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Update No: 112 - (26/05/13)

Militias make fools of the Government

Summary: The bombing of the French embassy in downtown Tripoli on April 23, followed by smaller bombing attacks in front of the Greek, Saudi and Algerian embassies on May 17 and a slew of bombing attacks against police stations in Benghazi point to the reliability of reports warning about the presence of al-Qaida. The al-Qaida presence, according to the above cited sources, has been growing in the period following the attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. The attack is said to have been coordinated by a number of militant cells (in Egypt as well) and that only afterwards, Libyan jihadists started to fall under direct AQIM command.

Libya and its revolt has become the ‘poster child’ against any sort of direct foreign military intervention in the revolts of the Arab Awakening and Syria in particular, despite the fact that their socio-political contexts are very different.

Libya is ethnically and culturally more uniform than the sectarian Syria, but Qadhafi had deliberately allowed tribalism to flourish, while ruling by decree and through non-existent institutions, including the Army. Qadhafi’s demise was preceded by the collapse of the security forces, creating a vacuum that has left Libya vulnerable to the Islamist currents rising in the Maghreb and Sahel regions.


France’s intervention in Mali has displaced many militants, some allegedly members of al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), to move north to Libya, which since the demise of the Qadhafi regime has the most porous borders. AQIM in Libya has established a stronghold in the Fezzan region, trying to establish coordination, also co-operating with the Salafi militias in the area.

Libya has inevitably become a new important base for Al-Qaida, which makes Qadhafi’s televised ‘appeal’ from the centre of his Bab al-Aziziya headquarters in the early days of the revolt, warning the West that “Qaida, Qaida” was behind the insurgency, appear rather prophetic. Claims of al-Qaida’s presence in Libya today, came from senior Libyan intelligence officials as quoted by the ‘Daily Beast’, who claimed that AQIM has moved its headquarters to Libya. The claims are credible. The President of Chad, Idriss Deby, denounced the Libyan government’s apparent inaction in confronting the Jihadist threat. Deby claimed that militants are using Libya as a training ground for new recruits, thus threatening the security of the region. Weapons from Libya - machine guns and anti-aircraft missiles - have been used by jihadist fighters in Algeria, Mali and Egypt.

The Libyan government has rejected the allegations and denied the arrival of jihadists from Mali. However, given that for much of April and May, the Libyan parliament was held hostage by militias, which appear to have far more power than suggested by even the most pessimistic scenarios; such denials are less credible than the allegations themselves.

The bombing of the French embassy in downtown Tripoli on April 23, followed by smaller bombing attacks in front of the Greek, Saudi and Algerian embassies on May 17 and a slew of bombing attacks against police stations in Benghazi, point to the reliability of reports warning about the presence of al-Qaida. The al-Qaida presence, according to the above cited sources, has been growing in the period following the attack against the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. The attack is said to have been coordinated by a number of militant cells (in Egypt as well) and that only afterwards, Libyan jihadists started to fall under direct AQIM command.

Libya and its revolt has become the ‘poster child’ against any sort of direct foreign military intervention in the revolts of the ‘Arab Awakening’ and Syria in particular, and this despite the fact that their socio-political contexts are very different.

Libya is ethnically and culturally more uniform than the sectarian Syria, but Qadhafi had deliberately allowed tribalism to flourish, while ruling by decree and through non-existent institutions, including the Army. Qadhafi’s demise was preceded by the collapse of the security forces, creating a vacuum that left Libya vulnerable to the Islamist currents rising in the Maghreb and Sahel regions.

The militias have grown so strong as to be able to seize control of parliament and key ministries...for weeks, imposing their demands to ban any official having had an official role in the Qadhafi decades. A law reflecting this demand was approved but the militias continued the siege, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. The law, ‘Law 41’, aka the Political Isolation law, has yet to be ratified by the Juridical Commission of the General National Congress (GNC). If approved, it would be immune from any change, even if attempted by the Supreme Court, which has been deliberately excluded from being able to rule over the potential unconstitutionality of the provisions, by an amendment to the interim Constitutional Declaration adopted by the GNC last April.

Law 41, passed under duress, makes no distinction over the role played by the targeted officials within the Qadhafi dictatorship. As it stands now, Law 41 would force the resignations of about 40 government members including Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and the President of CGN, Mohammed Magharief, whose fault, according to the Law, is to have served as ambassador to India in the early eighties. Magharief was also a prominent member of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), which tried to assassinate Qadhafi on May 8, 1984, launching a direct attack against Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli.

The Minister of Defense, Mohamed al-Barghati, was the first high profile victim of the new law, now formally named the Political Isolation Law. He delivered his resignation only to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to withdraw it. What is clear is that the State has had to admit their defeat before the militias. The Minister of Justice, Salah al-Marghani, ironically observed that even after the demands of the militias were accepted and transformed into law, two militia pick-ups loaded with anti-aircraft guns were in the inner courtyard of the building that houses the office of the Ministry of Justice, with its cannons pointing toward the windows. Perhaps, parliament will have to be moved to another city: Sirte, perhaps, where Qadhafi was building his new capital.

The siege has effectively highlighted the precariousness of Libya and its institutions almost a year after last July’s elections. The first signs of trouble, however, could be seen last October when former Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagour resigned following the GNC’s double rejection of the government nominees. Prime Minister Zeidan, meanwhile, and his government have had to navigate through persistent political uncertainty without the luxury of a true and effective national armed force; ultimately, this has aggravated the government’s process of centralization of power. Indeed, the real power lies in the dense network of militias and armed groups, more or less organized, that after the end of the Libyan Revolution have ended up retaining an uncomfortable pressure over the GNC. The militias are mixed and it would be wrong to classify them all as ruffian thugs and former criminals; surely these abound, but the main problem is that the militias are both structured and loose, regional or based in individual cities; and not all have necessarily fought in the February 17 Revolution – in fact some have joined the militias in the aftermath, given the continued power vacuum.

The GNC, lacking the tools of authority, has tried to co-operate with the militias, symbolized by the handover of the Free Libyan Brigades of their weapons during an official ceremony before the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, the GNC’s impotence before the militias and the latter’s ability to lay siege to the Institutions of power in total impunity, leaves Libya susceptible to more blackmail.

The bigger question not to lose sight of, perhaps, is how all this affects oil production. Certainly, several foreign companies have already left Libya, unable to ensure the safety of their employees and assets. While oil production has been matching pre-revolt months, oil majors have started to express concerns. The situation could prove to be quite expensive for Libya. The oil majors have proposed to arrange for private security to safeguard their oil facilities as they start to reduce staff. British Petroleum announced an initial reduction of staff in headquarters in Tripoli, a move no doubt encouraged also by the attack on one of its gas facilities in Algeria earlier this year. Already in January the British oil company had expressed its intention to reconsider its plans for exploration in the country due to political instability.

The insecurity, the presence of al-Qaida and the threats to oil production have also fueled rumors that Libya could be the target of a US invasion. US authorities have in fact alerted the command for special operations relating to AFRICOM based in Stuttgart (Germany), and the Rapid Reaction Force Marines in Spain, redeploying 200 troops to the Sicilian base in Sigonella, to be able to promptly intervene to rescue staff at the embassy in Tripoli, in case of escalation of the protests.

However, there is little reason to suggest a wide scale invasion is being contemplated, given that the US has been reducing its dependence on foreign oil and given the all too evident lessons from Iraq, which the Libyan situation is in some ways starting to resemble. In the absence of authority and a guarantor of national security, the tribal leaders of Cyrenaica – which is home to most of Libya’s oil fields – have decided to organize on their own and form a security force within their territory. Of course, this has crucial political ramifications and, in fact, the tribal leaders intend to meet on June 1 in al-Baida in the context of the Cyrenaica Congress, announced in March 2012 and intent on forming a region semi-autonomous (from Tripoli) aiming toward the formation of a federal state.

It would not be the first time that oil wealth, institutional weakness and the collapse of central power lead to federalist ambitions revolving around oil production; one need only look to South Sudan and Sudan for a recent example, or even Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet a federal Cyrenaica under tribal leaders would still have to contend with militias. Benghazi has been affected by a series of anonymous attacks against some local police stations in the districts of Gwarsha, Obeida and Ras al-Medina. In addition, on May 13 a car bomb exploded outside a hospital in al-Jalaa district, killing three people. The CGN has taken some steps to counter the militia problem, favoring coordination between Army and Police through the establishment of the ‘Joint Security Room’, led by expert officials from the Ministry of Interior and from Libyan intelligence, but it is not yet clear when this will be become operational.

The political transition that is taking place in Libya is not only critical to the stabilization of the internal environment, but is also closely connected with the question of security in the whole region. State building and establishing an effective state security force, would enable the government to exercise sovereignty over the territory. And to manage, if not control, those smuggling routes for the trafficking of weapons and drugs that pass through Libyan territory and arrive in Tunisia through Niger and Mali.  
 

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