suspect in the June 26 terrorist attack in the Tunisian tourist town of Sousse that killed 38 people reportedly trained in Libya.
Bugaighis warned that extremism doesn’t recognize borders. “We now have two stable countries as neighbors: Tunisia, an example of success, and Egypt, which is paving its way forward. However, the one shared, common element is terrorism. Egypt is threatened, Tunisia is threatened — and Libya is right in the middle.”
Bugaighis estimates that the Islamic State has about 3,000 fighters in Libya, including many locals but also Tunisians, Saudis and others.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from. They have a lot of resources and very modern, new weapons, but ISIS is not socially accepted at all,” she told The Diplomat. “Libyans are conservative Muslims, but with no extremism whatsoever. It’s a moderate society. That’s why ISIS will not be able to thrive. We need to confront them, but we can’t do it alone. We need international collaboration. However, we don’t want any solution that will trigger more extremism. We don’t want it to become a call for jihadists. We want to empower our national forces to confront the terrorists.”
She said this international help should be confined to intelligence sharing, monitoring the Mediterranean Sea and enforcing laws in other countries to prevent the transfer of arms to Libya.
But Libya is already awash in arms, its borders are porous and it can be nearly impossible for outsiders to decipher the shifting loyalties among different factions who capitalize more on convenience than religion.
In early June, for example, Islamic State militants were expelled from the eastern city of Derna by the Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), a militia linked to al-Qaeda. After the Islamic State opened fire on civilians opposing its rule, the DMSC tacitly joined forces with the Libyan National Army — affiliated with the government in Tobruk — and drove the Islamic State out of Derna.
While seemingly a victory for the central government, the alliance, like so many others in Libya, is likely fleeting. The DMSC, which has its own extremist ideology, tolerated the Islamic State until the group turned on its fighters.
Mohamed Eljarh, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argues that truly sustainable peace and stability require the creation of a state-sanctioned force to protect Derna from all threats.
“After that, the internationally recognized government in Tobruk or a future Government of National Accord (as recently proposed by United Nations mediators) would help to set up a local administration to run the affairs of the city and bring it back under state control,” Eljarh wrote June 24 in Foreign Policy. “Most importantly, the Libyan authorities and international organizations should work to create an environment in which civil society organizations can flourish, a key precondition for countering extremist ideology.”
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center, calls Bugaighis a “very passionate” diplomat who intends to do exactly that.
“She has worked tirelessly to spread the word on the necessity for Libya to reach an agreement and put an end to this horrible situation,” said the Libyan-born Mezran. “The difference [between Bugaighis and her predecessor] is probably in the style a woman brings to the table. Ali [Aujali] was more cold and distant. Even during the revolution, he couldn’t do much because he was the representative of the Qaddafi regime. Wafa is the representative of an elected government in a very difficult political moment, so she needs to be passionate and active — and determined in trying to foster a solution.”
As such, Mezran said Bugaighis has the backing of her government, but that “the government is weak, very divided and fragmented.”
Even so, he insisted, “She should become the ambassador. There is no reason for her to be chargé d’affaires. She’s fluent in English and has engaged every single diplomat that has anything to do with Libya or the Middle East, and I have not heard any negative comments from anyone so far.”
Bugaighis also worked closely with Deborah Jones, who became U.S. ambassador to Libya after her predecessor, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed in a 2012 firefight in Benghazi. That attack sparked a Republican political assault against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that has shown no sign of abating. (On July 7, Obama nominated Peter Bodde, currently U.S. ambassador to Nepal, to replace Jones.)
“She did her best to help us,” Bugaighis said of Jones, who has been running the embassy from the nearby Mediterranean island of Malta for security reasons. “Everybody is now in Tunisia, and your embassy is moving to Tunisia as well. It’s very unfortunate, but it’s because of the deteriorating situation. They do visit Tobruk every now and then. We’re hoping they’ll come back some day.”
But that won’t be any time soon, Mezran predicted.
“Most of the foreign ambassadors are in Tunis,” he said. “I’m very pessimistic — even if an agreement is signed and a new government of national unity is formed — that full security can be guaranteed in Tripoli and all the foreign diplomats can come back before six to eight months.”
In some respects, Bugaighis is already acting as a full-fledged ambassador.
“I am not waiting for an appointment to make a difference. The appointment is just protocol,” she said. “The minute I arrived here, I made a plan to reform the embassy’s financial and administrative procedures. We have achieved a lot of progress.”
The embassy, which employs 29 people, is located on the third floor of the Watergate building. But there’s also a military attaché on the fourth floor, an educational office on the fifth and a consulate on the seventh.
“Our size has tripled since the revolution. One of the reforms I’m looking at is to move into a building. This would save us a lot of money,” she said, estimating that monthly rent would drop from the current $63,000 to around $30,000. Just changing the embassy’s health insurance plan has saved her government $600,000 a year, she noted.
David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said Bugaighis is “smart and articulate” in English as well as her native Arabic.
“She has done an exemplary job of representing her country at a very difficult time,” said Mack, whose diplomatic assignments included Libya as well as Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. “While she is a loyal spokesperson for the internationally recognized governing bodies in Tobruk and Bayda — to whom she owes her appointment to Washington — she has also been realistic about the need for a government of national accord which engages other political actors.”
Mack told The Diplomat that Bugaighis “has worked effectively with various parts of the U.S. government while also dealing with public audiences and NGOs that support a better future for Libya.”
To that end, she said the U.S. government “has been very supportive” in recognizing her mission, and that “there’s no vagueness here.”
“If we have a government of national unity, a security plan will be implemented immediately,” she told us. “That plan is essential to the success of our government. I’m in constant touch with the State Department, the White House and the National Security Council. We have a dire humanitarian crisis in Libya.”
For one thing, Bugaighis said, Libyan oil production has fallen from 1.6 million barrels a day to just 250,000 barrels a day — a catastrophe for a country that depends on petroleum for 98 percent of its foreign exchange.
“We have a lot of smuggling in Libya now — drugs, arms, illegal immigration. I’m sure terrorists are also benefitting from this kind of business,” she said. “Hopefully if we can secure our oil fields, we’ll start producing oil at high rates again and get Libya on the proper economic track.”
In the meantime, Bugaighis, who for over 18 years worked as a chemical engineering specialist in Benghazi, has met with a number of American oil companies that were making money in Libya before fighting broke out, and are ready to go back as soon as the situation allows. With help from the U.S.-Libya Business Association, she’s been pushing passage of a bilateral trade and investment framework agreement that was signed in December 2013 but never activated. Also on her agenda: signing an accord with the Overseas Private Insurance Corp. to guarantee U.S. investments in Libya.
“You cannot have security without a strong economy. We need to create jobs for hundreds of thousands of young people. We need to build a strong infrastructure and support the health sector,” she said. “That’s why the economy is so important. But local governance is crucial to security.”
As of now, however, Libya’s motley crew of militias and dueling governments are jockeying not only for power, but also for territory and oil resources, making foreign investment a pipe dream. Some Libyans, in fact, yearn for the stability that strongman Qaddafi once provided, instead of the turmoil that reigns today. (Bugaighis’s own cousin, human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, who was on the frontlines of the 2011 revolution, was shot and killed just as she returned from voting in the 2014 parliamentary elections.)
“Some people never stopped supporting Qaddafi,” Wafa Bugaighis conceded. “Of course, I personally refuse to wish for those days. The only element threatening us right now is ISIS and the extremists. We’ve lost a lot of lives, but despite all the chaos, I think it’s part of the transformation. When countries go from dictatorship to democracy, they go through years of chaos. I personally will never regret the uprising. We needed to do it.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.