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Books on Libya

Update No: 110 - (26/04/13)

The Spectre of Separation
Summary: There is no question that Libya has changed since the collapse of the Qadhafi regime; there is a question, however, as to what kind of Libya it has become. Is it better? This is one of the first considerations in the wake of a car bomb that exploded in front of the French Embassy on April 23. The episode evokes the attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Stevens last September. However, while that episode could be explained, in part, by the long established presence of radical Islamists, the Tripoli bombing is indicative of a more insidious malaise.

Tripoli, except for the final phase of the recent civil war, was slow to react against ‘loyalist’ forces and is not accustomed to terrorism of the kind witnessed in Benghazi even in the three decades of Qadhafi’s rule. France was one of the main anti-Qadhafi coalition powers, encouraging regime change from the outset. In the search for suspects, investigators will have considered that the attack could have been staged by loyalists in retaliation for France’s role in 2011. However, the attack could also have been launched by Islamists sympathizing or related to the various militant groups, that France has been targeting in northern Mali, since last January. the episode has highlighted, if any more evidence were needed, that there is want of security and stability in Libya. The timing would point more toward the Mali mission trigger and the methods chosen demonstrate a certain experience, emulating similar episodes in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, it is very likely that the action is not isolated and that it is a signal to France that it will suffer blowback from its Malian intervention.

Either way, the episode has highlighted, if any more evidence were needed, that there is want of security and stability in Libya. The timing would point more toward the Mali mission trigger and the methods chosen demonstrate a certain experience, emulating similar episodes in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, it is very likely that the action is not isolated and that it is a signal to France that it will suffer blowback from its Malian intervention. The militants targeted by France, the various Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) offshoots, including MUJAO, a kind of FARC that combines drug smuggling with militancy – and not necessarily in that order. One of the main players in recent Sahel/North African terrorism, Abdelhakim Belhadj, was a leading member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which ‘merged’ with AQIM. Belhadj is an Arab-Afghan (veteran of Afghanistan) and after being arrested by the Americans, he was delivered to Qadhafi, who pardoned and released him along with several other Islamists arrested since the mid-1990 – most of whom are from Benghazi.

Belhadj managed to enter political life in the new Libya and even set up a new political party known as ‘al-Watan’. Algerians, who know a thing or two about militant Islamism, consider Belhadj a ‘persona non-grata’, and he was refused entry to discuss ‘security’ matters with his Algerian counterparts last December. Algeria has linked him to the attack against the Ain-Amenas gas plant attack last February 18. Given, that Libya’s response to the Stevens murder has been rather lethargic – perhaps because the government does not feel strong enough to start intruding into the Benghazi web of well armed militants – the Tripoli car bomb will not meet the kind of response that might effectively discourage future attacks. The bomb, may sadly herald a phenomenon that Tripoli has never known, terrorism on a much wider scale. Foreigners, who felt rather safe in the Qadhafi years, will feel a big difference with what must now appear to be a ‘more innocent time’. The new phenomenon of the car bomb – the regional and international situation suggest that there ‘more of the same’ is a distinct possibility, if not probability – comes in a context of very weak government and institutions.

The winners of the war imposed the Benghazi based National Transitional Council, which moved to Tripoli shortly after Qadhafi’s demise. The NTC had, in the eyes of the NATO alliance that facilitated regime change, earned legitimacy as the sole representative body of the rebel groups. The NTC has been replaced by the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012 under the leadership of acting Prime Minister Ali Zidane and an election and new constitution are to occur this year. In theory, Libya has made a smooth – ‘seamless’ – transition from dictatorship to democracy. Yet, in effect, it is more than legitimate to ask who is actually ruling Libya, because the theory and the reality are rather different. The parliament may have adopted the niceties of democratic rules but in fact there is a want of state control. Authoritarian centralism was followed by a multiplication of local potentates. The national army itself is a fragile institution. Qadhafi had distrusted it, believing it would serve as a platform for coups, keeping it distant from actual power. Heavily armed militias, many of which are fully fledged criminal groups, have ‘taken charge’ of various neighbourhoods and the prospect of integration within the army remains distant.

The GNC has not managed to gain support across the country and Libya’s very unity is at risk. There are still areas of Libya, which have to contend with the stigma of having been bastions of Qadhafi support during the revolt. Namely, these include the people of Bani Walid and Sirte, still seen as Qadhafi bastions. Two years after the revolt began and Libyans have yet to resolve or ‘forgive’ each other for backing the regime. As for Islamism; Libya is a country where Islam played and plays a very important role in society. Qadhafi encroached on the religious space, offering some rather personal interpretations that raised the ire of many pious Libyans who considered his approach unorthodox. Cyrenaica was always seen as the stronghold of the jihadists and this was one of the reasons perhaps Qadhafi thought he might persuade the West not to back the rebels from Benghazi.

Cyrenaica, moreover, had never been fully integrated, which allowed Islamism to spread, in a country without political factions or parties, as the main expression of grievances. Today, all politicians claim Islam and sharia, which makes it difficult for a Westerner to define who is Islamist and who is not. However, Ali Zeidan, the current prime minister, is also close to the coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril. They represent the ‘Liberals’ and are being challenged by conservatives such as the local Muslim Brotherhood. They came second in the elections. Their influence is not negligible and half of the GNC is made up by independents, which represent an ‘unknown factor’, because they may well be Islamist and half of the GNC consists of independents, who are sensitive to Islamist thinking. This can be exploited by the transnational Islamist networks and by Qatar.

In the new and ‘free’ Libya the Islamic influence – in contrast to the more secular society promoted by Qadhafi- women's rights have taken a few steps back as a concession to the Islamists. Last February, the Supreme Court reinstated polygamy abolishing the Qadhafi era rule, enforcing the first wife’s consent to a second. The Mufti of Libya, Sadeq al-Ghariani also demanded that the government ban marriages between local women and foreign nationals. The new and ‘free’ Libya has also demonstrated a propensity to tribalism enabled by the widespread availability of weapons. The United Nations has suggested that Libya has become a primary source in the transfer of weapons to terrorist groups in Syria, via Turkey and northern Lebanon. The report said that the massive size of some shipments also suggest a direct or indirect involvement of representatives of local authorities in Libya. Tribes matter very much and were crucial to the civil war in Libya. Having always had to abide by the rules of the Jamahiriya, many of the tribes see the vacuum and the interim period as a way to re-establish some influence. Qadhafi in the 90’s, had renewed his alliance with the tribal leaders.

The tribes became de facto guarantors of social, cultural and religious values. In particular, Qadhafi strengthened the alliance with the Warfalla tribe, the main tribe in Tripolitania (about one million people), allotting key posts in security to the members of the Qadhafha (his own) and Maqariha (the tribe of the ‘number 2’, Abd Assalam Jalloud). In the context of this tribalism; there is still the possibility of secession. Libya as a unitary state is essentially an Italian invention from the Fascist period. Both the Ottomans before and the Italians later administered what is now ‘Libya’ as three distinct territories: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Aside from the desert dominated and sparsely populated Fezzan, had established different economic, political and partly religious traditions. Cyrenaica had been the region gathering most international attention because of the oil discoveries of the 1950s while Tripolitania came to the fore under Qadhafi. The demise of the latter’s regime, combined with the renewed tribalism and factionalism make the Libyan fragmentation a reality.

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