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Opinion: Libyan national sovereignty is an illusion | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An image from Al-Arabiya showing Libyan PM Ali Zeidan surrounded by men at an unidentified location on October 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Al Arabiya via Reuters)

Two illuminating incidents occurred in Libya last week: The first was the abduction of Abu-Anas Al-Liby, a Libyan citizen Washington has accused of involvement in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings in 1998, and who was captured by US special forces from his home in the Libyan capital of Tripoli without the knowledge of the Libyan government. The second accident took place a few days later when a group of militiamen abducted Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from his hotel room in the capital at 4 am, and took him to an unknown place, where he was released a few hours later.

These two incidents are worthy of serious analysis. In the first case, Libyan state sovereignty collapsed, whereas in the second one respect for the state did. The two cases together indicate that the Libyan state is non-existent, and that the use of titles like “government,” “parliament,” “army” and “police” mean little on the ground because armed militias are still stronger than any of these things in Libya. Even if the new quasi-government in Libya has attempted to integrate these groups into institutions that are part of the state, these groups have shown that their loyalty to the armed militias to which they were originally affiliated is stronger.

Libya presents us a striking example of what I had termed in a previous article as “stable chaos,” with the existence of a modern state intermixed with armed groups it does not fully control. The Operation Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries, an armed organization that has been inserted into official institutions with the aim of containing and co-opting it, deviated from its official duties, a fact demonstrated by the contradictory statements issued by several parties in Libya on the kidnapping of the Prime Minister.

Stances and statements, when taken in their entirety, indicate that chaos in Libya is endemic and the state is non-existent. Each political faction has its own arms, militiamen and political ambitions, ranging between a minority striving to build a unified, stronger and stable Libya and a majority cherishing various fundamentalist ambitions.

Since 2011, Libya has not been able entrench the idea of a single, unified state, and so the calls for secession and regional autonomy continue to be heard in different places according to tribal affiliations. These calls are aimed at dividing the state, and so armed religious militias continue to dominate all over Libya with the threat of force.

Before we examine these two events further, we must emphasize that Libya is a special case in what was once commonly called the Arab Spring. It was not a revolution in the modern meaning of the word, but was a political and military struggle between two sides: The first was that of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and his faithful adherents, whereas the other wing was of some defectors from Gaddafi’s side, men such as Mostafa Abdul-Jalil, who was a minister under Gaddafi, and Abdulfattah Younis, a fellow solider of Gaddafi since the first day of his coup against King Idris.

As battles got fiercer in view of foreign intervention and the arming of tribal and religious groups by some neighboring states like Sudan, Gaddfi was very close to entering Benghazi and exterminating his opponents. Here, a stronger foreign intervention took place whereby the NATO stepped into the struggle, bombing Gaddafi’s loyalist troops until his opponents’ troops entered the capital Tripoli, eventually killing Gaddafi.

So, without a doubt, we are face to face with a historic event, but it can by no means be called a revolution. What is preventing an outright civil war in Libya is not the advanced civilized sensibilities of the various factions there, but rather the fragile balance of power. None of the parties have the power to impose their vision on everyone. If this situation continues, it must lead to more chaos, and if it erupts, then it would lead to a civil war.

Also in its first elections in 2011, Libya was markedly different. Fundamentalist currents like the Muslim Brotherhood did not emerge victorious, and instead multiple nationalist parties representing the majority of Libyans won the elections. Yet fundamentalists did not accept defeat, and once again resumed their attacks on official institutions. They imposed the “”political isolation” law to get rid of their political opponents, for instance.

Another significant point is that the alliance made in Egypt between the Muslim Brotherhood and the violent religious groups such as Al-Qaeda that manifested after 30 June was present in Libya before and after this date. This is to say that the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance in Libya with armed groups was clear and apparent. Libya’s Brotherhood was directing such militias to serve its own interests, threaten its opponents and undermine any attempt to build a modern state unless its positions, and even its leadership, was guaranteed.

The Operations Room of Libya’s Revolutionaries and Anti-crime Committee both are a development that must be monitored in order for us to be aware of the nature of armed militias that were formed during the war on Gaddafi and his regime. Libya is a special case in the sense that it was not a state in the modern sense under Gaddafi, but it had institutions necessary to control disputes among the people and provide some security, albeit at Gaddafi’s direction. These institutions were all destroyed during the armed struggle, and so the way was open to whoever had weapons and fighters to take this power on themselves.

This course of events must show that it will be a very hard mission in Libya to attempt to end the state of “stable chaos.” This is because in Libya, there is no firmly-established central state as in Egypt, nor were there modern institutions to rely upon to construct a modern state. Furthermore, the attempt made to merge militia groups, not individuals, into the army was an abject failure.

Finally, Libya has qualities that can make it distinct from the other states that have experienced a uprising, yet such qualities are buried under the arms of religious militias and calls for secession. Unless Libya finds a way out, “stable chaos” will dominate its future.