Derna reconstruction

Summary: the Derna disaster demands an immediate response but already the Haftar clan is holding survivors hostage as it attempts to control the reconstruction effort.

On Sunday 1 October Libya’s Benghazi-based government under the thumb of the warlord Khalifa Haftar announced it was postponing an international reconstruction conference for Derna. The collapse of two dams whose reservoirs were overwhelmed by Storm Daniel sent 30 million cubic metres of water crashing into the city on the night of 10 -11 September. One quarter of Derna was destroyed and the number of dead ranges from 4000 to 20,000.

The postponement may reflect some unease amongst international donors and Western governments at Haftar’s attempts to marginalise the internationally recognised government in Tripoli from the reconstruction project. The unease is not unjustified.

Libya's eastern authorities said Sunday they had postponed a reconstruction conference for the flood-hit city of Derna that had been planned for October 10 [photo credit: Twitter / X]
Libya’s eastern authorities said Sunday they had postponed a reconstruction conference for the flood-hit city of Derna that had been planned for October 10 [photo credit: Twitter / X]
Haftar and his family and others in his immediate circle benefitted from the rebuild of Benghazi after the 4 year war initiated by the warlord in 2014 when he launched Operation Dignity. It was presented as an offensive against ISIS, Al Qaeda and other extremist influences in the city. As such it won support not just from Haftar’s close allies but from Western voices much engaged in the war against ISIS.

As Mary Fitzgerald notes in a chapter she contributed to Violence and Social Transformation in Libya (Hurst) Haftar’s forces drove not only fighters but those his forces accused of having Islamist sympathies from three neighbourhoods in Benghazi. Properties were seized, homes torched or bulldozed. In the wealthy neighbourhood of Fuwaihat Fitzgerald writes:

After fighting came to an end in 2018, Fuwaihat residents who had either supported Dignity or remained ambivalent and maintained a low profile during the four years of conflict began to observe their district changing. New buildings rose, including a private hospital, and new businesses emerged, many of them linked to the patronage circles surrounding Haftar and his sons, who had taken key positions within his coalition.

Elsewhere she writes of a shopping mall newly built on land seized by his military from a family that had been forcibly displaced.  She notes, too, another mall built by Hatim Abu Qalla “a shadowy businessman from Tobruk who was close to some of Haftar’s sons.”

The rebuilding of a city one quarter destroyed represents a unique business opportunity for the Haftar family.  It also allows for a strong measure of social control. Haftar, who had previously besieged and then attacked Derna with his forces, was much detested in the city. But for the survivors of the flood the price of securing a home may be to swear fealty to him. And, given that so many have died and thousands have fled, another option for the warlord is to move his supporters into a rebuilt Derna.

In our 20 September podcast, a powerful indictment of the Haftar family, Anas El-Gomati said “they’re seeing this (disaster) as their lemons and lemonade moment.” El-Gomati the director of Sadeq Institute went on to say:

Libyans want to bring him to justice but they operate within a fractured political system, not of their own making, but of the political class’s making. And it’s been propped up by the international community in many ways. Not only states like Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt  have bolstered Haftar. Over the years other European countries have done the same. When you come to April 4 2019, the Trump administration, John Bolton himself, gave the green light to Haftar who then used Russian mercenaries in the (Tripoli) campaign…. This isn’t someone that has worked for one state, he’s worked for multiple states….Libyans didn’t create Khalifa Haftar. Not the man that has come to rain down havoc on Tripoli and Benghazi and Derna and countless other cities. That was Khalifa Haftar whose only sole intention is probably to fight until the last mercenary. 

Words worth remembering as the international community weighs up its next move in responding to the Derna disaster.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top

Access provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford

Copy link