Libya in Chaos

Armed militias. Tribal violence. East-West divide. Libya's future is not a bright one.

Seif al-Islam Qaddafi has a painful tooth abscess. But that’s the least of his problems.

Since his capture last November, the flamboyant, jet-setting son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has been in the hands of one of the numerous militias that dot post-Qaddafi Libya. The International Criminal Court (ICC) says that Seif is being held in isolation, beaten, and denied access to friends and relatives—and dentists. The plight of Qaddafi fils won’t elicit much pity, certainly among Libyans, but it does illustrate postrevolutionary Libya’s principal problem: an ineffectual central government that has neither the power nor the legitimacy to rein in the country’s rampant localism. The localism pits militia against militia, East against West, tribe against tribe and ethnic group against ethnic group, giving a new, though pernicious, meaning to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s quip that “all politics is local.”

Libya’s Power Vacuum

Seif is the guest of a militia in the western mountain town of Zintan, which controls his fate without regard to Tripoli’s wishes; when the central government leaders want to see Seif, they travel to Zintan and negotiate with the militia leaders, who hold the cards that matter. When the ICC dispatched representatives recently to check on Seif, the Zintani militiamen detained them, embarrassing Libya’s interim authority, the National Transitional Council (NTC), by underscoring its powerlessness.

Zintan is but one of Libya’s towns and cities with militias that act as free agents—statelets within a state. There is a plethora of such armed groups, and according to the UN they hold more than eight thousand prisoners in some sixty clandestine prisons, meting out rough justice, which, says Doctors without Borders, includes torture.

The NTC is unable to take on the militias. The post-Qaddafi military is still a work in progress and, in a country awash in weaponry (much of it looted from Qaddafi’s armories), the militias have abundant firepower with which to resist. When the government seeks to restore order following clashes among tribes and rival militias—something that occurs with dismaying regularity—it has been forced to turn to the militias for help. A program to demobilize and disarm them by disbursing cash to fighters and inducting them into the military or providing job training was put on hold when it was discovered that corrupt officials were diverting money from the billion-dollar fund.

So the militias live on. They won’t relinquish their arms or cashier their fighters, particularly given the parliamentary election, which was scheduled for June 19 but, given the chaotic state of Libyan politics, has been delayed until July 7. The parliament not only will elect a government, it also will start drafting a constitution, and the militias doubtless intend to use their power to shape the new political order. The government that emerges after the vote will have to contend with them, just as the NTC has. There is little reason to assume that it will be any more successful in bringing them to heel.

Historic East-West Divides

The mosaic of militias is but one of Libya’s problems. Another is the East-West divide between Cyrenaica (Libya east of Sirte) and Tripolitania, regions with a troubled past. During the reign of King Idris al-Sanussi, whom Qaddafi ousted in 1969, Cyrenaica was a privileged place. It was the seat of the monarchy and the beneficiary of privileged access to investments and political power. The region was associated with the iconic Omar Mukhtar, who was born in a village near the eastern city of Tobruk and led the resistance to Italian colonization from 1912 until he was hanged in 1931. And between 1951–1963, it enjoyed substantial autonomy.

Libya was then organized as a tripartite federation, the other two members of which were Tripolitania in the West and Fezzan in the South. But Libya’s oil wealth enabled the rise of a centralized system. Under Qaddafi’s rule, power was further concentrated in Tripoli. Cyrenaicans believe that they became the underdog as a result and were denied their fair share of government posts and public investment for the next four decades.

The anti-Qaddafi revolution broke out in the East, with the cities of Benghazi, Tobruk and Bayda leading the way. The Easterners saw an opportunity to recapture their special status—and they took it and have not stopped. This March, an assembly of tribal leaders, notables and militia leaders formed the “Congress of the People of Cyrenaica”—headed, for good measure, by a descendent of King Idris—and declared an autonomous province of Barqa (Cyrenaica’s Arabic name).

The tribal leaders demanded a reversion to a federal polity and equal representation in the new parliament for each of the three federal units, which challenged the plan to allocate legislative seats by population size. The NTC lambasted the plan, which met with protests in Tripolitania, hints that foreign subversion was behind it and even threats to prevent what it deemed an effort to splinter Libya. But Tripoli’s weakness ensured that it had to fall back on negotiations.

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