Can Libya Stay Together?

East, west and south are at risk of falling apart.

Since the overthrow of Gaddhafi, the capital has long been consumed by fierce struggles between Islamists and the coalition aligned with former prime minister Ali Zeidan, largely perceived as Western proxies—each with their own parliamentary blocs and militias. Over the course of the last several months, there have been many attempts at deposing the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, with militias going so far as to abduct him at gunpoint and demand his resignation. These failed attempts have begun to give way to calls for altogether disbanding the parliament. However, last month the opposition finally managed to sack the embattled PM due to his mismanagement of eastern separatist movements.

Following the vote of no confidence in his government, Zeidan promptly fled the country—he had been banned from leaving due to an ongoing investigation of “financial irregularities” involving payments to one of the armed groups which had been besieging Libya’s oilfields.

It is not clear who will replace Zeidan. The deputy PM Sadiq Abdulkarim, who recently survived an assassination attempt himself, has been apparently passed over. Instead, the parliament has named Libya’s defense minister to the post on a temporary basis—possibly in an attempt to rally the army behind them in the wake of last month’s threatened military coup.

The parliament was forced to hold this and other referenda in a luxury hotel, after anti-Islamist protesters stormed the Parliament building, killing one, injuring several, and causing extensive damage to the premises.

This attack followed the preliminary announcement of the election results for Libya’s new Constituent Assembly—a poll in which more than a fifth of the seats were unable to be filled as a result of polling-place violence or election boycotts, and less than 14 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots at all. These results suggest a growing sense of disenchantment with the government among Libyans, perhaps best embodied by the separatist movements gaining strength in the country’s east and south:

A Misunderstood Revolt?

Notwithstanding reductionist narratives about the so-called “Arab Spring,” the uprising in Libya began as a struggle for succession of the east—a struggle which had been ongoing, with ebbs and flows, since Gaddhafi ended the federalist system of King Idriss I and integrated Cyrenaica and Fezzan more robustly into the state, largely against their will.

The armed struggle expanded into a national campaign as the denizens of Cyrenaica grew increasingly convinced that they would never be able to enjoy security or autonomy while the Colonel remained in power—driving him out of the east was not enough. And so, in order to ensure their independence, they pressed on towards Tripoli, refusing attempts at mediation by the African Union.

The rebels were able to repel Gaddhafi’s forces and advance on the capital because of the NATO intervention—which began in March 2011 as a no-fly zone to protect the rebels but was quickly forced to expand far beyond its U.N. mandate because, despite small antigovernment protests in Tripoli and other parts of the country, beyond Cyrenaica the people did not rise up en masse to overthrow the regime. Similarly, contrary to the Obama administration’s Reaganesque calculations, the relatively small national military did not defect or desert the Colonel until his final days. And so, the revolution had to be carried largely by the east and its foreign patrons, from the beginning to the bitter end.