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Libya: Who Runs This Place? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Groups of revolutionaries are seen next to their vehicles in Tripoli on September 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny)

Groups of revolutionaries are seen next to their vehicles in Tripoli on September 21, 2013. (REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—“It’s shameful that revolutionaries dress one way in Tripoli and another way in Misrata. It’s a small matter, but to an outside observer it’s symbolic of the danger present and indicates the high degree of instability in the country.”

So said Professor Mohamed Bel-Ruwin from Misrata, a city which lies just east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. A professor emeritus of political science at Texas A&M International University, Professor Bel-Ruwin is well-known in Libya. He returned to Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown, and was a contender for the position of prime minister last year.

All along Libya’s two thousand miles of coastline one encounters barriers and skirmishes between various forces. It appears that the armed Jihadist militants hold the most sway here, though the lack of a capable, centralized state is not a problem unique to Libya, with its neighbors in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt also experiencing similar problems.

However, here the problem is particularly acute. The country once ruled by Gaddafi—under whom Libya wallowed without a systematized political process for 42 years—is balancing on a tightrope that continues to fray and break strand by strand. On the wayside of Libya’s desert roads, thousands of looted boxes of ammunition and spent heavy weaponry are strewn about. Some of these were looted from Gaddafi’s forces following February 2011 after the Arab Spring revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt.

The rubble and remains of shelled buildings and the bullet-riddled corpses scattered here and there force one to wonder: which body is charged with maintaining security in Africa’s largest oil producing country? The General National Congress (the parliament) must deal with the daily reality of armed clashes and political conflicts. The most prominent of these political showdowns was the highly controversial Political Isolation Law which excluded the liberal leadership from the political process, including the first post-Gaddafi prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, and which cleared the way for the Islamists. This latter group included not only the Muslim Brotherhood but also hard-liners who are suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a group particularly active in Mali and neighboring Algeria.

Mohammed bin Saiid, a security official in Tripoli, told Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone that the recent short-lived abduction of Libya’s prime minister Ali Zeidan was merely “a minor incident compared to the terror experienced by the majority of Libyans everyday at the hands of the endless array of militias. This is especially true for the middle class and government workers, and even more so for army and security personnel.”

Saiid added that the only explanation for why the witnesses who watched from their balconies as the caravan of armored cars abducted Mr. Zeidan from the Corinthia hotel have not come forward is because they fear retribution from the militias. He said simply, “There is no body in the entire country capable of checking the power of these militias.”

According to a former Gaddafi intelligence official, the strength and influence of the revolutionaries grew with the establishment of battalions and militias following the uprising against Gaddafi.

He said the situation began to spiral out of control following Gaddafi’s death, with the emergence of hundreds of militias and mercenary groups that began to ply their trade not for revolutionary ideals, but for financial gain at the behest of tribal, sectarian, and political clients.

The situation has become all the more complicated following the intervention of American forces, and the arrest of alleged Al-Qaeda operative Abu-Anas Al-Liby in Tripoli, accused of involvement in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in east Africa.

The former intelligence official, who had originally defected to the revolutionaries, has elected to live abroad in another Arab country for his safety. He pointed out that dozens of officials, mostly in mid-level positions, have resigned from their posts and left the country, convinced of the futility of current attempts to build “a state based on justice, law, and democracy.”

Attempts to reform and rebuild face numerous obstacles. Tribal feuds still dictate the actions of many of Libya’s new leaders. The Magarha and Warfalla tribes, for example, have been excluded from the political process on the pretext that they worked with the former regime. Meanwhile, other tribes are paying the price for remaining neutral during the uprising against Gaddafi. Even tribes of negligible influence have staked out areas of influence which they defend with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers.

Nor has the targeted killings of locals and foreigners and the bombings of security and diplomatic sites abated. Following the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi—in which the US ambassador and three other American staff members were killed last fall—some thought that the violence would be limited to Benghazi, the city where the revolution against Gaddafi first erupted. However, the violence has also encompassed Tripoli and other cities. In many places murders, abductions, gun battles, and acts of banditry by armed militias against security and army personnel as well as against former officials and ordinary citizens, have become the norm.

Hussein, a local official from southern Tripoli, counts himself among those who worked to advance the revolution against Gaddafi, but recently fled the country to escape the militias’ purges and assassinations. He claims to have joined an initiative to integrate revolutionaries into Libyan television channels, the army, and the ministry of the interior. The next day he received a letter saying that he was targeted for elimination.

He said, “I feared them because they had carried out similar threats against my colleagues in Benghazi and Tripoli. It is a very serious and dangerous situation, and who you think is protecting you could likely be the one who betrays you to the militias.”

Observers the world over, but especially in the West, are concerned by the fact that the Libyan state is incapable of asserting its authority over society. Many Western academics view the spread of weapons in Libya as the underlying cause of the unrest. Former Libyan Minister of Culture Atiya Aujali told Asharq Al-Awsat that he spoke with a number of Western academics while attending a cultural event in the UK, and he said that they all agree that “the violence in Libya is being caused by the proliferation of weapons, the security vacuum, and the weakness of the central government.” To address these issues, Libya must, “build a capable security force. The Libyan people are still capable of doing this, especially with the international aid packages available.”

In a sparse, desert country such as this, mirages and rumors abound. But in reality, every side has its own narrative that heaps blame on everyone but itself. However, there is an overarching attitude on the street regarding the absence of leadership in this vast, sparsely populated, oil-rich country that yearns for a secure future.

Based in eastern Libya, the writer and pundit Awad Al-Shaari summarized the political landscape by saying that the country has become a venue for feuding domestic forces. Even worse, he says, is that fact that they “are totally inexperienced and naive. The General National Congress is being hastily put together and the members do not understand the ABCs of the legislative parliamentary process. They have failed to resolve any of the pressing issues.”

The weak parliament is not the only issue. The highly homogeneous government is viewed by many Libyans as impotent, especially following the exclusion of former prime minister and National Forces Alliance chief Mahmoud Jibril from Libyan politics.

Shaari said that the transitional government, “lacks diversity, and stirs up controversy around itself and its members. It is unable to resolve the underlying problems and form a national army and police force capable of maintaining security. Moreover, the government conducts its business at a hotel. It has failed to deal with the spreading armed militias which are a direct impediment to the government and its various organs.”

Shaari agrees that there is a depressingly long list of obstacles to attempts to reestablish the authority of the state in Libya. For him, these include the declaration of autonomy by the oil-rich eastern region of Cyrenaica and its calls for a federal system of government, the intervention of international actors in the country’s internal affairs, targeted killings undertaken by Al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups, the volatile situations in a handful of cities and regions, and murky tribal alliances.

However, aside from identifying the problems facing the country, the question of who governs Libya still remains. To answer this question, one needs to understand the geographic placement of the various forces and their ties with tribes, radical Islamist groups, and political parties.

Libyan political expert Kamal Abdullah said that two recent major security breakdowns indicate the desperate state of the security and political situation in Libya two years after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. The first lapse was the arrest of Al-Liby in his home in Tripoli, whom Washington accuses of planning the bombings of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. The second lapse was the abduction of Zeidan at the hands of armed militants.

The recent events are evidence of how fragile the security situation has become following the unchecked rise of the militias. Mr. Abdullah says that these militias hold more sway than the official authorities, represented by the interim government and the General National Congress. Furthermore, the sharp polarization of the country’s sundry factions has grown starker as of late.

Abdullah claims that the dysfunction stems from, “the fundamental disagreements between the jihadists, Islamists, moderates, leftists, liberals, and tribal groups. Their in-group loyalties outweigh their allegiance to a greater state. The jihadist movement in Libya wields considerable influence.”

Within the General National Congress there are six political blocs. The most prominent are the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance, to which Mahmoud Jibril once belonged. It is the largest bloc in parliament and supported Zeidan in becoming the prime minister. Next is the Justice and Construction bloc, which is the political arm of Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. The third is the Islamist Loyalty to the Blood of the Martyrs bloc, led by Abdel Wahab Qayed, the brother of Al-Qaeda second-in-command Abu Yahya Al-Libi. This bloc is considered more extreme than its political ally, the Justice and Construction bloc. By threatening to unleash their respective armed groups in the streets, these two blocs were major players pushing through the adoption of the Political Isolation Law, which has done much damage to the country’s cohesion.

Abdullah stated, “These two formidable blocs are dominant both inside and outside [of parliament], mainly due to the fact that they maintain armed militias whose military might greatly outweighs that of the forces beholden to the General National Congress and the interim government.”

The fourth, fifth, and sixth blocs in parliament are that of Ya Bilaadi, Voice of Libyan Women, and the Salafists. The most pronounced conflict between the blocs is that between the National Forces Alliance and Justice and Construction and Loyalty to the Blood of the Martyrs.

Tripoli plays host to the power struggle between the militias. More than 24 armed groups have carved Tripoli into enclaves of influence, with each among them claiming legitimate rule. Mr. Abdullah commented that, “Despite the fact that these militias take orders from sectarian, tribal, and political leaders, many vital areas in Tripoli are under the complete control of Islamist militias, which include the airports and security agency compounds.”

They are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the political leadership that has ties to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). At least 14 Islamists, most of whom fought in Afghanistan and later joined LIFG, occupy pivotal offices in Libya’s new post-Gaddafi state. This is especially true, according to Abdullah, concerning “the security agencies and vital national utilities. They have exploited the openings left in Gaddafi’s wake.”

All reports from Libya support the assertion that the capital is a battleground between tribal and Islamist militias. The former are led by militias from the city of Zintan in the country’s mountainous west. Most notable among them is the Qaqaa militia which the Islamists allege forms the militant arm of the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance. This militia opposes both Islamist militias and militias from the city of Misrata, located to the east of Tripoli. Both tribal militias frequently exchange accusations that the other is in cahoots with the formidable Islamist militias.

The Islamist militias of Libya maintain at least nine fortified training camps spread across the country. The most prominent of these is the LIFG military command center in the city of Derna which is nestled in the Green Mountains. After it come the Abu Salim camp in Tripoli and another camp in Zintan.

Abdullah said “In Benghazi in the east, there are two camps: one which follows the Muslim Brotherhood and is headquartered in the Bowakhir region, and the other which follows the Salafist jihadists and is based in the Al-Laithi region, which has been dubbed “Little Kandahar” (due to the influence of extremist militants).”

The Al-Thahir camp can be found in the city of Sirte to the east of the capital, which was once Gaddafi’s stronghold. The Wattayah airbase near the Tunisian border saw the Libyan army driven out by insurgents who have since fortified it and transformed it into their base. In the southern Sabha region alone there are three camps belonging to jihadists.

Observers agree that the way out of the crisis is the reconstruction of state capability and authority, but this, Professor Bel-Ruwin says, is “easier said than done, for Libya requires functioning institutions. Most of our institutions are still fragile and rely on the traditional structures of tribe, party, or personality cult.”

Professor Bel-Ruwin added, “We need functioning institutions such as the police, army, parliament, and presidency. Libyans are waiting for the elections of the constituent assembly which will draft the constitution. I think this will be a crucial juncture, because through it we might realize our hope of establishing a constitutional system and from there begin to build the institutions necessary for a strong state. I think it is difficult to establish a strong state in a few years, and we must set the foundations.”

As for urgent measures to stop the cycle of violence, kidnappings, and instability, Professor Bel-Ruwin claimed that the most important steps are, “containing the rebels, no longer having a president for each faction, and giving them no quarter. Let’s place all of the options on the table in front of the revolutionaries. But if there has to be one institution, it should be the army.”

He pointed out that the underlying problem lies in the unwillingness to bring about a final resolution, saying, “The state, whether it be the parliament or the government, has prolonged this situation more than it has tried to address it.”

The revolutionaries accuse the government of negligence claiming that it cannot address the various issues at hand. They point to the further deterioration of law and order in the country a year after proposals to form a salaried National Guard force were submitted. This did not come about however, because some factions found it beneficial to maintain armed groups of their own.

However, Bel-Ruwin says the militias still need to be disarmed and disbanded somehow.

“It’s not just demanding that the rebels withdraw,” he says. “Maybe they should go to the camps near the cities and offer them salaries, even if the salaries were high for a specified period. Many of the rebels see what they are doing now as a job rather than a revolutionary campaign. If offered another job with a higher salary, they may shift. The problem in Libya is that we focus on terms such as ‘dialogue,’ but we do not talk, as if dialogue were meant for some other party, and not intended to be conducted between Libyans.”