The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Disaster in Derna, Libya:
Rotten Fruit of U.S. Imperialist Policy

Sep 18, 2023

After a major storm, two dams collapsed above the Libyan city of Derna. A tsunami of water destroyed whole neighborhoods, sweeping people into the sea. At least 11,000 were killed and more than 10,000 are still missing. The destruction of the city’s water and sewage systems and the thousands of unburied bodies raise the threat of mass disease to the surviving population.

The failure of these dams was predicted time and again. Just last year, an engineer published a paper warning that people in Derna were "extremely vulnerable to flood risks” and these dams, built in the 1970s, were on the verge of collapse. A storm in 1986 damaged the dams. In 1998, a Libyan government study showed they had cracks. Finally, in 2010, a Turkish company began work to repair the dams. If this work had been completed, perhaps the disaster would never have happened. But only four months after repair work began, fighting broke out that would lead to the overthrow of the Libyan government, and work stopped, never to be started again.

This disaster is certainly the fault of the warlords who control Derna and failed to listen to the warnings and restart the repairs. But more fundamentally, it is the result of policies carried out against the Libyan population by the major imperialist countries for decades, starting with the United States.

In 1967, Muammar Gaddafi came to power at the head of the Libyan state. He led a nationalist party that sought a bit more independence from imperialist domination and needed the support of the population to do this. So, it used a little of the country’s oil wealth to develop schools, medical care, free electricity, and other programs. The construction of the dams near Derna was part of this policy. Libya became one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, with the continent’s highest life expectancy, even as it was highly repressive.

Because of this somewhat independent stance, the United States repeatedly moved against Libya. U.S. forces bombed the country in the 1980s, and the U.S. supported Islamist rebels against Gaddafi’s secular government in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the U.S. had “housebroken” Libya, to quote a report by the right-wing Cato Institute. But Libya remained a state that the U.S. did not dominate quite as directly as most of the others in the region. When, in 2011, a rebellion began against Gaddafi’s government, the U.S. and other NATO powers rushed in. The U.S. bombed Libya, supported various forces in the Libyan military opposed to Gaddafi, and helped topple the government.

Libya quickly descended into a chaotic civil war with various contending forces. Pieces of the old military, local government and tribal leaders, Islamic fundamentalists like ISIS: each tried to carve out their own piece of the country.

And as Libya disintegrated from 2011 on, the various powers have circled the country like vultures, desperate to pick the carcass clean. Each looks for a way to gain a share of the country’s oil wealth for its own companies, and perhaps a military base or two in this strategic region. They offer oil contracts, weapons, mercenaries, and political support to whatever corrupt Libyan warlord will back their interests.

Since 2016, Libya has been divided between two rival governments, each claiming the loyalty of part of the old state apparatus. One is based in the capital, Tripoli, and is backed by Italy, Qatar, and Turkey. The other is based in the country’s east, rules Derna and Benghazi, and is backed by France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Russia, with the U.S. standing above the fray as the ultimate imperialist arbiter. These two sides fought a long running civil war that finally ended with a ceasefire in October 2020, but they and their foreign backers continue to maneuver against each other.

Libya has thus become a land of corrupt, foreign-backed warlords, with each armed group seeking to find some way to get their hands on the country’s oil. In this situation, neither “government” has the least possibility or interest in maintaining the infrastructure that had been built up during the first decades of Gaddafi’s rule, including the dams.

The flood in Derna is thus the predictable rotten fruit of decades of imperialist policy directed above all by the United States, aimed at dominating Libya and its oil wealth, with no concern at all for the consequences paid by the Libyan population.