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Books on Libya

Update No: 097 - (26/01/12)

More than three months after the humiliating death of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi and the collapse of his 41 years old regime, the celebrations in Libya have given way to more uncertainty. Libyans remain in a virtual state of war, despite their newly found ‘freedom’.

On Sunday 22nd January the offices of the Transitional National Council in Benghazi were invaded whilst the council was in session, and large numbers of armed undisciplined militia upbraided the Chairman of the Council in ugly scenes. The deputy Chairman resigned later, he said “for the good of the country”.

For decades, Qadhafi’s security forces maintained an almost exclusive monopoly on weapons; now, the Libyan militias that united to fight their common enemy, have splintered and they remain loaded with weapons, and resentments that range from the ideological to the tribal. There is the risk that war could break out at any time among them. Moreover, Qadhafi loyalists concentrated in the village of Assabiya are still lingering; on January 13, a battle suddenly broke out pitting these former rebels against Qadhafi loyalists in the nearby town of Gharian, located some 85 km. south of Tripoli. The death toll was not very high by the standards of the civil war, two dead and many wounded; some people were also taken as hostages, forcing the minister of defense, Osama al-Juweili, to intervene directly and negotiate a ceasefire.

Lingering Militias
Episodes such as the recent one in Assabiya were predictable. While the regime was toppled after seven months of fighting, foreign forces - NATO provided the muscle to break the better-equipped and trained loyalists. The National Transitional Council had far more authority in eastern Libya than in the rest of the country and that reality has now transferred to the new transitional government. The prime minister Abdurrahim El-Keib is an outsider; he was chosen, ostensibly, because his many years lived outside of Libya, gave him a certain neutrality; however, that very neutrality makes it difficult for him to develop a strong base of support. In the fragmented reality that is post-Qadhafi Libya, such support is necessary. Years of repressed tensions have emerged and the government, which by its own very mandate remains weak, since it is formally recognized as an interim government that will lead the country to elections, and it is unable to confront the religious, tribal and territorial elements that are all vying to secure their share of the Libyan power and resource pie.

In the same way that militias in Afghanistan remained united only until their common Soviet enemy was defeated, Libya remains at risk of civil war. The war now is for control of the territory, a fight in which the new central government can do little about. Various armed gangs vie for control of small enclaves, resulting from the fragmentation of the war against Qadhafi while the broken tribal equilibrium has released old tensions as families and clans fight each other for influence and in vengeance. NATO and the needs of military strategy gave the militias some form of discipline and promoted roles of leadership. The absence of a clear and unifying goal has had the effect of multiplying the militias vying for any inch of territory or power. For instance, the Zintan rebels who captured Saif ul-Islam in Niger last November have taken over the area around the Tripoli airport. The militias, acting ever more like organized crime, can use the airport as a base to control the flow of much needed materials for reconstruction.

They have kept Saif to themselves since his capture and there are now concerns as to whether he is even alive and if so, in what condition? He is supposed to be being tried in Libya since the Libyans insisted he be tried there rather than at the international court at the Hague - which immediately causes concerns as to whether he will get a fair trial. No lawyer has been allowed to see him and it is not clear what charges he has to face. Being the Colonel’s son is insufficient cause, even if that is the reality. Indeed he was not a ‘tearaway’ like certain of his brothers, but was the ‘Go To’ man for the West when his father was being more than usually obdurate (as with the Bulgarian nurses). Will western powers remember that and speak up in his favour, or abandon him?

As the country needs considerable foreign investment and expertise to rebuild (not to mention the fact that all foreign dignitaries arrive at the airport first), the Zintan ‘gang’ has secured a very lucrative spot. They call themselves the guardians of the revolution and they will be very reluctant to hand over control of their territory to the central authorities, or to other gangs. The risk of such disputes remains very high so long as the government fails to disarm the rebels, who are more than willing to resume fighting! Prime minister al-Keib has repeatedly asked the rebels to give up their weapons; more importantly, he has asked the rebels to enroll in a new National Army. A new chief of staff has also been appointed, but he, Yousif al-Mankoush, a retired colonel played only a minor role in the revolution and lacks the charisma to attract militiamen. Very few fighters have traded the militia for the organized army so far. Another discouraging element for those who fought the revolution, is the fact that the interim government has not paid sufficient attention to the Islamist elements that characterized so much of the anti-Qadhafi rebels.

Not Enough Attention to the Islamists
The interim government, perhaps to please the West and to placate its concerns after initial suggestions by the NTC that the Sharia would be the primary source of inspiration for the new Constitution, has played down the Islamic element. There are no actual Islamist representatives in the government and there are none in the new National army. This ignores the mood in Libya and the fact that the original impetus for the revolt came from Benghazi after hundreds of Islamist political prisoners were released from the Janzour jail in December 2010, as a humanitarian gesture. The political success of the Islamic inspired political parties in Egypt and Tunisia has not been given enough attention in Libya at the government level. The ‘street’, however, has noticed and it is looking for motivation or ‘soul’ to inspire the new nation. The new government must engage in a difficult reconstruction process, physical (infrastructure), social and political. The former rebels feel that too many apparatchiks and administrators from the Qadhafi era have maintained their posts. The national army had to defend itself against Misrata based militias in early January, in an intense gun battle that left six dead in central Tripoli. The former rebels demanded that the government purge the administration of all former administrators.

In the new Libya, old tensions combined with newly discovered powers and client networks (not to mention the tribal divide that was purposely encouraged by Qadhafi) will make it very difficult for the transitional authority to make any progress. The interim government has a mere eight months in which to restore order and set the stage before the elections. Either this suggests that the interim government will have to be extended, or that a new authority will have to be appointed, rather than elected. Perhaps, if prime minister al-Keib, who remains a respected (if weak) figure, is able to confront the Islamist aspirations, he might be able to speed up the process of disarming the rebels and reorganizing the armed forces. In the absence of political parties, which were outlawed in the Qadhafi period, the Islamists will no doubt have a tremendous advantage over any other formations that will eventually emerge before the elections. They have the ready-made and recognizable ideology, and the unifying factor; they also know that the West wants Libyan oil and stability (Europe needs Libya to secure borders to control illegal migration) and that a moderate Islamist government will not impede external relations based on such an important resource. Indeed, the Italian prime minister Mario Monti has visited Tripoli, reiterating Italian-Libyan friendship and offering to help train the new armed forces. Monti was accompanied by Paolo Scaroni, president of the Italian energy giant ENI, who said that oil production is recovering to almost pre-revolt levels (some 280,000 bpd). Both sides can be reassured by the fact that even in the midst of the Algerian civil war in the 1990’s, oil production and sale continued.        

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